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Unforgettable meeting with a sports legend

It wasn't quite a baptism of fire but it felt like it; certainly as the evening wore on the temperature soared.

Staring at the fastest fists in the world, I could feel beads of sweat running across my forehead.

This wasn't just the suffocating humidity. I'd plunged into the lion's den.

As a 21-year-old reporter, perhaps still wet behind the ears, not familiar with the surroundings or the people, I had arrived on the island just weeks earlier.

On this evening, I had volunteered to cover an event that surely would have whetted the appetite of any self-respecting sports journalist — although, apparently, neither my editor nor my sports editor were particularly impressed.

The Clayhouse Inn on North Shore had been chosen as the venue where hundreds of Bermudians would gather to hear the gospel as preached by a man who had already been afforded the moniker “The Greatest”.

As I looked around, I couldn't help but notice that I was the only Caucasian in the room. There may have been others, but none were remotely close.

Unfortunately, Muhammad Ali had made the same observation. With notebook in hand, it was also clear I was on assignment.

Picking his moment, and pointing to me, he asked why I been had sent to his presentation. Surely, there were equally capable Bermudians who could do the same job.

There was no logical answer, if any.

As Ali pursued the subject — expats competing for jobs with the natives — my agitation might just have become visible and, kindly and thankfully, he diverted to another issue.

Anxious to make my escape after Ali stepped down from the stage, and wary of any potential confrontation with those in the crowd, I climbed aboard my newly acquired moby and sped back to the office.

What would transpire over the next 24 hours has been embedded in the memory bank for the past 42 years.

If that night was one to remember, then the events of the next day would be mind-numbing.

A morning phone call from someone within the Ali entourage — it might even been his trusted trainer Angelo Dundee, the same trainer who years later would turn his attention to a young Bermudian fighter, Troy Darrell — demanded I meet Ali in his Hamilton Princess suite.

Why, I wondered. If he wanted to grant an interview to the local newspaper, surely, given his comments the night before, he would have advocated a Bermudian get the job.

But he specially wanted the reporter whom he had met at the Clayhouse.

Upon entering the hotel, I identified myself to Ali's security guards and was quickly ushered to his room where he stood alone, waving away the guards before closing the door.

In the light of day, the Champ appeared even bigger, taller, more muscular — a giant of a man who had terrorised and tortured almost every boxer he had confronted in the ring.

Yet, over the next hour he revealed a nature that few could imagine.

Humble beyond belief, he apologised for the comments made the previous evening and any embarrassment he had inflicted. How could I respond? I wasn't embarrassed or humiliated. I was terrified!

As we spoke, I hung over his every word. This wasn't an interview, merely a conservation, he insisted.

He spoke of Joe Frazier, how they had to fight again to decide once and for all who was the greatest.

He threw off his shirt, performed the “Ali Shuffle”, skipped around the sofa and shadow-boxed in front of a mirror, before thundering a fake left hook, which came within a hair's breadth of dislodging my nose.

Smokin' Joe would have to deal with all of that and very much more.

Those comical antics eventually gave way to a more sombre discussion. He touched on civil rights and religion — he had converted to Islam, changed his name and spent three years in the boxing wilderness after refusing to fight in Vietnam.

“Why would I want to kill innocent people who had never harmed me?”, he had previously protested.

But most of all, he talked of his family. He went to a drawer, pulled out a wallet that contained pictures of his wife and children and proudly showed them to me, one by one.

This was his second marriage. His first, to Sonji Roi Clay, had ended in divorce, 16 months after they married.

Now he was with the former Belinda Boyd, whom he married in 1967 and was still with her after the birth of their four children — twin daughters Jamilla and Rasheda, another daughter, Maryum, and their only son, Muhammad Ali Jr.

It was these pictures that he carried wherever he travelled.

Belinda went the same way as Sonji. Ali married twice more and in total fathered nine children.

Boxing was his passion, but family overrode anything else in his life.

Some 45 minutes passed, and I could have listened for the rest of the day, but he had to meet the journalists who had gathered in the lobby for an informal conference.

We travelled together down the elevator, I thanked him for his time and slipped out of the exit. There was no point in staying. Whatever he would say to the remaining press gang couldn't compare to what I had experienced. And there was no point in hurrying back into the office. Eric Hopwood, then the editor, had made it clear, no matter what Ali said, it wouldn't be worth reporting at length.

Twenty-two years passed before I would see Ali again. The change in health and appearance had been devastating. The constant pounding to the head, according to doctors, had triggered Parkinson's disease.

As he lit the Olympic torch to signal the opening of the 1996 Atlanta Games, his body trembled. A sad sight for a man who, quite literally, had ruled the world. We would meet again at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, in more intimate surroundings. A small function had been arranged for a group journalists at the Rosehill Gardens Racecourse outside the city.

Ali made his entry in a wheelchair, his head bowed, his smile weak. I waited some 20 minutes before approaching his daughter and asked if I could have a brief, private conversation with the man who had enthralled so many Bermudians when he visited in 1974 and the times he had flown into the island in the 1960s. Mere mention of Bermuda had piqued Ali's interest. His speech was impaired but clearly his mind wasn't.

I wondered whether he could have recalled our meeting at the Princess. It was unlikely, but for me it was unforgettable.

I'd had the privilege of interviewing some of sports greats — Pelé, Jack Nicklaus, Brian Lara, Jimmy Connors and many others — but by far Ali was The Greatest. He always will be.

Man of the moment: Ali outside the Hamilton Princess in 1974. With him are, far left, Princess executive Chris Szembek, and, far right, hotelier and tourism advocate W.A. “Toppy” Cowen

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Published June 06, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated June 06, 2016 at 7:19 am)

Unforgettable meeting with a sports legend

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