That he is gone leaves us with nothing but sadness. If anyone deserved a longer life, it was he. He was the Greatest. With his death we lose that best living example of what we, as a nation, so desperately need. Muhammad Ali had integrity. Ali said no to money. He cared much more deeply about himself, how he saw himself, and how others saw him than he did about riches. By putting his personal, religious, and ethical beliefs above every thing else, he walked away from the Heavy Weight Championship of the World. He lost millions of dollars, and he lost the ability to fight in his most important years as an athlete, his youth. All because he was an ethical person. That quality is what is lacking in America, and it’s opposite, greed, seems to be prevalent in every single thing that is wrong with America.
I met him once, a golden perk from my life as a journalist. The London Sunday Times asked Magnum if I could go photograph Ali who was in training in Miami. I didn’t do jobs and was not particularly interested in boxing or sports.
I wanted to say “no” when my first wife Stephanie, who did like sports said “What? Are you crazy?” And so I went.
I’ve told these stories before and I’m honored to tell them again. In the summer of 1970 Miami was hot and to me, coming in from New Mexico, brutally humid. Ali was training for the first Jerry Quarry fight, his first public fight after three and half years of forced retirement. The hotels along the beach were empty and when I went into mine, I found the long corridors devoid of life. It was so depressing I immediately checked out to find another place to stay. Then I got to spend three days pretty much alone with Ali.
I was born three months after he, we were almost exactly the same age. And I had made my most famous photograph on a bridge leaving Louisville, the town he came from. I had lived a few years in Hyde Park in Chicago where I was only a few blocks from Temple Number Two where Elijah Muhammad preached, so I knew who the Muslims were. And I had been the SNCC photographer. Maybe that’s why they picked me for the job.
He had gotten up early to run through a park and golf course in front of a Cadillac driven by Bundini Brown, running for miles before the heat got intolerable. One of my pictures shows Ali in the parking lot of his hotel, lifting his, shirt, sweat pouring off his chest like rain.
You would think this man, this world champion, this world famous man would be a little distant. He was a great celebrity and you would think he would have some armor around him so when he encountered the public he would not have to suffer fools. But he had none. Ali was one of the nicest, most unassuming persons I’ve ever known. I could scarcely believe it. He suffered from the endless vilification by the press for becoming a Muslim and then after becoming the champion of the world, to change his name from Clay to Ali, this public disdain was seemingly joined by nearly everyone. Yet through it all he had managed to retain a brilliant child within himself.
We arrived so early at the restaurant the place was closed, but when the waiter peeking out the door saw who it was, he let us in. Ali ordered steak and peas, I think he was on a diet for the fight, and during the meal I said what I had wanted to say to him.
“I really admire you for what you did,” I said. “I really admire that you said “no” to money, that you suffered all that because you were against the war.”
I felt small before him and I was. His arm was as large around as my thigh. To me he was a moral giant. So it wasn’t easy for me to say anything to him, but I wanted to say that. To sort of thank him. And when I did, this was his response.
“What I did was easy. Because I am famous, “ he said. “You know who I admire? I admire all those Black Muslim men locked up in prison that are being punished and no one ever heard of them. That’s who I admire.”
Later we walked to a deserted beach near the edge of the strip. He was like a little kid. Going to a film, we were seated in the back of the car when he started speaking in poetry. He was going to knock Joe Frazier into the stratosphere. The launching of the first black satellite he said. He spoke in rhymed couplets. At the movie he ignored the line of mostly white people waiting to get in and picking up a red cord blocking the staircase he sat down on the steps to rest. When a young usher came over and bending down said, “I’m sorry sir you can’t sit there”, Ali looked up and said, “Yeah, and who is going to make me move?” It was funny, and he knew it. He asked me not to make pictures of him at the theater because Muslims weren’t supposed to go to movies then told me that watching the film, a western, was funny because he knew all the actors.
We had gone to a beach because I wanted to make a picture there, and when we walked back up to the street, a long empty avenue, he saw a city bus approaching. He turned to me and said, “Watch this.” It was like he was putting on a show, for me. The bus came to the curb about twenty-five feet from where Ali was standing, when an excited passenger noticed him and came over to shake his hand. Then everyone on the bus got off, including the driver. They all wanted to see him, to touch him, it was like being with a king.
He was our King, our royalty, and we will never have another like him. Good-bye Champ. Hope to see you on the other side.