My hours with Ali: He used his power to produce smiles

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali talks about his life at his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali talks about his life at his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali with portrait of himself on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali with portrait of himself on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 
 
Posted6/5/2016 7:00 AM
Editor’s note: Former Daily Herald sports writer Lindsey Willhite reminisces about what he learned from an extended interview with the boxing great in his later years.

There I stood, my back close to the ropes. I was inside Muhammed Ali's boxing ring on his 88-acre farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan. The emphatic horns that punctuate the "Theme From Rocky" blared from speakers in every corner of his gym.

And Ali, black Everlast gloves covering his large fists, was advancing toward me while piecing together a variety of jabs and uppercuts.

 

At that moment on May 9, 2001, I didn't care that Ali was 59 years old and slowed by Parkinson's. I didn't care he had been nothing but a fun-loving, gracious host to that point in the day. I didn't care that I wore boxing gloves too.

My adrenaline spiked. My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. Was the Greatest Of All Time coming to kick my lanky butt?

Fortunately, he was not. Ali shuffled his feet pierced the air with some punches and stopped. Then, assured he had the attention of ace Daily Herald photographer Mark Welsh, he placed one of my gloves on his nose and pretended I was the greatest while Mark's camera whirred.

And that sequence, in my opinion, crystallized Ali's magic.

He had all of the power in the world, all of the ways and means to bend it to his will, and he used his powers when necessary. But he preferred to please people, to make them smile and to make a difference.

Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali sits in the corner of the ring like he has done so many times in his famous fights throughout his career. He did a little workout while he was in his boxing ring which is located on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali sits in the corner of the ring like he has done so many times in his famous fights throughout his career. He did a little workout while he was in his boxing ring which is located on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan. -
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On that picture-perfect May day 15 years ago, Ali proved time and again to be humble, humorous and human. Though his voice was reduced to hisses and whispers, he had no problem conveying his ideas and jokes.

He told us he planned to make a comeback at 60 -- and he wanted to take on Lennox Lewis.

He shared a sheaf of papers featuring his handwriting, which is how he tracked inconsistencies he found in the Bible (as a Muslim, he prayed five times daily while studying the Quran and the Bible as well).

He pretended to levitate -- a trick he performed for decades -- and showed off other optical illusions he picked up over the years to entertain everyone he met.

Together with his wife, Lonnie, Ali shared his vision for the $60 million Muhammad Ali Center. Built in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after our visit, the center was designed to inspire children from across the globe.

"The bigger the dream, the better," Lonnie said. "And giving them those skills and the confidence that they need to do exactly what he did. Anybody, no matter where they come from and what walk of life, has the potential to be great. If they believe it. And if they want it bad enough."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The lengthy conversation was so comfortable and the Alis so personable near the end of the day I decided to share a personal anecdote with Muhammed. I told him he and my mother had been born in Kentucky less than six months apart.

And his quick wit -- the one that improvised such immortal phrases as "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" -- allowed him to fire back an immediate response.

"I might be your daddy," he hissed.

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