This Friday, Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. I can’t claim to know that much about him–I don’t really follow boxing–but I sure do admire him. He was an incredible athlete, a superb wit, and a civil rights icon. Since his death, I’ve come across numerous accounts of ordinary people meeting the legend and remarking upon the warmth and graciousness that he showed to strangers. It seems everyone has their Muhammad Ali story. Here’s mine.
It was an unseasonably warm evening back in March of 2012. After downing my fifth virgin daiquiri of the night, I found myself in the men’s room of Atlantic City’s Showboat casino. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
So imagine my surprise when, after finishing up my business, I spun around to face the world’s greatest boxer. Perched in the restroom attendant’s seat was ol’ Cassius Clay, there in the flesh!
Normally, I don’t like to bother celebrities. They’re people too, and deserve peace and quiet when they can get it. I tried my best to exit the lavatory without ruffling any feathers, but ‘The Greatest’ had different plans. He looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Would you care for a towel, sir?”
That just stopped me dead in my tracks. Now, I had heard Ali could be quite the cut-up, but this was hysterical! America’s most celebrated sportsman cornering me in the john and trying to dry my hands off–it was just too much.
I waved the towel away. “No thanks! What were planning on using that for, anyway? Mopping the floor with me in the ring?”
Mr. Ali held the towel back up to me and asked again, assuring me that it was complimentary. Thinking fast, I knocked the towel to the floor and assumed my best fisticuffs stance (I knew it was impossible to match his deadly wit, but I had to at least try to play along). Even that couldn’t get him to break. Those famous fists picked the towel up off the bathroom tiles and dropped it in a nearby wicker basket.
I chuckled and patted him on the back, “I’m surprised at you. You never were one to throw in the towel, Muhammad.”
“What?” he shrewdly retorted. Ali then pointed to the nametag pinned to his jacket. It read “Nelson.”
Oh wow, was he good. Not that his grace surprised me of course. Even as a septuagenarian, Ali possessed the manners of a much younger man. His smooth features betrayed no bruises or scars from past battles, and almost resembled the countenance of a thirty-year-old. Better luck next time, Father Time! No matter the challenge, Muhammad was simply unbeatable. It was just like his famous catchphrase, “Float like a butterfly, and sting like one too!”
By this point, it was clear that we had become close friends. I had to get a picture to show the folks back home, and I figured he wouldn’t mind. Excusing myself for a moment, I fished a disposable Kodak out of my fanny pack.
I grinned and snapped a selfie of the two of us, but then he blew me away with perhaps the wisest advice anyone’s ever shared with me: “No photographs are permitted in the restroom.” I knew exactly what he meant. Sometimes you have to break the rules to make the world a better place, just like Ali did when he refused to fight in Vietnam. I wiped away a tear and bade my hero good night.
As I made my way back to the casino lounge, my head was swimming. Would anybody ever believe my incredible story? I figured the bartender would be up for a good yarn, so I made my way over to him.
“What a night! How about we cap it off with another virgin daiquiri, my good man?”
“Oh, you wanted those virgin?” he repeated. “My mistake.”