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Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World

Four encounters with the Greatest of All Time

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By Keith Olbermann

The news conference was unexceptional, save for the fact that Muhammad Ali was there.

It was 1983 in New York. He spoke briefly but didn’t say anything of consequence. For nearly all of it he sat at the dais, looking down at the tablecloth or up into a corner of the hotel ballroom while the promoters and fighters stood up and spouted and underscored the fact that — perhaps for the only time in history — one figure in one sport was more interesting than all the others in it combined.

It was my producer, Mike Rosen, who first realized that Ali wasn’t just looking at the tablecloth on the dais — he was drawing on it. They were announcing a title fight of some sort, and I knew from the moment I saw Ali doodling that the piece I was doing for CNN would be just enough about the fight so that whoever had invited us wouldn’t try to get me fired, but that it would be 90 percent about him.

Courtesy KNX Radio, Los Angeles
Courtesy KNX Radio, Los Angeles

Rosen and I whispered plans to each other: We would have the videographer stop recording the news conference and get in position to race to where Ali was sitting. Naturally, Rosen and I had ulterior motives. We wanted video of the Ali doodles on the tablecloth. We also wanted the tablecloth.

But we were not alone.

The moment Ali pushed his chair back from the dais and disappeared into the folds of the gaudy curtain behind it, the stage was rushed by what seemed like the entire kitchen staff of the hotel, each member brandishing scissors.

We managed to get a little video. Rosen even got one of the “swatches” the staffers had made from the tablecloth faster than it took you to read this sentence. (I offered him cash for his piece; he immediately turned me down.) And we found out what Ali had been doing that afternoon, more than a year after his last whimper of a fight, nearly five after his last triumph.

He had been drawing, again and again, an image of the earth, sometimes with stars, sometimes without, but each time ringed or orbited by his own words in his own hand: “Three time heavyweight boxing champion of the world.”

This entirely acceptable conceit, which even Ali would probably have ranked near the bottom of the times he esteemed himself in public, was consumed by his fans in that hotel like they were piranha. Piranha faster than Rosen and me.

The story isn’t even a footnote to the life of this singular man, but it does convey something hard for anybody under 40 to understand viscerally: For three decades and probably more, Muhammad Ali, who died on Friday night at the age of 74, might have been the most popular person on the planet.

Within a day of the scissoring of the tablecloth, I told the story to my first agent, Jean Sage, who laughed scoffingly at me. She explained that one of her first jobs working for the mega-agent Barry Frank was to escort Ali to and from events like that dreary news conference. They always featured Ali leaving this plane of existence for a few moments to ruminate or doodle or both. They always featured autograph-devouring piranha. They always featured people who went to the event in question only because Ali would be there.

The real experience would start, Jean said, only when Ali would improvise. She recalled her immediate sense of impending cataclysm the day she heard him lean forward to the limo driver and say, “Would you please stop the car.” Since he retained his supernatural elusiveness well past the end of his career, by the time she turned to look at him to advise against halting, she found only an open car door where he used to be. Then came the noise: shrieks, laughter, immediate mass synchronized chanting of his last name, emphasis on the first syllable. Then traffic stopped on the street. Then traffic stopped on the intersecting street. Then people began to pour out of office buildings. Then police showed up to try to control the thousands of people who had arrived as if summoned telepathically. “The second time he did that,” Jean said, “I asked Barry not to send me on any more events with him.”

Ali was that famous, worldwide, without the internet, without selfies, without cell phones, without universal television, without a lot of satellites, without any of the methodology by which fame is now transmitted or constructed. If he had been the star not of the Olympics of 1960 but of 2000, it is conceivable he might have become not just the most popular person on the planet, but famous in a way we can’t conceive — outshining every other athlete and every world leader combined. Michael Jordan multiplied by Lady Gaga, taken to the exponential degree of the last couple of dozen popes put together.

(Oh, and as a side effect, you’d be able to name more than four other boxers today.)

Getty Images
Getty Images

The fights themselves, the news conferences, the extraordinary symbiosis with Howard Cosell, the balletic beauty of his movement, the sparkle of his eyes — no combination of Ali’s attributes could explain the world dominance he achieved. The parts didn’t come close to adding up to the sum. Maybe the space between the two numbers was explained in part by the seemingly universal understanding of what the American government was trying to do when it drafted him in 1967, when he was 25 but the average draftee was 18 or 19. Maybe the bond was with the millions upon millions of people who intuitively got what the establishment was trying to punish him for, and got who, besides Ali, the authorities were trying to silence: all those nameless faces who knew that his success, his religion, his fight for racial equality, his decision to leave his birth name Cassius Clay behind and insist on a name of his choice would be the closest they would come to making a mark upon the world.

