It takes a significant amount of hubris to claim that you are “The Greatest” at anything in this world. Muhammad Ali was one who carried that moniker for most of his professional life. Today marks the anniversary of his death in 2016 and I had a brief encounter with Mr. Ali back in 1977.
Muhammad Ali was a divisive figure in our society, especially in the early part of his career. First there was his switch to Islam, complete with his name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Then he refused to serve in the active military during a time when we were involved in Vietnam.
As a teenager, it was difficult for me to understand Ali’s objection to serving. My awareness of the term “conscientious objector” was very limited and it seemed like a convenient excuse to avoid service (a.k.a. cowardice). It wasn’t until 1977 that I had an occasion to better understand where he was coming from.
During the filming of the first movie of Ali’s life story, The Greatest, I had the chance to meet the man himself. They were filming a scene at the University of St. Thomas in Houston where Mr. Ali was addressing a group of college students. I answered a call for extras to fill seats in the auditorium and was positioned front and center around six rows up from the speaker’s podium. I sat attentively for a few hours as they filmed the scene over and over with Mr. Ali delivering his speech to the crowd. He was describing to the audience his objection to serving in the military. Each take was slightly different both in content and delivery. The experience was interesting and entertaining. After filming and having heard his reasoning several times in different ways, I gained a better understanding of his anti-war stance.
You can pause the film during that scene and clearly see a younger version of me seated among the students. Unfortunately, there were no award nominations coming my way for my acting performance that day. Oh, well. That’s show biz.
The next scene we filmed with Mr. Ali was him walking down the sidewalk away from the auditorium with us “students” following after him for autographs. I was in the group but didn’t make it into the shot. Perhaps my shoes are visible. In the end, I came away
In the end, I came away from that day with an authentic Muhammad Ali autograph which I have kept all these years. As a bonus, I met and got an autograph from the Academy Award-winning actor, Ernest Borgnine, perhaps most known for his McHale’s Navy fame.
For his time, Muhammad Ali was known as the most recognizable person in the world. He may have been “the greatest” prize fighter. Perhaps of a generation; perhaps of all time. Agree or disagree with his ideology, he fought the battles he most believed in.
Johnny McNally is Grimes County’s Best Dressed Businessman advocating for Grimes County and writes a bi-weekly column for the Navasota Examiner.