I first became a serious Muhammad Ali watcher in late 1963. I'm still watching him and now I hear that he's going to try to make a comeback. When he was almost 39, he thought he could beat Larry Holmes and become the "quadruple greatest of all times." It wasn't a necessary thing to prove. Now he says he'll fight Gerry Cooney for the heavyweight title sometime late in 1982, after Cooney has knocked out Holmes and Ali himself has won a couple of tune-up bouts.
All of this makes me remember that first glimpse I had of him and all the things that followed. That year I was a small, somewhat sickly 10-year-old and he was golden and 21 and was preparing to meet Sonny Liston for the first time. I recall sitting mesmerized in front of my dad's 21-inch, black-and-white television and listening to Ali's voice roar tinnily from the three-inch speaker as he told the world how he would "destroy the big ugly bear." "I'm big and fast and pretty and can't possibly be beat," the voice said, and I just had to believe. And I remember standing in front of the mirror in the hall after that for hours at a time, pushing my worm of a left arm out at the reflection, trying feebly to imitate Ali's cobra of a jab.
From then on, most of the events that have defined my life have, in one way or another, been related to Ali. I've always been pleased with that. In 1968, I began studying karate because I longed to become as fine a fistic artist as Ali. I then moved on to boxing and finally to kick-boxing, which combined the leg-work of karate with the hand movements of boxing. I wanted to have the grace I so admired in Ali and I soon found out that I could be good—good enough in fact to begin kickboxing professionally in late 1974, shortly after Ali beat George Foreman in Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤re. My girl friend Lynn and I eloped in September 1977, and we were married in New York the day after we attended the Ali-Earnie Shavers bout at Madison Square Garden. I began to write a couple of years ago and I am working on my first book, which, in part, is about Muhammad Ali.
I first met Ali face-to-face in June 1975, when he was training for a fight with Joe Bugner that was to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was 22 years old then, fighting as a lightweight out of Winston-Salem, N.C., and I was undefeated in my first seven outings. My friend Bobby, who is Angelo Dundee's nephew, casually asked me if I'd like to drive up to Deer Lake, Pa. with him to watch Ali train.
"I'll see if I can't get you in the ring with him," Bobby said. He was teasing me, knowing I was one of Ali's biggest fans. He knew that my walls were covered with newspaper clippings of Ali's victories, my closet floor littered with articles written in the aftermaths of his defeats. And though I didn't believe I would even get a chance to shake hands with Ali (after all, what interest could the world's most famous boxer have in me?), Bobby knew I wouldn't be able to resist the invitation and that I'd have to go.
Bobby kept his promise, basically because, in the course of a 20-year ring career, Ali had sparred with everyone from 3-year-old tykes to their 80-year-plus great-grandpappys. Everyone, that is, except a kickboxer. And he was intrigued by the notion of sparring with a karateka—even a small one like me. While I was slipping into my Safe-T-Kicks (the equivalent of boxing gloves for feet) and pulling on a pair of red Everlast trunks, I heard him, through the dressing-room walls, exhorting the small crowd of spectators who had paid $1 each to watch him train. "I will prove to the whole world that I am not only the greatest boxer of all time," he said, "I am also the greatest martial artist." Yes, Ali had found a new crusade, and yet another universe to conquer. It was a pleasure to hear the same hyperbole through the walls that I had heard come through the TV speakers.
Ali was already standing in the center of the ring when I parted the ropes and stepped through. He introduced me to the crowd as "Mr. Lee, a great karate master," an accolade I certainly didn't deserve, but this was all part of going in the ring with Ali. Then he pointed his gloved left fist at me and, in a voice directed to no one in particular, only to the planet in general, he shouted, "But he must be a fool to get in the ring with Ali. When I'm through, he gonna think he been whupped by Bruce Lee." I smiled, faked a yawn, then winked at him. He shuffled into his variation of the buck-and-wing and flashed a clown's frown.
Then we began to move around the 20-foot, sweat-stained square of spongy canvas. Staying low, I bounced from side to side and flicked a tentative front-kick to his head, from which he easily pulled away. I flipped a round-kick, the kick-boxing equivalent of a hook, toward his left kidney as a fake, saw the opening I was looking for and slid inside his arms three half-steps. Then I exploded out of my crouch and rocketed a back-fist (thrown like a jab), left-hook combination straight into the right side of his jaw.
He stepped back and opened his eyes fried-egg wide in feigned disbelief. He had never thought of me before, would never think of me again, but for two seconds he felt I deserved his serious attention. For two long seconds we were inseparably bound, whirling in a circle of electricity, each seeing nothing but the other. For two week-long seconds I was flying. Then he squashed me with just one flyswatter jab.
I saw the punch coming, and I tried to roll with it and couldn't—it was that fast. A blaze of white light went off behind my eyes. Then I felt a second heavier thump, and I had the sensation that my legs were beginning to melt out from under me.
Ali knew I was hurt and he backed off. It was obvious that he could have knocked me out with a single punch. Instead, he put an arm around my shoulders, we exchanged hugs and smiles, and it was over.
But in two seconds I had accomplished the one thing I had longed to do since that day I first saw him when I was 10 years old. I had hit The Legend, Muhammad Ali, and as we left the ring he spoke to me from a place deep in his abdomen, in a way no man had ever spoken to me before—softly, gently, almost purring, "Hey, you're not as dumb as you look. You're fast—and you sure can hit to be so little."
He may as well have said he was adopting me.
I began to shake. My insides danced to get out. But I managed to stay composed long enough to say the one thing I hoped would (and which seemed to) impress him most. With the absolute confidence I had learned from watching him on television and hearing him on the radio countless times, I said simply, "I know."