My Meeting with "The Greatest"

In the southern California winter of 1980 - 81 I was a young recording engineer working at AT&T Recording in Hollywood. One spring day we got a call from Mayor Tom Bradley's re-election headquarters to go to the home of former world champion Muhammad Ali and record him doing some radio spots for the Mayor's campaign. This was the kind of thing we often did when V.I.P.s didn't want to come into a recording studio, so I dutifully packed up my microphones and 40 lbs. of Nagra tape deck and headed off.

After getting by the security guard and driving into a gated community just off Wiltshire near Normandie I was amazed to find myself in an area of town that one would never realize was there. I mean it's right in the city, not a particularly pretty part of it either, and yet you would think you had been plopped down in some huge plantation in Georgia. Tall pine trees, big houses with a distinctly southern design. I pulled up in front of an impressive brown brick house with tall white columns in front. As I parked my Toyota Celica I couldn't help but notice the 3 Rolls-Royce Corniches parked in the driveway.

I rang the bell and was greeted by a maid who ushered me into the foyer of the house. The house was like a movie set. Tall winding staircase, large reception rooms with tall glass windows looking into well manicured back yard with Grecian statues, ponds and fountains. There were many rooms branching off in every direction. Yet all the furniture was covered in drop-clothes as if it was only used for entertaining, not for regular living. The maid took me to the left into a dining room with a very long rectangular table that could easily seat 30, and left to announce my presence.

A few moments later the suits from the Mayors office showed up with the script. They were pretty junior people, and seemed pretty nervous, so even though I was pretty young it was obvious to me that I was going to be the one in charge of the session.

After a little while a large entourage started to make their way down the winding staircase. In the middle of the group, being literally held up and guided by attendants was Muhammad Ali. He appeared old and slow. They brought him into the dining room and sat him down at the end of the table beside me. Then one of the attendants leaned over and whispered in his ear. I assume he told him what we were doing there, because he seemed to understand and looked at me and nodded as if in greeting.

The suits handed him the script and stood back. I asked him if he could read a little bit so I could adjust the microphone and recording levels.

He started to read the script very slowly. Now I have recorded other sports figures and it is not at all uncommon for many of them to have little or no education, so I was not shocked at this. But there was something different about this. It was not that he couldn't read, it was as if he was drugged, in some kind of stupor.

He started to read the script, "Hi … my name … is … Muhammad Ali … I'm here … to … ask you … to vote … for Mayor … Bradley".

It was disastrous. It must have taken nearly 3 minutes to read 30 seconds worth of copy. After finishing he seemed almost exhausted. He looked at me and asked me how it sounded. Not quite knowing what else to say, I said, "it sounds great, champ". I mean what else could I do? He asked me if he could listen, so I handed him my headphones and rewound the tape for him to hear what he had just done. He listened intently to the playback and when it was finished, he nodded in understanding and handed me back the headphones.

Looking back on this, in hindsight, it's easy to see that he was already suffering from the Parkinson's that everyone is now aware of. But you have to remember that in 1981 this was only a rumour and not common knowledge. Also looking at his fight history this was probably just after he suffered his only knockout by Larry Holmes after he had come out of a two year retirement following the two Spinks' fights. He likely was depressed about that as well as suffering from post-concussion effects.

What happened next is something I still can't quite believe, but I assure you is the absolute truth. He waited for the tape to start rolling, then as if a light switch was flipped … his whole demenour changed, he was imbued with energy, he became young again, he threw the script down onto the floor and started in his strong voice, "My name is Muhammad Ali, and I am the greatest. You better get yourself out to vote for Mayor Tom Bradley or I am gonna whup you. Do you hear me? Cause he is the greatest mayor of all time and he needs your support . . ." It was as if I had morphed into Howard Cossel. He just kept going, improvising the whole thing, staying strong and in character, floating and stinging as only Ali can, until finally stopping and looking at me and asking slyly with a wink, "you think you got enough?" There would be no second take.

I was pretty stunned at that point, and just nodded and mumbled something like, "I think so". At that point he sat back in his chair and sighed as if it had taken a lot of energy to summon up this performance. It was as if the light went out, the mysterious shroud descended on him again, and he appeared once again to be old and tired. His handlers came over and helped lift him by his elbows out of the chair and walked him out of the room and back up the stairs.

You know when you're young things don't always have the same import that they do when you look back on them with a little more maturity. It was obvious then as it is now that the champ was suffering from either a disability or a recent trauma or both, but he still had the strength to be able to call up that persona of the public figure when he really needed it. You can still see faint glimmers of that when he is in public now, although the intervening years have made it even harder for him to overcome the effects of the Parkinson's. Amazingly he went on to have one more fight against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas in which it is reported that he fought pretty well even though he lost the decision.

I wish I had had the foresight to keep the recording. Or even to ask him to autograph the script. But alas all I have is the memory of my meeting with the Champ.

If you want to read a great story about another person's meeting with Ali check out this account from his greatest fan, Barry Tesar.