I spotted him as soon as I pushed through the truck stop door. Even across the room, with his back to me, he looked huge, his shoulders so wide it appeared he took up at least two stools at the counter.
I was a rookie television reporter in Amarillo, Texas, and had gotten a great tip in the middle of the night. Muhammad Ali’s Winnebago had broken down, the caller said. He and his entourage were at the truck stop on Route 66 just outside town. I was a news reporter, but sports were my true passion. I arranged to meet a photographer at the diner, and took off.
Still, I hesitated. The Ali I knew from pictures and television looked tall and slender. The Ali in front of me looked enormous, and was flanked by two equally giant men whom I assumed were Muslim bodyguards. What if he didn’t want to be bothered? What if his “friends” decided to get physical? At 140 pounds, I was probably no match for the hard looking waitress in the corner, much less these guys.
But desperation can sometimes produce inspiration, and so it did this time. Striding up to him with a bravado I did not feel, I shouted out, “Hiya Champ!” and gave him a polite slap on the back.
I would often wonder where my opening line came from. On that night, in the early winter of 1973, Ali was not the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Joe Frazier had beaten him in an epic 15 rounder in Madison Square Garden in 1971, and then lost the crown himself to George Foreman. Ali was en route to Las Vegas for an encounter with a journeyman named Joe Bugner, a tune up fight that Ali hoped would lead to another shot at the title.
Thankfully, my fears of being rebuffed were quickly laid to rest. I asked if he had a few minutes for an interview. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s go back to my van.”
The photographer had arrived by then, and the three of us settled into his spacious and comfortable Winnebago. The interview began slowly. I asked about his condition and the upcoming fight with Bugner. But then I hit the right button. I mentioned the fight against Frazier and wondered about his tactics in a rematch. What would he do differently? Ali sat up with a snap, and began rattling off the lines he was a master at delivering.
“Joe Frazier was lucky,” he thundered. “I’m still pretty, he didn’t put a mark on me, and I put him in the hospital for a week!”
“I won’t fool around next time, laying on the ropes and playing like that. I want Frazier! I want Frazier! I want Frazier!”
With that, he lunged toward the camera, snapping off a barrage of punches. The startled camera man leaned back, but Ali kept firing. On and on they flew, blurry fast and always stopping just millimeters short of the lens. Finally, he gave a fake scowl and flopped back in his seat, signaling the interview was over.
As we packed up and started to leave, I wished him well and Ali smiled broadly. “That was the bestest interview anybody’s done with me, including Howard Co-sell!”
To paraphrase the man’s own saying, I floated like a butterfly back to the station. My boss loved the story and NBC News in Chicago ran the interview too. It was a big triumph for a 22 year old pea green broadcaster, and Ali’s kindness and compliment made it even more special.
His attitude might have surprised some critics, who still carped at him for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. And perhaps like everyone in a savage sport, he did have a mean streak. His cruel words about Joe Frazier before each of their three battles undoubtedly crossed the line, and so perhaps did his savage beatings of Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell for not calling him by his Muslim name.
Over the years, Ali would win his crown back and then a third time in fights that will go down as some of the best in boxing history. Always the consummate showman, he became a living legend and arguably the most famous man on the planet.
But I felt then and feel now I had met the real man in Amarillo. Looking back, there wasn’t much in it for him to give an interview to a kid in the middle of the night in the plains of Texas. He did it out of kindness, a spirit that dominated his later years and led to his being much beloved.
In my career, I’ve interviewed Presidents, movie stars, and business moguls, but when I’m asked what was my favorite interview, I always think of that truck stop in Amarillo and the fascinating showman who would go on to captivate the world. Sometimes I tell the story, sometimes not, but I always smile.