Here is an excerpt from Davis Miller's latest book, Approaching Ali.
On Saturday, Miller, will be in Frankfort signing the book during the 34th annual Kentucky State Book Fair. At 10 a.m., Miller will give a special presentation on Ali.
'My Life with Muhammad Ali'
I first became a serious Muhammad Ali watcher in January 1964. He'd just turned 22, and was luminous as he prepared to meet Sonny Liston for what was then the biggest prize in sport — the heavyweight championship of the whole wide world. I remember sitting on the den floor in front of my father's little black-and-white television as Ali's voice roared from the huge world outside and through the TV's tiny, rattling speaker. "I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty, and can't possibly be beat," the voice said, and as I listened I felt the glory train pass through me.
Over the next five decades, many of my life-defining events have been connected to Ali.
In 1974, with Ali as stylistic mentor, I became a competitive kickboxer. In 1977, my girlfriend Lynn and I unsuccessfully tried to get married in Madison Square Garden at the Ali-Earnie Shavers bout.
Then, in 1981, I sold my first-ever story to a big, national magazine; that piece concerned Ali's influence on my life. Yet by 1986, when I was working for a chain of movie stores in Lexington and Louisville, I seldom thought about him. He'd been a childhood obsession.
My first day in Louisville, on a tour of the video company's stores, my supervisor pointed at a ranch-style house and said, "Muhammad Ali's mom lives there." From then on, whenever I passed by, I radared in on the house. The Friday before Easter 1988, an ivory-colored Winnebago with license plates that read "THE GREATEST" was parked out front.
I worked up courage, went to the door, knocked. Ali opened the door, looking as big as God. He leaned under the frame to see me, waved me in, did magic tricks, invited me to stay for dinner.
We've been friends ever since. Over the years, our friendship inspired me to finally realize my decades long dream: with Ali as muse and mentor, I became a writer: a magazine journalist and memoirist, and eventually a book author.
Ali has been not only my great friend, but my great subject. Among my work are numerous stories, two internationally bestselling books, and the libretto for an acclaimed chamber opera that premiered last year at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Most recently, I've written a book titled Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, which offers the most intimately detailed look at his enormously rich life after boxing and during his years with Parkinson's disease.
Today, though, I want to tell you about the first time I met Ali face-to-face. It was July, 1975. At 23, I was a North Carolina based junior-lightweight kickboxer and full of beans. So, when my karate friend Bobby, who was Ali trainer Angelo Dundee's nephew, said that if I drove up to Ali's Pennsylvania training camp he'd get me in the ring with him, I packed my old Camaro and hit the highway.
Tugging on red Everlast trunks I'd bought for this occasion, I heard him through the dressing room walls, exhorting spectators who'd each paid one dollar to watch him train. "I'll prove to the world that I am not only the greatest boxer of all times," he said, "I am the greatest martial artist."
His was the most elemental voice I'd heard; it sounded huge, melodic, eternal. Listening to him made me so nervous I shook a little and felt I needed to pee. The old guy strapping a pair of red leather gloves on my arms looked at me and laughed. "He won't hurt a little white boy like you," he said.
The old guy was stooped, his face long, his eyes yellow with age. "Naw, he won't hurt you," he told me again. "Not too bad, anyways."
Ali was standing in the center of his ring when I stepped through the ropes. Insect-looking splotches of dried blood dotted the porous canvas under my feet. As I stared up at him, he came into focus and everything else blurred. His skin was unmarked and without wrinkles, and he glowed in a way that could not be seen in photographs or on television.
He introduced me to the crowd as a "great karate master," an accolade I didn't merit. Then he opened his mouth steamshovel-wide, pointed his gloved left fist at me and, in a voice directed to no one in particular, but to the world in general, he shouted, "You must be a fool to get in the ring with me. When I'm through, you gowna think you been whupped by Bruce Lee.
"Are you scared?" he asked, looking at me straight and level. "Are you scared? — Just think who you're with. How's it feel, knowin' you're in the ring with The Greatest of All Times?"
The bell rang and he danced to my right around the twenty-foot square of taut canvas. Suddenly I was no longer nervous. My thighs were strong and full of spring, there was looseness in my movement.
He bounced from side-to-side in front of me; I felt every step he took shoot into my feet and up my legs. I bent to the right, tossed a jab toward his belt line, straightened, snapped a long, tentative front-kick to his head. I figured it was the first kick he'd ever had thrown at him, but he pulled away as easily as if he'd been dodging feet his entire life.
He stopped dancing and stood flatfooted in front of me, studying my movements. I tried to lever in a jab from way outside. His eyes were snappingly bright, his face beaming and round and open. He waited until my punch was a half-inch from his nose and pulled his head straight back. I punched nothing but air and dreams.
He turned square toward me, teased by sticking out a long white-coated tongue, stepped back to the ropes, took a seat on the second strand where his head was only a little higher than mine, and beckoned me in with a brisk wave of gloves.
I slid inside his arms three half-steps; he was so close I felt his breath on my shoulder. I dug a roundkick into his right kidney, felt his flesh conform to the shape of my shin, saw the opening I was hoping for, faked a jab and rocketed from my crouch, blasting a spinning backfist-jab-left hook combination straight into the center of his jaw. The punches felt so good I smiled. People in the crowd Oohed and Aahed.
He opened his eyes fried-egg-wide in feigned disbelief. For the next two seconds I deserved his serious attention. For two long seconds we were inseparably bound, whirling in a galaxy of electricity, each seeing nothing but the other. For two week-long seconds I was flying.
Then he came off the ropes and squashed me with one flyswatter jab.
I saw the punch coming: a piece of red cinnamon candy exactly the size of a gloved fist. I tried to slip to the side and couldn't — it was that fast. The back of my head bounced off my shoulders. A chorus of white light went off behind my eyes. A metal taste clouded my mouth, then there was a second heavier thump as he caught me with a left hook I didn't see. The spectators sounded way, way off; my legs went to soup.
He knew I was hurt and he stepped back. Then his eyes went kind, he slid an arm around my shoulders, we exchanged hugs, and it was over.
But I'd accomplished something I'd never, yet always, believed I'd have opportunity to do.
I had boxed with Muhammad Ali.
As we stepped down from the ring together, my childhood hero and the world's greatest pugilist spoke in a way few men had ever talked to me — softly, gently, almost purring. "You're not as dumb as you look," he said. It was one of his canned lines, my personal favorite. And then: "You're fast," he said. "And you sure can hit to be sssooo little."
He may as well have said he was adopting me.
I began to quake. My insides danced. But I stayed composed long enough to say the one thing I hoped would impress him most. With confidence I'd learned from watching him on television and hearing him on the radio countless times, I said simply, "I know."