LONDON, June 7, 2016 – What struck you immediately was the space he took up. It wasn’t a question of build but rather a metaphysical sensation, the certainty that every thing or person in that room would become a negligible detail on his arrival. We could use the word charisma but I think it was something more, it was a quality that perhaps doesn’t even exist.
It was Milan, in December 1991, and he came with the inseparable Lonnie to meet some journalists and talk about his new mission in life. He whispered a few soft words into his wife’s ear; they were sighs that he measured like precious gems. I’d never seen eyes so bright and clear, with an untiring gaze that rummaged inside you with the same tenacity with which he’d sent Ken Norton into the corner. He’d tried to find out as much as possible about us, sitting round the table with him and animated by tireless curiosity in just a few minutes.
Ali brought little brochures with him; he gave them out personally, accompanying the gesture with a feint, the allusion to a hook that, in his imagination, he’d never stopped making. The brochure said, “Knowing Islam”. Ali’s mission was to tell the world how much the Muslim faith is rooted in tolerance, respect for diversity and love for one’s neighbour.
I can still relive the emotion of that day in Milan. Of finding myself in front of the man who’d lit up my childhood nights, when I got my grandfather to wake me so that I could watch the TV live from Madison Square Garden, or perhaps from Kinshasa. And then I also remember my movement of naïve bewilderment. The world heavyweight champion, perhaps the greatest athlete of all time, went round handing out brochures on Islam.
I really was unprepared. The first Gulf War had just finished and it was the dawn of something which none of us was able to forsee….something that already appeared to be an emergency to Muhammad Ali. Once again, too quick for everyone.
Twelve years later, I met his daughter Laila in Los Angeles. It was through her that I met Harlan, the man who, two decades before, when he was not much more than 20, introduced himself to the Greatest at the end of his career, offering to become his manager. Ali and Lonnie accepted with a pinch of amused surprise and always treated him as a sort of son. Over the years, I’ve become a friend of Harlan’s. He’s a direct, clean person, with little inclination for diplomacy. You can understand why he teamed up with Ali.
This special relationship enabled me to get to know Muhammad Ali much better, although always at a distance. In 2008, I visited the splendid foundation in Louisville, Kentucky; I met Ali’s brother Rahman, and I understood that leaving that place in the Deep South to go and become Muhammad Ali was a extraordinary enterprise in the 1960s.
Something that not many people know is that, in 2010, 50 years after his victory in Rome, Muhammad Ali was close to returning to Rome where he would have received an exact replica of the gold medal that he’d lost. I played a small part in the negotiations but then Ali’s already poor health and the Italian request for an official endorsement of the candidacy of Rome brought things to an end. It would have been a beautiful trip, and Ali had earned it.
Then, through Harlan, I found out that The Greatest had never stopped loving boxing and, above all, boxers, in whom he was interested with affectionate solidarity. During one of the most dramatic times of Mike Tyson’s life, with the former heavyweight champion about to go back to jail, it was Ali who interceded and, with Harlans help, saved Mike from an abyss from which he would never have been able to escape.
I knew that Muhammad Ali had been suffering for some time; the fact that he’s gone brings relief most of all. But then disorientation comes. We’ve grown up with few certainties; time, this convulsive, bulimic time has devoured almost all, leaving us without reference points on the horizon.
Muhammad Ali resisted everything. He was our reassuring rock, the icon of things possible in spite of all. And I’ve had to wait for this sad moment, unprepared, as I was that time in 1992, to realise how much he’s taught us.
Credit: Riccardo Romani / AIPS