“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Ahhh, rumble, young man, rumble!” Those were the words made famous by a young Cassius Marcellus Clay when he would shout them in tandem with his longtime assistant boxing trainer and cornerman, Drew Bundini Brown. The former three-time heavyweight boxing champion better known as Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74, but he will not soon be forgotten—at least not by me. He was the only man ever to render me speechless (and those who know me well, know that is not an easy thing to do).
The year was 1969 (I believe), and the charismatic fighter was weathering a three-and-a-half-year suspension from boxing, after being stripped of his world heavyweight title following a conviction for draft evasion during the Vietnam War. He was appealing the verdict, and while his case worked its way through the court system, Ali (as he was known by then) was appearing on various college campuses as a guest speaker. (Eventually, the case ended up in the Supreme Court, where the verdict was overturned by a vote of 8-0.)
I remember the moment I saw him like it was yesterday. My fiancée and I had come to Panzer Gymnasium at Montclair State College (now MSU) to hear Ali speak. When we got there, we found that there was no room inside, so we stood by the gymnasium doors, looking through the window and hoping to get a glimpse of “The Greatest.” I was a big fan, and couldn’t wait to see Ali in the flesh.
As I stood on tiptoes, peering through the glass, Patty tapped me on the shoulder. “What?” I barked, not wishing to be distracted. She tapped me again, harder, and I looked down at her in annoyance. “What?” I repeated. She rolled her eyes to my left, and I swiveled my head to look in that direction. Oh my God, it’s him! Muhammad Ali stood less than two feet away from me—so close, in fact, that I could have reached out and touched him. He was dressed in a brown, three-piece, chalk-stripe suit, and in his oversized hand was an attache case. He was . . . well . . . beautiful—and so tall. His eyes were open wide, and as he looked through the window at the waiting crowd, he appeared almost nervous—but not as nervous as me. I wanted to reach out and shake his hand, maybe even say hello, but I couldn’t. I was literally paralyzed—and speechless. I was incapable of uttering so much as a syllable. And then, in an instant, he was gone.
Ali was famous for many things, including three bruising fights against Joe Frazier. He was known for his poetry (written mostly for him by Bundini Brown), his predictions, which mostly came true, and more. He will forever be remembered as the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world, and the man who knocked out Sonny Liston with the famous “phantom punch.” But he was bigger than boxing. When he insisted that his bout against then-champion George Foreman be held in Kinshasa, Zaire, and thereafter known as the “Rumble in the jungle,” he elevated himself to the level of a legend.
Years later, in 1996, long after his retirement from boxing, the world watched with admiration as Ali, hands now shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, lighted the Olympic flame at the summer games in Atlanta, Georgia. I watched, too, and I cried. “God bless you, Muhammad,” I mouthed, as I watched my hero struggle to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Although he may have been physically weak, there was no mistaking the dignity he displayed that day. And why not? After all, he was—and always will be—”The Greatest.”
Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee,
There’ll never be another,
Oh how I wish I could have shaken his hand.