Just as fans did for his fights in the '60s and '70s, people in Muhammad Ali's hometown of Louisiville, Kentucky, lined up for hours for tickets to a public service for the boxing great. His recent death reminded commentator Lee Cullum of her first encounter with Ali in Dallas.
I didn’t realize Muhammad Ali referred to himself as "beautiful," and some of his adversaries in the ring did too. They spoke the truth. He was beautiful - tall and substantial but more like a gladiator than a prizefighter, with a face like something sculpted in a museum. That was the first thing that struck me, unexpectedly, about him when he strode into the studio at KERA to appear on "Newsroom" years ago. He must have been in his early 30s then, a controversial figure for defying the draft and joining the Nation of Islam. But the Supreme Court had exonerated him, or was about to, by the time I met him and he was on the road to reclaiming his title as heavyweight champion of the world.
We had two guests on the show that night, Ali and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. They sat on opposite sides of a round table with reporters interspersed between them. Bentsen spoke with his usual elegance. He could be a bit too smooth. Even so, I listened closely because he could be, after all, impressive and persuasive.
But not to Muhammad Ali. I heard people laughing on the other side of the table and couldn’t imagine why since Bentsen was not given to humor. I learned later Ali had taken a big sheet of paper and on it wrote in big letters "B.S." I don’t recall what Ali said in his own segment of the show, only that he left a little early, putting on the rakish Western hat in which he had arrived.
Ali seemed so stylish, so sure of himself, so full of bravado that his stand against the war in Vietnam seemed then like a necessary campaign by an unstoppable celebrity, not the ordeal it must have been, facing a possible prison sentence and the loss of three prime fighting years, not to mention his heavyweight title.
I didn’t see Ali again until about a dozen years ago, at a benefit in Phoenix where he was featured on the stage. He wore a tuxedo this time and commented on various participants, silently, twirling his forefinger round and round against his head, indicating the person in question was probably a bit crazy. His Parkinson’s Disease was well advanced by then, but he looked ok and lasted through a long night.
Two losses in the past several months have told us a lot about ourselves as a nation and the way we fit into the world as a culture. David Bowie, British but universal, honed in part in Berlin as well as New York, gave us the exotic side of our nature, the Sixties generation extended and enhanced into a new aesthetic, durable, unquenchable, unwilling to submit to the banal or the brutal.
Muhammad Ali, five years older than Bowie is the other side of the same coin. In school he did well only in art and gym. Like Bowie, a painter as well as musician, Ali made of his life an artistic expression of rebellion and reconciliation. He risked more, took rougher blows, suffered more obvious afflictions, from discrimination to disease that went on for decades, but like Bowie, he held all the contradictions of his times. And in the special alchemy of his own psyche he produced a fusion of opposing politics, religions and world views that can best be fathomed in the Midwestern city, Louisville, in a Southern state, Kentucky, to which he now returns.
Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist and host of KERA TV’s "CEO."