The Greatest of All Time

I met Muham­mad Ali in the mid-1980’s. One of my for­mer UVA law pro­fes­sors called me. “There’s a hear­ing in Los Ange­les Supe­ri­or Court this week in a case against Muham­mad Ali. His attor­ney, Richard Hirschfeld, needs a mem­ber of the Cal­i­for­nia bar to serve as local coun­sel. How’d you like to rep­re­sent the champ?” After I suc­ceed­ed in de-swal­low­ing my tongue, I grabbed the chance.

I met Hirschfeld for din­ner in a Bev­er­ly Hills restau­rant the night before the hear­ing. He and I arrived before Ali and his wife, Lon­nie, so he could brief me on the case. In the process, I learned that he and Ali were close friends, he act­ed as a gen­er­al coun­sel for Ali, and he and Ali had teamed up on var­i­ous busi­ness ven­tures. I liked Richard, but some­thing I couldn’t put my fin­ger on gave me a vague sense of unease about him.

When Ali and Lon­nie walked into the place, every head turned. He looked great. Dressed in a blue suit and white shirt, he stood tall and had a slim waist and broad shoul­ders, but he walked slow­ly and his motions looked stiff. He had been diag­nosed with Parkinson’s Dis­ease the pre­vi­ous year. In tapes of his last fights and inter­views, you can see what may have been symp­toms of the dis­ease eat­ing away at his tal­ent. His punch­es are slow­er and weak­er; his moves more slug­gish; his speech qui­eter and raspi­er. When I met him that night, his speech was slurred and mut­ed, but if you lis­tened care­ful­ly, you could still hear Ali in his voice. Despite the dis­ease, he was good-natured and mis­chie­vous. He was plen­ty smart, too. He had his own ideas about the case and he made clear he was in charge.

Lon­nie was fun, kind, per­son­able, and warm, but she was tough when she need­ed to be. She was a great match for Ali in that stage of his life, I thought, in part because she struck a per­fect bal­ance between being solic­i­tous of his con­di­tion with­out patron­iz­ing him or smoth­er­ing him with over-protectiveness.

We met at the cour­t­house at eight the next morn­ing. The hear­ing didn’t start until nine so we went to the cour­t­house cafe­te­ria for cof­fee. When we walked in, the crowd went still. Then came breath­less mur­murs: “Ali” and “the champ.” Every eye in the room fol­lowed us as we got cof­fee and sat at a table by the windows.

It devel­oped spon­ta­neous­ly. They approached him ten­ta­tive­ly, a few at a time, and then more of them, and then every­one in the place was crowd­ed around us, some with lit­tle-kid grins on their faces, oth­ers with awe in their eyes. They want­ed to shake his hand, touch him, see him up close.

He car­ried with him every­where an end­less sup­ply of pam­phlets about Islam. He had writ­ten on each one: “To: ___________” and he had signed it “Muham­mad Ali.” These weren’t com­put­er gen­er­at­ed sig­na­tures. He had writ­ten them out some time ear­li­er in the tor­tured scrawl that the dis­ease inflict­ed on his hand, every sin­gle one of them, know­ing he could cov­er more peo­ple if they didn’t have to wait for him to strug­gle with his signature.

As each per­son came up to him, he rasped, “What’s your name?” He wrote the names slow­ly as best he could in the blank space and hand­ed the pam­phlets to them. He turned no one away. I sat beside him that morn­ing and watched him sign those things for the bet­ter part of an hour, mar­veling at the amount of time he must have spent prepar­ing them beforehand.

In the court­room at the hear­ing, the judge held set­tle­ment dis­cus­sions with each side indi­vid­u­al­ly. We sat on bench­es out in the hall­way while the judge met with the oppos­ing party.

You read the Quran?” Ali asked me.

No, but I’ve read big chunks of the Bible. My dad’s a Methodist preacher.”

I know,” he said, although I don’t know how he knew. He hand­ed me a pam­phlet. “Read the Quran.” I put it in my breast pocket.

Before our ses­sion with the judge start­ed, Ali told Richard and me he want­ed to talk to the judge alone, with no lawyers present. Richard said it’s a hard and fast rule that lawyers don’t allow their clients to speak to judges alone. I agreed. Ali told us what we could do with our lawyers’ rule. Richard smiled. We sat out in the hall­way while Ali talked to the judge alone for almost an hour.

It worked. The case set­tled. My job was done. Ali thanked me for my help and shook my hand. I’ll nev­er for­get look­ing down at that big hand, scarred and rough and strong. This is the hand that knocked out Floyd Pat­ter­son, I thought, and pound­ed on Joe Frazier’s head in the Thril­la in Mani­la and felled George Fore­man like a big red­wood tree in the eighth round in Zaïre. I didn’t know it then, but this would also be the hand that Ali some­how man­aged to still from its Parkinson’s pal­sy long enough to light the Olympic caul­dron with a torch in Atlanta in 1996.

I wasn’t there lat­er that after­noon when Ali told the limo dri­ver to take him to South Cen­tral LA, but oth­ers told me about it. He told the dri­ver to stop in a bombed-out area and got out of the car. Traf­fic in the streets and on the side­walks stopped dead. They crowd­ed around him and he talked to them and hugged some of them and gave them all signed pam­phlets. For hours.

Lon­nie sent me a warm let­ter a few weeks lat­er. Enclosed was an auto­graphed pic­ture of Ali addressed to my son, who was still a boy then. I didn’t ask for it. She was just being gracious.

My uneasi­ness about Richard Hirschfeld was pre­scient, I sup­pose. In the 1990’s Ali sued him, alleg­ing he had tricked Ali into sign­ing away the rights to his life sto­ry. Lat­er, Richard served four years in fed­er­al prison for tax eva­sion and oth­er crimes. After his release he was indict­ed on fraud charges and fled the coun­try. In 2006, the feds caught him, and at the age of 57, he hanged him­self with a plas­tic wrap in a jail­house laun­dry room. He left behind a 32 page sui­cide let­ter. Along with pro­fess­ing his inno­cence to all charges, he declared his con­tin­u­ing affec­tion for Ali. A Wash­ing­ton Post obit­u­ary, which chron­i­cles some of these events, can be found here.

This week, the air waves are full with com­men­tary about Ali’s life and deeds and what he has meant to the world. Most sing his prais­es. A few high­light his flaws. I only clocked about eight hours with Ali, not near­ly enough to gauge the full mea­sure of a per­son, but this much I know: He was a devout Mus­lim. He fought his best fight against Parkinson’s Dis­ease. He put the pow­er of his pub­lic image to what he con­sid­ered to be its high­est and best use. And I was priv­i­leged to spend a short time with him.