I believe it was October of 1970, at least it was somewhere around there, when Muhammad Ali came to Atlanta, Georgia, in order to train for his upcoming fight with Jerry Quarry, his first fight back after his "suspension" for refusing to enter the U.S. military and possible deployment to Vietnam. I had been an Ali fan from the very beginning, when he was using his given name of Cassius Clay. I thought then, and think now, that he was the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, just my opinion, you understand.
I had read that he would be training in Atlanta, but the location wasn't publicized in order to keep crowds away. I was driving a cab at the time and had picked up a passenger at the Atlanta Airport who requested to be taken to this little venue on the seedy side of town, The Sports Arena, where wrestling matches were normally held. Along the way, I inquired as to his mission, and he replied that he was a photographer for a newspaper and was going to take photos of Ali as he trained. Well, naturally, I went a little crazy and began to unravel while relating my love for the man, Muhammad Ali. When we arrived, I simply stated how fortunate I felt he was for this opportunity, and in return, he simply handed me a press pass (which I still have) to gain admittance. I was beside myself, really.
I headed straight home, grabbed my camera, a 35 millimeter, single lens reflex, Minolta, lots of film, and headed back to the Sports Arena. Once inside, it was really hard to believe my eyes. There were probably only twenty other people in the room and Ali was up in the ring sparring with a training partner. I was allowed to get as close as I wanted, and spent the next hour or so, taking pictures of him in action, talking to his trainer, Bundini Brown, and listening to his manager, Angelo Dundee. And, way too soon, Ali was finished for the afternoon.
Ali was being asked a ton of questions as they removed his gloves and as he rested, he eloquently recited poem after poem about his beauty and greatness and predictions on the fight. If you know Ali, you know what I mean. But the moment I'll never forget was as he passed by me, I held out my hand, palm up, and Ali hesitated, looked at me and slowly slapped my hand with his, while saying,
I'll give ya five,
I would give ya ten,
But your skin,
is too white
And then I think he rhymed that with "something, something, fight", But he had passed on and I was in sort of a state of shock. Now I've shook hands with lots of folks, including John Wayne, but none of them compared to the thrill I received from the "five" I got from Ali. That was 34 years ago, and Ali's picture, standing beside a punching bag and being watched by Angelo Dundee, still hangs proudly in my living room. The moment with the greatest was, indeed, the greatest.