Samstag, 4. Juni 2016

My Memory Of Muhammad Ali

Those born after about 1950 probably don't remember the time when there was no Muhammad Ali (yet), only a Cassius Clay Jr. The first time I came across Cassius Clay was in the early 1960s when I saw a photo of him in a magazine. The photo showed a cocky young black, elegantly dressed in a morning suit with bowler hat and umbrella in hand on a sidewalk in NYC. The article confirmed the cockiness of the young man. One could easily imagine how an opponent, when looking at the photo, might think "I'll wipe that cocky look off your face!" So I was waiting for the day when some other boxer would wipe that cocky look of Cassius Clay's face.

This was going to happen in late February 1964, when Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston for the first time. There was just no imaginable way how Clay (or anyone else) could escape the brutal fists of that bear of a man. There was no TV broadcast at the time in Austria, only radio and the fight was in the early hours of February 26. I could not stay up because I had a big exam at school the next day but no big loss because Cassius Clay was going the get the beating of his life, anyway.

There are certain events where one never forgets how one was informed about them. I still remember how I learned about JFK's death back in 1963. And I still remember how my father woke me up in the morning of February 26 by calling "Clay won!" And the rest is history.

I once had the opportunity to be close-up with Muhammad Ali. It must have been around 1970. Ali was making the rounds to American universities to give speeches. There was a student grill at the Harvard Business School, "The Galley", which I was running part-time while studying at the College. The big events at "The Galley" were when celebrities visited the Harvard Business School and were shown around campus. Invariably, they would pass through "The Galley" or at least have some coffee prepared there. My biggest event so far had been making coffee for Henry Ford II. I never saw the man but I was later told that he liked my coffee.

And then came Muhammad Ali. He moved around in a cluster of about a dozen people and I have never ever witnessed a situation where one person would physically so much stand out in a group. First, there was the beauty of this human being, the absolute physical perfection. Then there was his expensive light suit which could not have been surpassed in elegance. Finally, there was the charisma which this man radiated. Ali passed through "The Galley" in less than a minute but it seemed like an eternity. I felt thunderstruck afterwards.

I often wondered whether I experienced this sensation because I knew it was Muhammad Ali who walked through "The Galley" or whether he was the unforgettable Muhammad Ali because he could radiate such charisma. But there was one thing which stuck to my mind: even though Ali was smiling left and right, he did not seem relaxed. Instead, he seemed full of nervous energy, full of pressure to be Muhammad Ali.

Finally, in March 1973, I thought I would see Muhammad Ali without cockiness in his face. Ken Norton had just broken his jaw in their first fight and within days Ali appeared on the Johnny Carson Show. When Ali was announced by Carson and came on stage, everyone wondered how he would handle this embarrassing situation. Ali sat down at Carson's desk. There were tense moments of silence. And then Johnny Carson, in his unique style, deadpanned the audience by asking Ali: "What the hell happened to your jaw?" Before Ali could react, the audience broke up in laughter and so did Muhammad Ali and, once again, we were all deprived of witnessing an embarrassed Muhammad Ali.

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