I had the very great privilege of being in Los Angeles when the late Muhammad Ali was given his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Because of his faith, and also I presume his name, his star is the only one on a wall, so that it may not be stepped on; it’s on the Kodak Theatre, where a few Oscars ceremonies have been held over the years.
At the time, I was living just around the corner, and used to walk through the Kodak Centre on a daily basis. While passing, I bumped into one of his daughters, whom I knew vaguely through mutual acquaintances and who explained to me what was going on. We waited patiently for the great man to arrive, to unveil his star and have the necessary photos taken. I was shocked at how frail he seemed – this was in late 2001/early 2002, so some years ago now – given that he was well known for being fast, strong and more than a bit lippy. The man I was watching was elderly, very unsteady and seemed not entirely aware of what was going on; nothing like the Muhammad Ali I grew up with.
As he came inside for drinks and interviews, his daughter introduced me to him. “She’s come all the way from London to see you, daddy,” she told him. This wasn’t true, but Ali seemed so delighted by it that I decided not to correct her. He took my hand and shook it gently.
“It is an honour and privilege to meet you, sir,” I said, leaning forward so that he could hear me over the noise.
He smiled brightly and gave my hand a squeeze. Fortunately, I’m left handed because it was a stark reminder of the strength that Ali once had and, I don’t think, ever really lost. I realised there were tears in his eyes. “Thank you very much for coming,” he told me. “I’m grateful.”
I’m neither pro nor anti boxing – if grown men and women want to earn a living punching each other’s heads in, then they know what they’re doing – but Ali when I met him was a shadow of his former self. He had been ill with Parkinson’s Disease for many years before then, but it had destroyed the man he was. I would like to remember Ali as a combination of the two; a man of strength, integrity and great kindness, who was genuinely delighted that a white girl from London thought herself honoured to meet him.