Meeting The Champ

                             A Tribute By Felix Rodriguez

   It was a bright, sunny September morning in Louisville in 2010, with temperatures lingering around 82 degrees; the kind of heat that drives people to the nearest swimming pool.  As for me, I was driving to fulfill a dream— that of finally visiting the museum built as a tribute to Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, and my personal hero.

   I had driven more than 13 hours and about 840 miles to make this first visit to the Muhammad Ali Center, located on “Museum Row” along Louisville’s riverfront in the western section of its main downtown district.

   This trip was more than just about being a fan of Ali since age 13. I had been invited to conduct a book signing at the Ali Center by none other than his wife, Lonnie. Talk about your proverbial dreams come true.

   In 2009 I had written and published my first book, “Dad, Me, and Muhammad Ali: A Father and Son Story,” (iUniverse) in honor of my hero. I dedicated it to the countless father-absent-youth and children in the U.S.

   This was no ordinary book-signing, however; the museum was also celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Muhammad Ali winning the Olympic Gold Medal in Rome, 1960. In honor of this special milestone, my publisher graciously donated 50 free soft cover copies of my book for the first 50 families that walked through the museum doors.

   The signing didn’t officially begin until 12:30pm, so I took my time to enjoy the center. Upon entering, one immediately can’t help but notice the huge face of the champion, located at the welcome and admission booth, coupled with banners promoting the museum and Ali’s photo, bearing an image of him with his fist under this chin.

   And then I stopped dead in my tracks. There, symbolizing the first piece of memorabilia was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was given to Muhammad in 2005 by former President George W. Bush. The sight of this brought a flood of memories as to how far the champ had come in his life, earning such prestigious recognition.

   I recalled reading of how, as a young boy, he was tormented by the brutal death of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager lynched in Mississippi at age 14 after allegedly flirting with a white woman. I further recalled how Ali was refused service at a local restaurant due to his skin color, even after winning the Olympic Gold Medal for his country. How ironic that a man who refused to be inducted into the armed services, due to his conscientious objection (for which he was banned from boxing), could come so far as to the highest award given to a civilian. On the surface, this seemed an impossible feat, but not for Muhammad Ali. This was yet another shining example of the man for whom nothing came easy, yet he persevered to accomplish his dreams.

   Having followed the champ’s accomplishments all my life—his loving ways; his generosity and, just as importantly, his time—I vowed these were the qualities I wanted my children to pursue. Ali’s power wasn’t confined to his boxing skills. If anything, it was his powerful voice that made positive changes throughout the world; not just in the U.S.  Was he one of the greatest boxers to ever step into the ring? Absolutely. But equally as important, he was one of the greatest humanitarians to ever walk the earth. To say Ali was an enigma would be an understatement; the likes of this man will probably not be seen anytime soon. He was, undoubtedly, a dichotomy: here was a man who excelled in the most violent of sports—boxing—while at the same time he spread a message of peace and love everywhere he went.

   As I explored the countless artifacts within the museum, including a 14 minute orientation film in the “If You Can Dream,” theater, I came away with six core guiding principles that made my assessment of this hero greater than I’d ever felt. Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect and Spirituality were the core values by which Muhammad Ali lived.  If followed, these values can truly inspire and change lives. Ali was courageous and stood up for what he believed, regardless of the sacrifices he made and the price he paid. He was what our American fabric is made of. What child wouldn’t benefit from this lesson?

   I believe every kid in the United States and abroad should be given a lesson covering the history of Muhammad Ali and the significant impact he has made in and out of the ring.
Throughout that day, I shadow boxed with a virtual interactive Ali at the “Train with Ali” section of the museum, a replication of his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania Training Camp. I had great fun testing my hand speed and rhythm on the speed bag before experiencing the uplifting and touching recreation of one of the most memorable and vivid memories in my mind, when Muhammad Ali carried the Olympic torch during the 1996 Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had tears watching my hero light up the torch. It was a powerful moment in our history and extremely symbolic of his strength, determination and vow to never give up.

   I completed my self-guided tour, soaking in this once-in-a-lifetime moment, before connecting with the museum’s Senior Director of Public Relations and External Affairs, Jeanie Kahnke, who directed me to my book signing spot. My son, Jojo, joined me for the signing, making my experience even more special. He’s a very private person who rarely wants to attend his dad’s book-signings. On this day, however, he made an exception that made me very happy.

   As the line began to form for the free books, I chatted with the folks in front, while Jojo and I sat at the table signing. Many people shared their love for Muhammad and their love for reading. Each had a reason why they were there and what “The Greatest” meant to them. It was so cool to be in the presence of fellow Ali supporters, or what we call ourselves, “Aliologists.”

   The line was getting longer and it was by far one of the best and most coordinated lines I’ve ever had during a book-signing when all of a sudden people started to leave while I had plenty of books left to sign. Whispers of “The champ is here; the champ is here” explained their exodus.  Sure enough, as I glanced towards the entrance, there was “The Greatest of All Time” with his lovely wife, Lonnie Ali. Muhammad had made a surprise visit.

   Half kiddingly, I wanted to act like a groupie and run over, scream and bear hug the champ, but I was the invited guest author, signing books, so I had to play it cool. He sat next to the famous LeRoy Nieman painting of himself, titled “Muhammad Ali – Athlete of the Century.” It’s a beautiful, colorful painting of a confident Ali displaying his fighting face and lightning swing. A few people remained in line, so Jojo and I continued to sign away. But then, Lonnie approached us, calling my name as we hugged, as though we’d known each other for decades. Her wide, welcoming smile and hug exuded her genuine and caring ways.

   She told me to stop signing and go sit with the champ and share my story. I handed Muhammad a copy of my book and he immediately began to browse through it. I was nervous and excited at the same time and told him, “Muhammad, you have been a huge inspiration in my life.” He stopped browsing and with wide eyes he slowly reached out to shake my hand. My heart raced; I had goose bumps and watery eyes. My hero reaching out to shake my hand was a dream come true.

   I have been extremely fortunate and blessed to have spent quality time with Muhammad two additional times after this amazing experience in 2010. Each time felt like it was the first. When you are in the same room with Ali, you know there is a special aura and presence about him. It’s hard to describe, but those who were lucky enough to have met him know exactly what I mean. For me and millions of his supporters from across the world, Ali was a messenger sent by God. His heart and life were filled with love and peace. Boxing made him famous, but life after boxing made him a humanitarian icon.

   As a poor, skinny, Puerto Rican kid from the public housing projects, in a father-absent home, I found Ali to be an inspiration who made me feel like I was still somebody. I will remember him as the man who motivated me to dream big, to believe in myself, to be courageous and take risks. One of his more famous quotes has become my mantra: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” I try to live by those words, which inspired me to write my book. I will cherish every minute I spent with The Greatest and can’t thank him enough for making me a better person and the man I am today. His influence has had a definite, positive bearing on the way we raised our children.
Muhammad once said he would like to be remembered, ‘As a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous; treated everyone right and never looked down on those who looked up to him, and helped as many people as he could in their fight for freedom and justice, equality and love for humanity.’  He definitely accomplished that legacy.

   Thank you for the many wonderful memories – the love, the laughs, the tears, the magic tricks, and scholarly poetry. I will always love you. My heart selfishly aches, but you fought long and hard enough. Now let us Aliologists from around the world carry your fight and continue to spread your legacy to our children and to all those with whom we associate. To us, you will always float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.