The Greatest Goodbye – Louisville

“I was in my early 20s — I’m 55 now — and Muhammad was helping former Gov. John Y. Brown run for office. I grew up watching Muhammad fight. I never really had a male figure in my life, so I looked to him as a role model. I always thought I’d get along with him, that he’d like me. Maybe you wish for something so hard it comes true. 


“I was dating a girl who got me into a Derby party for Gov. Brown, maybe 100 people. It was at the end of Muhammad’s career but he was still fighting. I remember being so nervous. Eventually, I leaned over to him and did a bad Howard Cosell impression. He said, ‘Howard Cosell gets paid for that, what’s your excuse?’ I’m talking 100 miles an hour, telling Muhammad about Muhammad. He said, ‘Man, you know more about me than me.’ When he left he told me to walk him to his car. It was like a dream. He started throwing punches at me. He said, ‘I like you. I’ll come see you some time, write down your address.’ Three weeks later he shows up at my house. I had this little man cave with all these Ali pictures in it. He told me to call all my friends, to tell them the Greatest was there. They came over and we watched fight films with him. I distinctly remember the room smelled like BO because everyone was so nervous. The friendship took off from there. 


“We traveled the world together: England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, all over the U.S. — all on his dime. We’d go to fights, which was like going to church with the pope. Lonnie would always tell us to go out and spend some man time together. We’d put some Marvin Gaye on the CD player and drive around. We’d come home five hours later — midnight or 2 o’clock in the morning — and Lonnie would say, ‘You were on Muhammad time, weren’t you?’ Somebody would meet him and he’d want to sit and talk to them and all the sudden he’s holding court. One time in Atlanta, I’m trying to get him back home to Louisville, and Muhammad’s signing autographs. He goes, ‘John, when’s the next flight? Let’s stay here and make some people happy.’


“I knew he was going into the hospital, but he’d gotten off the mat so many times before. I was flying into New York because my son was getting engaged. Lonnie said, ‘You go be with your son.’ I landed in New York and had a voicemail from Lonnie. I called her up and she was crying. She said, ‘John, you might want to come see your friend.’ I saw my son, gave him a hug and got on another flight. Muhammad gave so much of himself. I think he just gave all that he had. It was time.


“To be honest, I went to Phoenix that time for Lonnie. Because Lonnie gave me the best gift she could have ever given me in April, two months prior. I’d go out once or twice a year to be with Muhammad, watch fight films with him. Back in the day it was going to parties, meeting celebrities — but it wasn’t like that in the end. It was helping him take his meds, getting him to speech therapy. In April, she said, ‘Come on out and see Muhammad.’ I think she knew he wasn’t doing well. 


“I’d read to Muhammad. It was always an Ali book. Lonnie and I would laugh because he loved hearing about himself. I always tell people, ‘The only person who liked to watch Muhammad fight more than me was Muhammad.’ I would remind him of quotes he said. In the later years, his mind was sharp. Sometimes he would stop me and would point at a picture. He could very softly say, ‘Read it again.’ In the mornings, after a good night sleep, he was pretty good. We’d get up early and have breakfast. In April, I got to say goodbye to him correctly. I knew he was struggling, that he had lost a lot of weight. I got to look him right in the eye and go, ‘Hey, Champ, I gotta talk to you for a second. Do you know how much you meant to me? How I see you work? How I see what kind of person you are? Thank you for letting me be a part of that.’ He held my hand; he got it. I remember leaving that day and thinking I may not see him again, at least not in good health. 


“He had no fear of dying. None. As close as he was to his mom, I remember being nervous getting around him the day she died. All his kids were in town and I wanted to leave him alone and let him grieve. They had just taken the casket out of the church and Muhammad is flirting with my wife, joking around. I talked to him about it, and he said, ‘She’s in a better place.’ But when he said it, he meant it. 


“We’d been planning the service for almost nine years, and they told me they wanted me to give a eulogy. I said I’d do it, but I told Muhammad he had to promise me he had 30 years left in him. I put off writing it because I didn’t want to think about it. Because I always thought he’d be OK. I wrote my eulogy on the flight to Phoenix. I was supposed to be the voice of the common man. I could have talked about how great a boxer he was, how great a humanitarian, but, man, he was cool. He had swagger before we knew what swagger was. 


“On the flight from Phoenix to Louisville, the imam said, ‘You know, he could have been buried in Mecca.’ When we landed, everybody’s getting ready and Lonnie stood up, she’s pretty soft-spoken, and said, ‘Everybody, sit down. Muhammad gets off first.’ She said, ‘John, you go down and get him off the plane.’ There were some police officers and the imam. They brought the casket down and that was my goodbye to him. I see the helicopters up in the sky. I put my hand on the casket and said, ‘Champ, you’re in Louisville. You’re home, man. This is what you wanted.’ 


“The day of the funeral, they wanted all the pallbearers — Lennox Lewis, Will Smith, all of us — to meet downtown at the Marriott, in the private dining area at BLU. Somebody said, ‘There’s one pallbearer who’s really upset, can you go up and see him?’ I go up to his room and it’s Mike Tyson. Tyson’s sitting on his bed, rubbing away tears with a towel in his hand. He goes, ‘I was 12 years old, in a detention center, a street kid, and Muhammad came in and made me feel like I could be somebody. The Greatest of all time comes in and tells me I was somebody.’ He was pretty upset, so I started telling him funny Ali stories and before long he’s on the bed kicking like a kid, going, ‘Ooh, you’re making me laugh.’


“During the procession, I was in a car with Will Smith, and almost as soon as we left he put the windows down. And I thought uh-oh. Will said, ‘Muhammad wouldn’t want us in a bubble.’ People would run up, see me, and I’d say you want the other side of the car for Will. As we drove through town, because I know so much historically about Muhammad, I’d tell them stories: This is Grand Avenue where he grew up, this is Chickasaw Park where he’d run. 


“At the gravesite, as part of the Muslim burial, there were shovels and a stack of dirt. Mike Tyson, man. It was so hot that day. And they had a plastic tarp over us in case it rained. Tyson took off his jacket and was like, ‘C’mon, let’s go to work.’ So we had a line: shovel, move, shovel, move. He’s down there and we’re burying him. Tyson was getting at it. They had a little station where you could clean off your shoes, and I remember looking at Tyson and he was dripping with sweat.


“I still struggle with it. I hope there’s a time when I can come to peace with it. Maybe it’ll always hit me. It’s just so hard to let him go. Who fills that void?


“I go to Cave Hill often. I’ve probably been seven, eight times since he passed and I’ll probably go again this week. The gravesite is not ostentatious or showy. It’s welcoming: come on in and sit down with me for a while. The last time, I didn’t go out there with this intent, but there’s a new book out on Muhammad, and I just happened to have it in my car. I saw the benches and said, ‘Hey, Muhammad.’ And I got my book out and read to him.”

— JM

The Greatest Goodbye – Louisville

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