One drizzly May afternoon 17 years ago, Muhammad Ali’s wife brought two large glasses of wheatgrass juice to his office on his 57-acre farm in southern Michigan. His private chef had prepared them. Lonnie Ali had Muhammad on a very strict diet at the time, which he was heartily dedicated to avoiding.
After we dutifully drank our drinks—mine tasted like liquid weeds—and handed back the empty glasses, Muhammad waited just long enough for his wife to return to the main house before saying, “Let’s get a cheeseburger.” It wasn’t a suggestion.
I followed him down the stairs to the garage, where a huge black Chevrolet Blazer sat with the keys in the ignition. At Ali’s direction, I drove us down an empty country two-lane highway into the village of Berrien Springs, through the one stoplight, and on to the local McDonald’s.
Ali dutifully stood in line. After we’d each ordered quarter-pounders with mustard and onions—no catsup—large fries, and strawberry milkshakes, the girl behind the counter refused to let Ali pay. Ali did not insist.
At our booth, he began to eat his cheeseburger really quickly, as if he hadn’t eaten a meal in 10,000 years. But then he slowed down, to enjoy the deliciously illicit feast. The expression on his face—which, eighteen years after his final fight, had acquired a little bloating—now gave him a not-unflattering Buddha caste.
At one point, an old man in the next booth, looking out the window, spoke without looking at us. “Summer comin’, champ.”
“Gonna get warm,” Ali answered.
“Gonna feel good,” said the man, and Ali nodded.
In the parking lot, a guy pushing a broom through puddles of water said, “You’re lucky you’re retired, champ,” and Ali nodded.
A simple life being lived by a simple man. He was in heaven.
On the drive back, Ali checked his reflection in the mirror in the back of the passenger’s visor, because if Lonnie found out we’d gone to McDonald’s, there would be hell to pay. I didn’t think she was wise to us. But on my next visit to Berrien Springs, she told me she’d fired the chef. She suspected that he’d been letting Ali sneak food that was bad for him. I always figured we must have left a French fry on the floor of the Blazer.
On that visit, as we talked, Ali methodically ate three pieces of raspberry pastry at a table in his office. Over the course of our time together—on and off over about eight months, when I hung with him in a half-dozen cities and visited the farm another half-dozen times, at one point writing about Ali for GQ—I came to know him as a man who did only what he wanted to do. He seldom worked out in his private ring. On the road, he really liked to eat: Chicken and cheeseburgers, cake and Coke, pastries and more cake. Just green liquids? The only green thing he liked were the rolling lawns of his farm.
Ali loved his farm. On one visit, I drove the two of us in a golf cart around the verdant grounds and along the bank of the St. Joseph’s River, which ran through his 57 acres. That day, the farm was so quiet that we could hear the ripple of the river water lapping against his bank.
“Nice view,” he said. “No traffic. No people. All grass.”
By then, Ali was not the Ali of convenient legend, thriving on the heady oxygen of outsized fame and narcissism. In this later incarnation, he savored the silence he’d earned after a lifetime of squawking. He was at peace sitting at an outdoor table and watching an ant scurry at his feet. Or reading his Qur’an.
On the farm I could ask him anything, and he’d answer without thinking.
One day, on the riverbank, I asked him, “Are you happy?”
“Um-hmm,” he nodded, without having to think about it.
The flood of Ali obituaries written over the last few days by so many legendary writers have been stunning in their eloquence, which is surely a testament to the way he changed the way the world thought of African-Americans and Muslims and boxers and sport and poetry and America and fill in your own blank here.
Certainly one of Ali’s more famous explanations for refusing induction—”You want to send me to jail? Go ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain’t goin’ no 10,000 miles to help kill murder and kill other poor people”—remains as eloquent and persuasive a manifesto as anyone uttered back in those roiling days.
But in almost universally paying attention to the first act of his life, suggesting that he’d peaked when he was still wearing boxing gloves, many of those same obituaries and summations have given woefully short shrift to the Ali’s last triumph: the two decades when we decided we didn’t need to know him other than as an object of pity—two decades in which Ali was not only surviving, but thriving as the man he wanted to be.
When a great athlete and statesman becomes “diminished,” and “weak,” as one eulogist incorrectly characterized his later years, we instinctively look away. Judging from some of the remembrances, Ali would seem to have stopped existing as a human soon after he tremblingly lit an Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, when we all gasped … and then cast him loose from our collective cultural net.
