by Gary Stromberg
My heart weighs heavy, as I’m trying to get my head around the passing of Muhammad Ali, the single most important and influential man I’ve known. Ali and I were born in the same year, 1942, so I’ve lived on this planet the same amount of time as he has, up until now that is. While I don’t have the intellectual capacity nor the poetic ability to convey the real significance his stunning life had upon me, I can share a few memorable encounters I had with him.
The first, unfortunately, wasn’t very pleasant. In 1968 I was twenty-six years old and married to Chelsea Brown, a beautiful young African-American actress whose high-profile TV career was just taking off. She and I were having lunch at Universal Studios, where I had just landed a contract as an aspiring young filmmaker. We had just been seated, when into the commissary walked Ali, who at the time was in the midst of serving a 4-year suspension from boxing for refusing to join the army and fight in Viet Nam. All eyes were on him, as he passed through the crowded dining area. Suddenly he spotted my gorgeous wife and without asking, he pulled up a chair at our table. I was stunned that he chose to sit with us, but quickly understood that it was my wife that attracted him. The two of them exchanged greetings, then Chelsea looked over at me and said, “Mr. Ali, this is my husband, Gary.” I was beaming with excitement. He looked over at me and clenched his jaw in a way that told me he wasn’t at all happy to meet me. Ali was still seeing the world as black vs white, oppressed vs oppressor, and I obviously symbolized the latter to him. He curtly nodded to me, didn’t say a word and within seconds got up to leave. I was mortified. I didn’t even have the chance to tell him how much I admired him.
The next time we met was in 1974. I was hired to do the public relations for a big music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire in advance of the Muhammad Ali–George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. The concert, which later became the Academy Award winning documentary When They Were Kings included an impressive list of African-American music artists, including James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, Bill Withers, The Crusaders and a host of other great performers.
While in Kinshasa, I got to visit the Ali training camp and although I had no direct contact with him, I got to observe the way he trained and more interestingly, the way he related to the local community. Ali was, to put it simply, adored beyond belief by his African brothers and sisters. Everywhere he went, chants of Ali Booma ye (Ali kill him) rang out. Being a fanatical boxing fan, I, like the rest of the boxing world was gravely concerned for his health in this fight. Taking on the indomitable Foreman seemed like an impossible and very dangerous undertaking, but observing how he was being worshipped by the people of Zaire, I had a sneaky suspicion he just might shock the world, which is exactly what he ended up doing.
The final two times I spent with “The Greatest” were encounters I’ll never forget. I was asked by a guy called Yank Barry, who ran an organization called Global Village Partners in Montreal, if I’d be interested in doing PR for a group of people, including Muhammad Ali, who were doing rescue missions in various parts of the world. Ali often got asked to help people for a wide variety of reasons and in 1997 he received an urgent plea from an American nun, Sister Beltran in Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). She had escorted a group of 400 orphaned children out of Liberia, fleeing a deadly civil war. These children, were in horrible shape, many even missing limbs, and were near death from starvation. Ali and Global Village put together a team of doctors, and other caregivers, along with a generous amount of food, clothing and even artificial limbs, and off we went on a chartered jet to provide what help we could.
My job, in addition to getting media coverage of the trip, was to help cut through the red tape often encountered in third-world countries. Having Ali as our leader made it relatively easy. Everyone wanted to meet him, so we made a deal with the country’s leader, President Henri Konan Bédié, that if he helped in our mission, Ali would attend a Presidential function and allow the President to publicize the visit. Public officials would always jump at the chance to meet and mingle with the champ. If you’d like to see what a mission like this looks like (and Ali did many) take a look at this brief segment of Entertainment Tonight:
It was an incredibly emotional experience bringing life-giving aid to these starving children. It brought into focus what the power of Ali really was; the willingness and ability to serve in ways unimaginable to most. My love for Ali greatly deepened during this experience with him.
Later that year I got another call from Yank, about a rescue mission forming to help an orphanage in Morocco. Children in need always got Ali’s attention, and once again our group of rescuers got together and flew to Casablanca to provide the requested aid. At the airport in New York, waiting in the lounge to board our flight, I got to witness a scene that spoke volumes about the character of Muhammad Ali.
As was always the case, whenever he was recognized, a crowd gathered and great excitement ensued. This time was no exception. There were anywhere from 50 – 100 people around Ali clamoring for autographs, photos, a kiss or just to touch the legend. Soon our group was called to board our charter and we started moving towards our gate. Everyone that is except Ali, who patiently stood and accommodated every single person gathered around him. It took a good 15 minutes to deal with all these fans, and you could see that the effort took a lot out of him, but Muhammad seemed undisturbed. It was an amazing thing to watch.
Once on board our plane, someone asked Ali why he did this, made himself so accessible, and his reply surprised the hell out of me. “I do it because I want to go to heaven,” he responded, to which his questioner wisely asked, “Do you actually think there is any chance that you won’t go?” Ali looked at him, with that twinkle in his eye and said, “You just never know!” This, I realized, is what motivated Muhammad Ali throughout the final years of his life. He served mankind simply because he wanted to go to heaven.
Our trip to Morocco was another successful adventure:
The orphanage in Casablanca was filled with very young children who had no idea who Muhammad Ali was nor why there was so much excitement surrounding his visit. It was here I observed something else that will stay with me forever. Children, who are normally shy or even scared of strangers had no fear of Ali. Each and every child he greeted, held, kissed or just smiled at seemed to melt in his presence. It was unreal. Children just intuitively knew that he was someone special, someone not to be feared, but loved.
When our business with the orphanage was finished and the children all provided for, our party was flown to Rabat the capital of Morocco, where we were met at the Royal Palace by King Hassan II, our gracious host. The king was an impressive figure and he was joined by his two sons, both carrying boxing gloves for Ali to sign. There were also members of the royal family and government officials in a long reception line. An impressive bunch, indeed, but there was no doubt who the star of the show was! They fussed over Ali as if he was the second coming of the original Muhammad
That night we were hosted to a feast, which coincidentally was also the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast. The following day Ali was invited to pray at the holiest of mosques in Rabat, and we, as members of his entourage were allowed to accompany him. The inner sanctum of the mosque is only for true followers of Islam so our party was escorted to a waiting area inside the mosque, but I couldn’t help marvel that this Jew (me) was actually sitting inside a holy temple of Islam.
One last thing I’d like to note. We were sitting around at the airport waiting to board our flight home, when members of our little group started taking photos of each other and Ali. Like everyone else, I was eager to have my picture taken with him. When my turn arrived I sidled up next to him, and as was his custom, he took my fist and gently placed it on his own chin, giving the appearance of me punching him in the face. This is a pose you’ll see in many Ali photos with fans. As soon as he did this, however, the thought occurred to me that I do not want this photo to be of me punching him in the face! I love this man, why would I want to punch him? I withdrew my fist, smiled and I think he understood what I was silently saying to him. This photo sits on my mantle today, and it gives me joy every time I look at it.
I never saw Ali again after that trip, but I’ve read every book written about him and paid attention every time I saw his name in the news. I’m going to miss you champ, but you left me with vivid memories that will be in my mind and heart forever. I can only imagine the celebration going on in heaven about now!