Like everyone else, I woke up this morning and heard the news of the passing of Muhammad Ali.  He was the greatest there ever was.

Ali was one of the most famous boxers to enter the ring.  Now, I cannot say that I am even a fan of boxing as a sport, many are, but it was Ali who excited me as a youngster growing up in a small town in Canada.  He was flamboyant and jumped off of our early black and white TV screen in the 60s thrilling us kids with his powerful messages and irreverent attitude.  Later, in the 70s, as teenagers, when colour TV arrived in our home, Ali became bigger than life as he verbally spared with Howard Cosell during pre-fight interviews on ABC Wide World of Sports.  To call Ali entertaining is an understatement.  He was funny, smart, quick-witted, and at the same time, showed an inner sense of calm and awareness to the world around him that charmed audiences and especially wide-eyed teenagers.  To me, Muhammad Ali is the greatest of all time.

Howard Cosell taping Muhammad Ali’s mouth shut, as if that would ever keep him quiet

Once, while on a business trip to Atlanta in the early 80s when I worked in the broadcast media industry, I searched for my Delta Airlines departure gate for my flight home to Toronto via Pittsburgh.  As I approached the gate, there he was, Muhammad Ali, sitting quietly waiting for the same flight.  He sat by himself beside the main corridor for anyone to plainly see.  I immediately settled in beside him and engaged in conversation.  I gushed how I was a super huge fan and how much I had enjoyed his most memorable fights.  Remember, I am not really a fan of boxing, I am a fan of Ali and his outrageous interview bouts with Cosell before and after the boxing matches.  I embarrassed myself with my unyielding worship of The Champ.

As other travellers recognized him, they stopped, taking a moment out of their hectic business schedules to say hello.  He welcomed every one of them graciously and politely, and not once expressed any concerns or annoyance.  People quietly and orderly lined up to shake his hand, pat him on the shoulder, tell him how great he was, and more.  They all called him, The Champ.  At one point, they were lined up over 20 deep.  In the span of an hour, he likely shook 300 hands of well-wishers.

Our flight was called, and we boarded.  Much to my delight, my upgrade to First Class came through and I was given the aisle seat next to The Champ.  What amazing fortune for me.  We chatted and I am sure that I exhausted Ali, with my questions and constant barrage of stories of his exploits, all of which he knew perfectly well since they were in fact, his stories.  Undoubtedly, he had heard these same stories hundreds of times before from other fans.  But, he just smiled, nodded, and tried to say a few things, whenever he could get a word in.  Mostly what he said was humourous one word responses and one-liners.  As you know, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, a disease that commonly results from head trauma from activities such as boxing.  So, in truth he was not able to say much as the disease had already ravaged his once spectacular body.  He responded with nodes, smiles, and winks of the eye.  It was sad to think that he had gone from being one of the fittest humans to be barely able to care for himself.  I was impressed to see that one of the Delta flight attendants had pre-cut his in-flight steak dinner into small cubes, so he could eat them easily with a fork.  Managing a knife to cut the steak was already too much for him at that point.

Ali departed the flight in Pittsburgh as he was en-route to New York City to attend a roast to honour George Foreman.   In retrospect, he was likely very glad to be rid of me.

While I have no hard evidence of my time with Muhammad Ali – no photos, no autographs – so many years ago, it remains one of my greatest memories nonetheless.  As news of his passing sinks in this morning, I cannot help but feel that the world is somewhat less today.  Not so much for the loss of a champion boxer, but for the loss of a great man who made a difference in so many lives, including mine, and lived life the way it should be lived, in his own unique way and on his own terms.  He was the greatest there ever was…

Here are a few of my favourite Muhammad Ali quotes.

  • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
  • He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.
  • The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.
  • Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.
  • I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.
  • I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.
  • The man who has no imagination has no wings.
  • It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
  • Silence is golden when you can’t think of a good answer.
  • It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.

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About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 11 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN:TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO:TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX:TSX.V).  He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of four different Colleges in Ontario as well as for 16 years on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.

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