It's difficult to convey what Muhammad Ali meant to me as I was growing up. There are three figures in my life that have captivated my imagination throughout many years. Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. I have a theory about them and their respective genius.
This is the theory: all three of them didn't display their genius until AFTER they lost their original gift. Brando, although a shockingly talented actor, didn't give us his masterpiece until he'd lost his beauty, his startling physical physique. It just wasn't acceptable that someone so beautiful could also be so talented. Not to mention unfair. And yet it wasn't until he became, yes, fat, balding and crusted, that he let us see inside his soul in Last Tango in Paris. I believe it to be, arguably, the finest performance on film I have ever seen.
Sinatra had a voice to make nightingales jealous and yet, it wasn't until he'd lost that gift, in the mid-fifties, and was forced by practicality to sing in another style, that we finally enjoyed his real genius. When he teamed with Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins we finally were introduced to the one thing that stood him apart from hundreds of other melifluous crooners: his determination, his arrogance, his swaggering vulnverability, his reluctant sensitivity.
And the same is true of Ali. It wasn't until after he'd lost the one thing that set him apart from every heavyweight on the planet, his nearly inhuman speed, did we see his brilliance as a fighter. It wasn't until after his forced lay off from 68 to 71, that we saw the real Ali gifts emerge. Suddenly, like Thor stripped of his deity by Odin, Ali was forced to fight like other mere mortals. And then, and only then, did we see his other gifts show themselves. His ability to always, always, find a way to win.
Angie and I were having dinner the other night and I was yammering on about the crap my agent was submitting me for. She said, "Oh, come on, you're never really happy anyway unless you have something to prove, something to overcome, someone to shock." She's perceptive sometimes, I'll give her that, Dancing with the Stars notwithstanding.
I think, on some deep and unexplored level, she's absolutely right and I also think, in some high falutin' way, I learned that from my fascination with Muhammad Ali throughout my life. I'm not at my unadulterated best unless I find myself, in my mind, at least, cast in the underdog role.
I spent nearly a decade in self-exile as I privately battled inner demons. I'm not alone in this, nor am I the only one to follow this undesirable path. Some never stop battling the forces of chaos that keep us from being who we can be. Some refuse to acknowledge that the original gifts the great traffic cop in the sky gave us are gone. I was fortunate enough to meet someone that, through sheer kindness and acceptance, pointed all of that out to me. Once I'd reached the point where I could honestly say to myself, 'The battle is over and I lost. Time to take up a new battle,' was I able to move on. Angie did that. Singlehandedly.
Watching Ali from 1962 to 1968 was tantamount to watching a fixed race. His skills as a fighter were so overwhelmingly superior that the only drama occurred in wondering when he would win, not how. But watching Ali from 1971 to 1979 gave us the 'how.' And that is the only way for true drama to exist.
Who would have thought he'd finally recapture his golden crown not from once again exhibiting his remarkable gifts as a fighter, but rather from his willingness to take the hardest shots ever thrown from another heavyweight and then spring off the ropes from obscurity and fire the last and unexpected volley?
His 'second period' fights were almost all like that. Enigmatic forrays into the drama of winning. Forever wearing the mantle of underdog. Seemingly unable to rise to the occasion unless he was surrounded by doubt. His later fights were all like Greek Tragedy without the fatal flaw.
I met him once, you know. In a little diner on the corner of 36th and Lexington Avenue in New York City in 1989. It was early, about eight a.m. and I'd just gotten out of bed when the phone rang. At the time I was living on the Upper West Side near Amsterdam and 74th. A buddy of mine called and said, "I'm standing at my window right now watching Muhammad Ali walk into a diner." He lived across the street. He knew, of course, of my lifelong fascinaion with Ali. I didn't hesitate. I threw on some jeans and a t-shirt, ran out of the apartment and grabbed the first cab I could flag downtown. By the time I got there, word had already spread and there was a small crowd of maybe ten or twelve people sort of standing in line to meet him. He was at a table with two other Black Muslims, complete with fez and colored outfits, eating some scrambled eggs and chatting amicably with the next person in line to meet him. The owner of the diner wasn't too thrilled to have people just standing around not eating in his little joint and was sort of trying to shoo everyone out. But after a couple of minutes I got to close enough to Ali to say something. Parkinson's Syndrome had not yet had a chance to entirely rob him of his physical dignity. His hands shook a little and he spoke very softly, but he was not incapacitated by any means. Like most people, I was startled at his sheer size. Because Ali had impounded himself in the collective mind of the public as a jester, a humorist, yes, an underdog, I think people expect him to be smaller than he is. He's a big man with very big hands. I intended to ask him about George Foreman's comeback (George was just beginning his long march back to the title, at the time) but instead surprised myself by saying, "I wanted you to know how much you've meant to me over the years. I grew up in an abusive home and you were a way to escape that." To this day I have no conveivable idea why that came out of my mouth, even though it was true. My voice had cracked a little at the end. I didn't plan it. It just came out that way. He stopped eating for a moment and put his fork down and turned to look at me. He, too, somehow intuitively realized I was experiencing a watershed personal moment. He didn't say anything, just looked at me. I said, "You were really something, Muhammad." And then the twinkle in the eyes, the hint of a smile. "I was, wasn't I? I was really something." So softly I could barely hear it.
I smiled at him a second longer and then turned and left.
You were really something.
You are really something.
It has been a privilege to watch your life unfold.
See you tomorrow.