Still, I think there was even more at play. I’m a cynic, born into a line of cynics and proactive doubters, and then baptized again in the far end of the cynicism font by 37 years covering sports and 18 more covering politics. But from the moment more than three decades ago that my agent connected the word to Ali in my mind, I have never doubted for a moment that there was something to it: Ali = telepathy.

Maybe there was a conventional explanation provided by a heightened mutual empathy and his ability to instantly connect with others, a super skill not found in one man out of a billion. But no one who met him nor even came close to him in a crowd would deny that Ali seemed to glow, or transmit, or vibrate in some nonverbal way. You could see him with your eyes closed. You could hear him when he wasn’t speaking.

Ali ducked back into that 1983 New York hotel ballroom, and somehow I got two or three questions with him. He was polite, and when I asked him about the drawings, he said he didn’t know what I was referring to, all the while smiling in a way that confirmed he damn well knew and was just playing with me.

I met him three more times after that, and as Parkinson’s disease began to painstakingly silence him, that other, ethereal form of communication began to take the place of sound.

Somehow, he was at the Los Angeles Marathon in 1990, which I was coanchoring on radio, and for some inexplicable reason, those he was with decided to bring him to us for an interview even though he couldn’t really talk. In the moments before we got on the air, as he struggled to whisper incomplete consonants and fractured vowels, I asked him if he was sure he wanted to go through with it. He looked offended by my question. “I know you,” he said, as if speaking through a wet towel. “You just repeat what I say. I trust you.” We did at least five minutes with me acting in essence as translator for each of his eloquent but eerily distant answers. His handlers soon moved to break off the conversation. He smiled reproachfully at them and encouragingly at me, and we continued. I would sometimes strain to capture and repeat what he said, and in the reverse of the traditional nodding practice you see every television interviewer undertake, it was Ali doing the nodding to tell me I was doing well enough. And then he squinted briefly and I knew he had tired himself out; we wrapped it up and I got the two-handed handshake and a brief embrace. I had to restrain my tears, not because of the pathos of his hindered speech, but because of the intensity of his refusal to recalculate what he wanted to do or what he wanted to convey or who he wanted to be, just because that part of his brain didn’t work very well anymore. He had exhausted both of us, on a level of communication I didn’t understand.

The next-to-last time I saw him is illustrated in the accompanying picture:

Dan Patrick and I were at the rehearsals for the 1995 ESPYs, when, seemingly out of nowhere, Ali burst into smiles and called us each by name. He put a hand on each of our shoulders and waved a photographer over, never saying another word, his silence dominating the emptiness of Radio City. Glowing. Vibrating. Transmitting. He threw a punch at each of us as he left, stopping with a precision that belied his illness, an inch from my chin. I could hear that all right.

And lastly came a night in 1998 when my thoughts were a million miles away and a couple of friends and I were coming down the stairs from the mezzanine bar at another New York hotel. I had this sense of an unseen presence, as if we were about to descend into a very warm room or one filled with tobacco smoke or something else with that exact sense of the wall-to-wall.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It was Ali. He was in the middle of the room, enveloped by passersby taking pictures, and he looked up and saw me and smiled and moved toward me without grace and without stealth but still somehow with speed. And I swear — and it’s me the cynic thrice over doing the swearing — that I could hear him talking to me, and I thought again of that word “telepathy.” And then came another hug. And another clenched fist waved precisely and all too closely to my face. And then he was gone from the room and one of my equally cynical friends said, “Was it me, or was he talking to us?”

I hadn’t seen my CNN producer Mike Rosen in 20 years when I nearly tripped over him at a concert at Yankee Stadium in 2012, and before the hellos were complete, I began to ask, and he had already answered: Yes, he still had it. And before I could finish the next question, he said: No, he still wouldn’t sell me the swatch of hotel ballroom tablecloth we had seen Muhammad Ali draw on in 1983, no matter how much I offered him.

And for some reason on that night, and again now on this night of Ali’s passing, I’m thinking the same thing: that everybody from the best baseball team to the best Frisbee-catching dog is proclaimed “champion of the world,” but Muhammad Ali was the only breathing being I ever met of whom it was probably literally true. Maybe the reason those drawings he did of the planet were so devoured by the faithful who loved him was because, in some sense, they amounted to a self-portrait.

Keith Olbermann celebrates his 37th anniversary as a professional reporter and commentator next month. He has now worked everywhere, or near enough to it.