Please don’t take this as cruel because Muhammad Ali is one of the last people I would ever want to treat cruelly, but I was actually a little surprised to hear he had died. You see, I had felt he died a long time ago.
If you knew Ali when he was still Cassius Clay and just starting to shock the world with that spectacular sock and smile, you never wanted him to grow old.
I remember him steering our rented Trailways bus into a curb in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on the way to chill Sonny Liston in Maine in 1965, and asking, “You think we far enough up the road for a nigger to eat?”
I remember him saying, “Anybody don’t like anything on this bus better see me. I am the navigator, the instructor and the provider.”
And the winner, by a knockout in the first round.
I remember a little before that, when we checked into our hotel in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and a desk clerk tried to tell Clay that he couldn’t let him into his $60-a-day suite because because someone else was still in there.
“Well, get him out,” Cassius said. “The Greatest is here.”
And they did.
He was 74 when he died — I mean when he died officially. But he will always be that bright, shining young face to me. That face, and that mouth that spun out pure gold.
Granted, at that time some of us thought it was pure garbage. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco knew better. A very few very smart writers did, too. But most of us were just stumbling along, dumb as rocks, never knowing we were tied to a comet tail.
Muhammad Ali showed us you needn’t be born rich, or need a master’s degree, to make it.
On that never-to-be-forgotten Trailways trip 51 years ago, he kept saying, “Pope, you ain’t nuthin’. And I am The Greatest.”
I never argued either point. And now he is gone, and if I would not presume to claim to have lost a very close friend, I know there never will be another Ali.
I knew Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and Ali could outfight all of them in at least some way if not every which way.
I don’t mean he would outbully Dempsey, because he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t scare Louis, who was unscarable. And nobody fazed Marciano.
But he might have beaten any of the three. Or maybe all of them. And what more could you say of any fighter?
I have a lot more to say about Muhammad Ali, and I will, in time. But right now I am going to take a step back and let his life speak for itself. If anything could possibly do that.
Pope, retired Miami Herald columnist who began working in 1956, covered Ali during his rise to prominence, and traveled with Ali before his fight against Liston in Maine.