I’m going to tell you a story about an extraordinary human being - who I met in September of 1978. I truly admired this person because he was an amazing person.
His name was Muhammad Ali and in September of 1978, he was the first heavy weight boxer to regain the world championship title for the third time.
Ali’s training camp was in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, approximately 12 miles from my home in Shenandoah.
In February 1978, Ali went up against Leon Spinks it was Spinks 7th professional fight and he captured the world heavy weight title from Ali. Ali began training hard for the rematch in Deer Lake.
My hometown’s mortician was a boxing manager and he was managing a young boxer that trained at Ali’s camp. The mortician was friends with a man who was a friend of my father. One day they took me to see Muhammad Ali.
When I walked in to one of the cabins at the training camp there was a large boxing ring there. Ali was bigger than life inside that ring and he joked to reporters who were snapping photos of him. He joked about how ugly Leon Spinks was and pulverizing him in the ring might improve his looks. He was funny, and he was extremely aware of how people like me saw him as a boxing legend.
One day I took the public transportation bus from Shenandoah to Deer Lake and I ran from the bus-stop up to his camp. I saw Ali running along a path in the woods. I ran up to him, but I was unaware of the champ’s security detail. One of Ali’s security guys tackled me to the ground.
All I heard was, “Hey, Hey, what are you, a cop, he’s just a kid!!!” those angry words came from Ali himself. He then pulled me up by my arm and said, “look go over to that cabin I’ll be over there later.” This became a regular thing for me, not getting tackled, but going to Ali’s camp.
Ali could never remember my name he just called me “Kid.” I started hitting the punching bags and jumping rope there. I got to know the members of his entourage. One of the boxers there was from Shenandoah and I would get a ride home from him.
One day Ali yelled over to me, “hey, Kid, are there any good movies playing.” I told him the Capital theater in my hometown was playing Superman. After Ali’s workout four cars pulled up in front of the cabin. One of Ali’s entourage people asked me to get in one of the cars.
When we arrived at the theater a man in the ticket booth said to the Champ, “hey did anyone ever tell you how much you look like Ali?” My only response from that statement was a sarcastic “Duuuaa.”
Muhammad Ali bought every seat in the house and when the ticket booth guy asked “Why?” Ali said, “I want to watch the movie.”
When we sat down before the start of the film. The champ looked at me and asked, “hey kid have you ever noticed how all the superheroes are white?”
“I never thought about that” I said.
He then asked, “have you ever thought about how all the angels are white?” he then paused for a second, “how come there aren’t any black angels?”
My reply was, “I think angels are spiritual … kind of color neutral.”
Ali then asked, “have you ever thought about how your god is white? All the twelve apostles were white.”
“I never thought about that either,” I said, “was Muhammad black?” I asked.
“Of course, he was black and so was Jesus” he said.
“I wouldn’t know, I never met them,” I said, “Is your god black?”
“God is god kid, only people are black and white” he said.
“Well,” I said, “you’re a superhero for many people and you're black.”
“Well, Kid,” he said, “I won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympic games, and I couldn’t get a hamburger in a diner, because I’m black.”
“Maybe they heard about you stealing those bikes” I said.
“What are talking about?” the champ asked.
“Howard Cosell said, you started your career stealing bikes,” I went on to say, “he also said you’re not the man you were ten years ago.”
“Hey, Kid, every time Howard opens his mouth he should get arrested for air pollution.” Ali went on to say, “besides, I talked to Howard’s wife,” Ali paused for a second because the movie started, “and she told me Howard’s not the man he was two years ago.”
He then put his index finger up to his lips to let me know the movie started.
When the movie ended the guy in the ticket booth looked at me and asked, “What does he do?” pointing to Ali, my only response was a sarcastic “duaaaa” I then said, “he will soon be the only heavy weight boxer to regain the world title three times.”
The ticket booth guy’s eye widened, “you mean he’s the guy?” he said in a surprised tone of voice.
Well, Ali did go on to regain his title for the third time but for me that was just a foot note to his greatness. His abilities in the ring captured the imagination of children and adults all over the world. He was truly a champion with a bombastic way of expressing himself. He wasn’t just a great athlete in many ways he was also a great entertainer. But most of all, his capacity for kindness transcended, race, religion, and one’s economic standing in the world.
What he taught me 40 years ago is how to reach out and treat others the way you would want to be treated. You can also define the true character of Muhammad Ali by how well he reached-out to those of the least influence.
Ali in 1978, reached out to the grandson of a coal miner. He revealed to me, that the true measure of Ali’s worth was revealed by what he gave to others and his true legacy will not consist in his athletic abilities alone.
Ali liked to tell people, “I’m the greatest,” his greatness, however, will not be defined by the ring. His true greatness consisted in his capacity for kindness and the kindness that he bestowed on me will truly be his greatest legacy in my heart and soul.
- Always with love,
Thomas F O’Neill
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