Listening to and reading all the glowing eulogies of the recently departed Muhammad Ali prompted me to write about my experience with Ali and comment on some revisionist history.
In 1978 I was in Buenos Aires, Argentina on a business trip. While there, the Argentine national airline union workers went on strike. Even though I had a ticket and confirmation on Braniff Airlines to return to New York, I went to the Braniff office the day before my flight and got my boarding pass, assuming correctly that they would be overbooking their flights due to the strike.
When I went to check in, the agent told me he was sorry but there was no record of my reservation. I showed him my boarding pass, pointing out that there was only one place I could have obtained it: their office.
He said he was sorry but there was nothing he could do. I replied, “That’s OK. I realize that you have given my seat to someone you deem more important. Just give me double the cost of my first class ticket ($3,000) right now as required by IATA (International Association of Travel Agents).” He then left to talk to his manager. He came back to say there was a “misunderstanding” and that I could board the plane.
As I was settling in and watching the other passengers coming up the aisle, a tall drop dead gorgeous woman appeared. I was thinking, I have seen her before. Then the husband of Veronica Porsche, the model and actress, appeared. It was Muhammad Ali. They walked back and stopped at my seat. He said very menacingly, “Get out of my seat!”
I pretended I did not understand English but the steward came back and asked me in several languages to get off the plane. Finally I replied in English, “You can bump anyone in economy off and give them their seats.”
They then intimidated the couple in the row directly behind me into getting off the plane. Ali was still not happy, because back then the smoking section was the back half of first class.
Ali had recently lost the heavyweight boxing championship of the world to Leon Spinks, a light heavyweight novice who had had only seven professional fights. The man sitting next to me was the Minister of Finance of Chile. He started speaking to me in English about Ali, saying that he had seen his interview on Argentine TV the day before. He related, “We Latins have only seen highlights of Ali’s fights. We had no idea how articulate, bright and witty he is.” Ali was leaning forward, listening to every word. Then Sergio said, knowing I was still annoyed by Ali’s rudeness, “Jim, you have to admit he is a very bright guy.”
I replied, “He is a very clever self-promoter. He could have been a positive role model to all children rather than being a draft dodger, thumbing his nose at white people and hurting race relations. I hope he does something useful with the rest of his life.”
Ali slammed back in his seat. I could see out of the corner of my eye between the seats that his wife was stroking his leg trying to calm him down. He almost had smoke coming out of his ears. Clearly he was not used to hearing any blunt criticism. He was the darling of the media and surrounded himself with slavishly adoring fans.
As the plane took off for its 11-hour flight to New York, a shoe-less foot came through the opening between Sergio’s and my seat, almost knocking the drink out of my hand. Then he started kicking the back of my seat like kids do when parents are driving on a long trip. He kept it up for several minutes.
I was thinking, do I have to put up with this behavior for 11 hours? What are my options?
Finally I stood up and turned around and just stared at him, giving him my best “you asshole” look until everyone in first class was staring at us. Then I turned around and sat down.
Every time I got up to stretch or go to the bathroom for the next 11 hours he stared at me, with his eyes saying, “Let’s talk about this.” But since he was so self-important, arguably the most well-known celebrity in the world at the time, he expected me to initiate the conversation. I had no interest in talking to him.
Once we landed in New York, I was sitting under the bulkhead, putting my work papers back in my briefcase when I sensed a dark shadow over me. I looked up and there was Ali with his fist raised with an angry snarling stare, just like when he allegedly “knocked out” Sonny Liston with the punch no one ever saw, no matter how many times the film was reviewed in slow motion by thousands of experts. Later in life Liston acknowledged that that the Mob ordered him to take a “dive” in both their fights.
Ali was obviously trying to scare me. I looked up at him calmly with an expression that said, “I know you are not stupid enough to hit me in front of all these people. It would cost you at least a million dollars.”
Looking at his waist where he had put on 60 pounds since losing to Spinks and then looking him straight in the eye, I said, “You should take better care of yourself.” Mr. clever “king of the put down” just stood there furious with his raised fist and his mouth open, but could not think of a comeback and stomped off the plane.
A few minutes later when I disembarked, Ali was still pacing up and down like a caged tiger, unable to engage the bunch of reporters waiting to ask him questions. I walked on and, since it was an all-night flight, I took a taxi straight to my office in New York City.
When I got to the office I announced, “I had a confrontation with Muhammad Ali today—and he lost.”
Muhammad Ali was not near as great a fighter as portrayed by the adoring media. His official record was 56 won, five lost. If one subtracts out all the questionable decisions by ring judges because of his box office value, his record could have been 43 won, 18 lost. That is hardly the “greatest.”
Rocky Marciano won 49 bouts, lost none and was a war hero. Ali refused to fight first class fighters in their prime like Gerrie Coetzee (future heavyweight champion) despite what probably would have been the biggest purse in boxing history.
Although Ali had extremely fast hands and footwork which he used to bob, weave, backpedal and counter punch, he had no real knockout punch and never really put an opponent to “sleep” in the ring. Having a handsome face, a magnificent body, a quick wit and an ability to say what reporters wanted to hear were Ali’s strongest assets.
He refused to serve his country when drafted and was convicted. But because of his wealth, fame, and connections, he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and had his conviction overturned by activist justices. They reasoned that he had a right to refuse, allegedly because he claimed to be a conscientious objector due in part to his newly acquired “pacifist” Muslim religion. This was portrayed as a heroic act by the liberal media. There are only two problems with this logic. First, he could have served in a non-combat roll, as many conscientious objectors did. Second, his Muslim faith requires war (jihad) against all non-Muslims, including the Vietnamese, who he said he had no desire to fight.