One of the annual charity events at the University of Notre Dame is the Bengal Bouts, a boxing match where “strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.” Money raised from this boxing tournament, a sport organized at Notre Dame by the legendary Knute Rockne, is sent to help feed people at a mission in Bangladesh. While I was a student in law school one of my fellow classmates was boxing, and we went to cheer him on to victory in his bouts at what was the first (and only) boxing event I ever attended.
Little did I know when I went to my first boxing tournament that later that week I would come across “The Greatest”. Muhammad Ali actually lived very near to the campus of Notre Dame in nearby Berrien Springs Michigan. Some of my friends at the Bengal Bouts said he occasionally would come by to watch the Notre Dame students boxing, and there were others in South Bend who reported seeing him from time to time. We were sitting around the library (as is the case in law school) when a friend came in and said “we just saw Muhammad Ali at the Barnes and Noble.” In little need of a distraction to pull us out of our books, we hopped in a car and drove over the bookstore to see if it was true.
Sure enough it was. Once we arrived we were shocked by a line out the door. Apparently he was there to release a new book, and many people had come to see him in person. We made our way in the side (we told the staff we were going to buy something else) and we made our way back to where he was holding court.
My first impression was “this guy is huge”. On paper he is 6’3″ (198cm) but he seemed even bigger, especially with the build of an ex-boxer. He was surrounded by handlers, but there was an orderly line of people coming in to see his book and to meet him. Fellow college students were there in a group, gathering around him to get their pictures taken. Families, some in their Sunday best, had come as well and circled around for a photo that I’m certain still hangs on their wall. And then there was this one guy who looked really out of place. . .
A skinny white guy, replete with a scraggly beard and baseball cap and wearing blue jeans with a flannel shirt was patiently waiting in line behind the giggling college kids and expectant families. He wasn’t holding a book nor was he carrying a camera, and in another time people would look at him and think ‘this is the kind of guy that joins the Klan’. When the man’s turn came up, I could see some of Ali’s handlers tense a bit. The man walked up, held out his hand, and said a few words to Ali, who grabbed his hand with both of his and shook it back. Ali smiled, the man smiled and started to walk away. Ali was a bit surprised and motioned to him as if to say “don’t you want a picture?” The man just said “No, I just wanted to shake your hand. I’ll remember it”.
It was a pretty interesting moment for me as well. I was but a child during the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thriller in Manila, but I remember the time and the stories about him dealing with Vietnam, racism and his religious views. He was definitely capable of crossing over many different racial and religious lines to make an impact on many different people. My one run-in with him just reminded me of that fact.
Rest in Peace, Muhammad Ali.