Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.-Muhammad Ali
In 1968, staff members of the Athens (Georgia) High School Thumb Tack Tribune flew to Chicago over the Thanksgiving holiday for the National Scholastic Press Association convention in the Palmer House hotel. When we weren’t attending journalism classes, checking out Chicago’s Hippie headquarters in Old Towne, or shopping downtown, we explored floor after floor of the grand, old hotel, riding up and down in the elevators, running through hall after hall, and causing way more noise than was allowed.
Finally, there was just one more place to conquer: the top floor which housed the Penthouse Suite. Up, up, up we rode. The elevator stopped. The door opened and there, in the hallway stood Muhammad Ali, surrounded by bodyguards. He would have been 26 years old at the time and was stuck in that time of no fights due to refusing to be inducted into the armed forces in 1966.
We were all in awe of Ali that day. In 1964, after beating Sonny Liston in a major upset and winning the heavyweight title, Cassius Clay (his original name) declared, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
At that moment in time, on the top floor of the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, I thought Muhammed Ali was the prettiest thing that had ever lived. Young, massive, strong, gorgeous, he looked perfect that day and totally unapproachable.
Of course that didn’t stop me from walking up to him and asking for his autograph, even though, as I stared up at Ali, he looked eight feet tall. I thought he’d refuse my request, but he didn’t. He took the scrap of paper from my outstretched hand and scribbled his name.
I still have the scrap of paper and the memory of being in Ali’s presence during my visit to Chicago’s Palmer House hotel. Was he the greatest? Maybe. No doubt, he had gifts that most humans can only dream about. Athletic ability. Good Looks. And he knew the power of words.
I wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightning . . . last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.
But this strong, heavyweight champion of the world, couldn’t beat death. Like many around the world, I mourn his passing and now I cherish even more those few moments in time when I stood in his presence and he signed his name.