This is not to suggest that in the first half of his life Ali wasn’t a monumental narrator on the American stage, driving, in no small way, some of the country’s most important discourse. It’s just that my time by his side—when there seemed to be no one else by his side but friends and family—made me realize that his ability to not only outgrow our/his manufacturing of his image back in the day, but also keep growing as a man, should be a significant part of his legacy.
If legacy is about a man’s life, not just his legend, then the last two decades of Muhammad Ali’s life should count for a whole lot more than they seem to be counting.
Ali was not “diminished” and “weak.” Physically, yes, but the physical, as he knew as well as anyone, is irrelevant in defining a lifetime. People whom we call “afflicted,” as if they are now lesser beings, do not pity themselves. They resent the words that we use to categorize them, because those words diminish who they are.
In a weird way, we must have grown close during that stretch of time, because he’d hug me when I’d return to the farm, and so I came to know him well enough to know the man never wanted our pity. That would be about us. He was doing fine, thank you. Better than.
“All my work made me what I am now,” he told me one day, answering a letter from Fresno, or Scotland, or Libya; his trips to the post office to send off all the answered mail, were highlights of his days. What he was now was a man of good deeds. Not long before I got to know him, a Roman Catholic nun had written from a village in Liberia, asking if he could send something for the village children. He sent himself.
“Everything I did,” he told me, “has made me what I am today. What I am now, I accomplished all of it.” I think he sensed that what he was, on that day, as alive as he’d ever been. He was not “disabled,” any more than you and I are “able.” His eyes said so. Whether he was asking me questions—he was endlessly curious—or watching me Velcro his gloves for him in his private gym, his eyes spoke. And he did speak out loud—when he had something to say.
Most of the time, it was something funny. One day, I said, “Muhammad, we need something profound. Seriously. Tell me the wisest thing you know.” He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. A second later, he opened them, leaned forward and suggested something wonderfully obscene.
And, of course, even then, he was hardly devoid of ego. He still loved doing magic tricks and telling jokes out in the real world, which he visited regularly enough to affirm his status as an icon. But the preening side, the foolish pride of the boxer who stayed in the ring way too long—none of that was apparent in the man I came to know.
The first time I showed up at the farm, at Lonnie’s behest, Ali asked me, “What you goin’ to write?”
A book,” I said.
“What’s there to say about me?” he asked.
He wasn’t completely kidding. By then, he pretty much figured that everything that had been said about him and written about him had long ago been said and long ago been written. What was left to say? He certainly didn’t need any more forums to move us. He just had to appear.
In a marbled conference room on Capitol Hill, at a hearing called for by John McCain about the state of the boxing business, Ali didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. The looks on the faces of the lawmakers said it all. At a dinner table in Las Vegas—at the head table—it was not Mike Tyson, the day after he’d beaten Francois Botha, who commanded the room, it was Ali. Joe Paterno didn’t suddenly halt his jog across the field at Louisville Stadium one Saturday afternoon before a game against the Cardinals because Ali had shouted out to him; Paterno spotted Ali out of the corner of his eye and completely lost his pre-game mindset, walking over to kneel on one knee, risking staining the right knee of his khakis, to shake Ali’s hand.
Everywhere we went, people would part to let him pass, shouting his name. He’d shake their hands sometimes, or throw a few punches into the air—yes, he could still do that. On our travels, Ali wasn’t a king or a prophet anymore—or, more accurately, a man we’d ordained as a king and a prophet, which, as a beautiful young man, he went along with. Who wouldn’t?
No, he was just Muhammad Ali, with a farm full of beautiful flowers.
Only once in all our time together did he mention the name of his condition. In a discussion of his many opponents, he said, “Now I’m fighting Parkinson’s.”
“Please fight hard,” I said. “The world needs you.”
“The world don’t need me,” he immediately answered. “Besides, I could die tomorrow. Kings die. Presidents die. Millionaires die. I’ll die.”
Then he said, “You know what they’ll say when I die?”
“The nigger died,” he said. Then he laughed as loudly as I ever heard him laugh.
He was pretty much wrong on that one. He would surely have enjoyed all the words and encomiums of the last few days. But he probably wouldn’t have read them all before picking up the Qur’an again, and reaching for an eclair.
A man at rest, doing the work. Let that be a legacy, too.