When I was a teenager hanging around Greenwich Village in the late 1950s to February '62 when I joined the service, I stayed at the apartment on W. 3rd St. near MacDougal with three older black dudes one of whom had been the heavyweight champion of the Army several years earlier, DeWitt Jennings.
I saw him take on two racist sailors (who, yes, were from the South and were on 3rd Street because at the time it was crowded with strip joints) at the same time and kick their butts, but that's another story. This one is about how DeWitt told me to bet on Cassius Clay against Sonny Liston and all the oddsmakers because he'd seen him fight as an amateur and said he was gonna be one of the all time great boxers. So I did and made a lot of money for a teenager.
Then in the late 1960s when I was at the University of Iowa my then wife Lee and me were visiting the Catholic chaplain when he said he had a surprise treat and the greatest walked in (don't remember if he was still Cassius Clay or had gone to being Muhammed Ali at that point). Turned out the chaplain and Ali were friends from a previous time and place. Ali was gracious and fun. He seemed a lot taller than me and I was a foot taller than Lee so it was a funny scene. An incredibly good natured guy who obviously respected his priest friend who would go on to baptize our oldest, born in Iowa City, Caitlin.
A few years later, at the height of the movement against the Viet Nam War I was in Philadelphia at a convention that truthfully I no longer remember who it was held by, SDS? Or The Peace and Freedom Party or some more radical group? At any rate Ali showed up unexpected exactly where I was and once again shook my hand with what seemed like his enormous one and wrapped an arm around my shoulder and had me grinning from ear to ear just to be in his presence. And once again he was respectful and good natured and clearheaded about the goals we were all fighting for.
I loved watching him box but don't watch boxing anymore, one of the two sports I grew up watching in my clan, the other being the ponies (aka thoroughbred horse racing) and which I loved, because of what happened to him from all those punches. He was still capable of much love and the occasional zinger the last time I saw him on TV, and he remains the most world famous man of my lifetime, maybe of all time. And most who know him, or of him, love him.
Happy Birthday champ!