He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.-- Muhammad Ali
Sometime around 1984 I was walking through the mall at the World Trade Center when I noticed this man coming toward me in the opposite direction.
Of course there were thousands of people passing through that mall every day of the week, but this gentleman stood out.
I looked closer to make sure that I wasn’t imagining things and turned to a guy walking behind me.
“Is that Ali?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
It was indeed Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion of the world, walking with another man, his hands in his coats pockets, avoiding eye contact with any of the scores of people who were gaping at him in disbelief.
He was so unlike the brash braggart I was used to seeing, the man who roared at the world “I am the Greatest!”; who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee; and who gave us the rope-a-dope and the Ali shuffle.
It was a meeting of two icons: Ali and the Twin Towers. I thought they’d both last forever and now they’re both gone from this world.
Ali’s health problems were just going public then and when I expressed interest in taking boxing lessons, a coworker said to me, “you don’t want to end up like Muhammad Ali, do you?”
A decade or so later, a much weaker Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony in Atlanta, a city I visited for the first time last week while covering a conference for work.
Before departing, I told my boxing coach that I was going to miss Tuesday’s class and when we squared off for a round of mitt work, he advanced on me with a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m going to give to you the Atlanta Special,” he said, before wailing the tar out of me and giving me a chance to demonstrate boxing skills that would never be mistaken for Ali’s.
Maybe I should keep my travel plans private.
I had been dreading the trip to A-Town, worried about flying, fearful I’d miss my flights; and concerned about being able to pound out news stories on tight deadlines, which I frankly hadn’t done in a long time.
Puttin’ on the Grits
But I think it worked out all right. I covered several breakout sessions, cranked out my stories, and managed to have a good time in a new place.
I also ate grits for the first time in my life.
I also met some pretty nice, including the limo driver who picked me up at the airport.
He had moved to Atlanta from Nigeria many years ago and he proudly showed me a cell phone picture of his son, a cadet at West Point; and he told me about his daughter, who is graduating from Harvard.
There was a lovely young waitress at the hotel restaurant, who did everything she possibly could to get me to order dessert. I’m watching the calories now, but she did give me a free oatmeal-raisin cookie on my way out.
“It’s healthy,” she said.
On my last night in town, one of the hotel employees greeted as I was leaving the building.
“Fine,” I told him. “I’m going back to New York tomorrow.”
“Oh, well,” he said, “enjoy yourself in the Little Apple before you go back to the Big Apple.”
The only real attraction I saw during this trip was the World of Coke exhibit, a kind of shrine-museum-commercial dedicated to the world-famous sugary beverage.
The only thing I found interesting were the vintage Coke posters from around the world, including one that featured Muhammad Ali.
My driver for the trip back to the airport was a young man who had grown up in Washington Heights. We talked about Ali and his connection to Atlanta and he told me about his girlfriend who had recently left him to go back to her ex-husband.
He believed she would be return to him and I gently encouraged him to consider other options.
One the flight back from the Little Apple, I got sudden bout of Xanax panic and popped a second little blue pill, even though the flight was only two hours long.
I was completely unconscious when the planed landed and the woman sitting next to me was loudly clearing her throat to get me to wake up.
And that was it. I was back at work in no time and on Thursday my boxing teacher gave me another furious beating. It wasn’t the Atlanta special but it was good enough.