Blog 1: Floating with Ali




Blog Classic 1: Floating with Ali

Posted on March 1, 2008 by Carl Hardin


There are a handful of moments in each person’s life that are truly unforgettable. The first time you let your kid drive your car, for example. And, the subsequent call to the insurance adjuster. Other than my wedding day (in case my wife is reading this), meeting Mohammad Ali was my most unforgettable moment.


It was the summer of 1980, and I was a young kid with a summer internship in New York City. I was from Detroit, but the Big Apple was truly the big city. Skyscrapers, and everything, as Stevie Wonder would say. I was totally in awe of the whole place, from the projects and Rucker Park in upper Manhattan, to the twin towers and Wall Street in lower Manhattan. New York had it all!


My internship was at Exxon headquarters in the middle of Manhattan. That’s right, I was right in the heart of it all, and loving every minute of it. One day, as I was leaving the office for lunch, I saw a large crowd moving aggressively down the Avenue of the Americas. Well, back in Detroit, large aggressive crowds typically meant something exciting was going on that you didn’t want to miss. So, I quickly moved over to mix into the crowd. The next think I knew, I was standing smack dab next to Mohammad Ali, “The Greatest”.


I believe a little background is in order here. Mohammad Ali was the most popular man in the world. He was a hero, a legend, an ambassador, all rolled into one, with more charisma than a Vegas Emcee. He was the three time heavyweight boxing champion of the world; in an era when boxing was king. He fought in battles with engaging titles like “The Thrilla in Manila”, which were watched by billions of people all over the world, back in the day when you could watch an exciting fight on free TV!


But, the real reason Ali was loved all over the world was because he had the gift of gab. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see” was Mohammad Ali’s mantra. Whether you loved him or not, you always wanted to hear what he had to say.


At the time that I met Ali, the announcement had recently been made that at the age of 38 he was coming out of retirement to fight Larry Holmes to try to regain the heavyweight title for a fourth time. He was in town to promote the fight, staying at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel.


So here I was face-to-face with Mohammad Ali, or maybe face-to-chest, because he really towered over me. The crowd was a collection of well-to-do New York executives, all hoping to get an autograph. It was such an amazing sight that I was speechless. Well temporarily speechless anyway. As I thrust a piece of paper up to the most admired man in the world, I realized that I was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A Joe would pay big bucks for a chance like this. I knew I had to strike up a conversation. But, what could I say? I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “They say you’ve gotten old and slow. Do you really think you can beat Holmes”?


Up to this point, Ali appeared to be going through the motions of signing autographs without looking up, as if in a daze. When he heard my question, it was as if he was hit by a taser. His eyes lit up, and he immediately reached for me. It was as if he was waiting for someone to ask something provocative like that. As I closed my eyes and cowered in fear, I heard him say, “hold still, I’m not gonna hurt you”. “Hold out your hand”, he said, and he pulled my hand over toward him. As I faced him again, he explained to me that he was going to hit me 10 times before I felt the first one. Hmmm, I thought. That sounded like what he did to Jerry Quarry before they carried Jerry out the ring. I looked around for a priest to administer last rites.


So Ali looks me in the eye and says, “Hold still this won’t hurt”. “I’m gonna hit you ten times before you feel the first one”. I was scared to death, as all these New Yorkers looked on in amusement. Then Ali says, “you ready”, as he assumes a fighter’s stance. I kind of nodded, but before I could open my mouth, he stepped toward me and says “do you want me to do it again”? That whole New York crowd roared with laughter and appreciation. It was then I knew why Mohammad Ali was called “The Greatest”.





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Photo: White/NARA via pingnews



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