Personal Memories of Ali: The Greatest

Personal Memories of Ali: The Greatest

 

I considered myself a serious student at the time, although my ambiguity on race and the war was lurking in the background. In the spring of 1968, I was a freshman at Franklin Marshall College in the heart of the Amish country in Lancaster, Pa. An all-men’s school off the beaten trail seemed like an unusual spot for Muhammad Ali to appear.     

Tucked away studying in the library I skipped his speech at the large meeting hall on campus that served as a field hospital during the battle of Gettysburg. Ali spoke on race and the Vietnam War. He had just been stripped of his heavyweight title and was in the eye of the hurricane for refusing to enter the draft.

There was much tension on campus among the student body. The African-American students showed solidarity by sitting apart in the balcony. (I had made the wrong choice, as his speech was spectacular.)

It was a beautiful sun-splattered spring day. Leaving the library looking toward the Hall I saw a large group of students approaching rapidly through the main campus’s tree-lined walkway. Surrounded by hundreds of students, black students in the lead, was Muhammad Ali. Smiling, wise cracking, handsome in a sharp black suit and black patent-leather shoes you could shave by.

Suddenly we were back in the school yard. “Hey champ how about you and me right here, right now, open hand,” the beer bellied white frat boy cried. (Open hand is mock fighting where you attempt to tag your opponent with an open hand, not a closed fist.)

Muhammad stopped and smiled. Just as in the schoolyard of my youth in an instant circle of students and onlookers formed around the two. The circle was 15 feet round and Ali faced the boy with a smile, a nod and an “OK.” At least six rows deep the mostly male crowd hungered for the spectacle.

The boy, probably six feet tall and overweight, was dwarfed by the champ. His beer belly added to the absurdity of it all, but the tininess of the circle and the fact that Ali was dressed in his best topped by those smooth shiny leather shoes made this an odd match.

The crowd cheered as they opened their hands and circled slowly in the tiny human ring. Ali smiled. The boy parried several times and missed. He advanced closer. Again the boy continued to miss. Dancing inside the circle Ali’s opponent became more frustrated as the crowd howled in delight. The boy pressed the attack sweating profusely for close to two minutes. 

Ali danced around, back and forth out and in never attempting to tag his opponent. Finally clearly frustrated the boy swung wildly with his open hand. Nimbly Ali leaned in and let the boy’s hand graze his chin.

“That is enough you have touched the champ,” Ali proclaimed to the howls of joy from the audience. Ali turned, and the Red Sea parted. Black and white, we all cheered and followed Ali gleefully across the campus to his waiting car. The tension was gone. Ali had delivered his message in the hall and in the circle.

What we had witnessed in my book was the greatest athletic feat I have ever seen. To be able to dance in that tiny circle. Bobbing and weaving with a smile on his face wisecracking, Ali still was the champ. His grace in his shiny patent-leather shoes and suit was incredible. The tension amongst us students was gone. We had seen the Greatest. He had opened our eyes to many things.

When Muhammad Ali died the world lost one of the finest examples of strength and character the world has ever seen. He was and is truly the one and only champion. 

 

John Platt has lived in Alameda for more than 30 years.