I can still feel the intensity of the adrenalin rush as Muhammad Ali emerged from a car and stumbled towards me at his Michigan ranch.
I can still see the living legend, despite suffering a horrible disease that crushes lesser men, attempting to show me his boxing skills in his gym. His right hand was shaking violently as he tried to bring the wild muscle tremors under control and slowly will it towards the big bag.
I can still hear him, attempting a shuffle in black Hush Puppies, yelling as he jabbed: “Ah’m dancin’. Ah’m dancin’ again.”
In 2001 there were roughly 6.2 billion people on this earth. But only one who I wanted to meet so badly I’d have swum the Atlantic with an old bed tied to my legs.
Muhammad Ali may by then have been a frail, sick man 35 years past his peak, but it felt like I was being treated to the most potent sporting image of all time: the poetic pugilist in action, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
And I felt so humbled. Because when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, he was the king of the world. The man whose fights in the early hours of the morning on the other side of the globe would be the first thing half of Britain wanted to know about when it woke up.
Tomorrow sees the astonishing milestone of his 70th birthday. Astonishing because, after suffering three decades of extreme Parkinson’s disease, few expected him to live this long. The feeling his death may be imminent has intensified since he was taken to an Arizona hospital with dehydration in November, days after looking very ill at Joe Frazier’s funeral.
But still he fights on, making the rest of us look, as we have for half-a-century, somehow smaller by comparison.
On Saturday night he began the celebrations with a charity party at the Muhammad Ali Centre in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. As a crowd clapped, chanted his name and sang Happy Birthday, Ali waved from a first-floor balcony. He is so much more than a boxer. He is the author of the greatest sporting story ever told.
When writer Norman Mailer called him “the very spirit of the 20th century” he was right. That hundred years threw up many greats: Einstein, Churchill, Presley, Lennon, Eisenhower, Pele, Mother Teresa, Superman... But next to Ali they wilt.
They couldn’t hit like him, dance like him, look like him, rap like him, crack a one-liner like him, take a stand like him, come back like him. They didn’t possess his magic.
Lennon may have written the ultimate song about peace but he couldn’t do what Ali did: refuse to go to war as it offended his beliefs. He couldn’t say: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me a n*****.”
That wasn’t just the greatest pacifist slogan of all time, it was the greatest anti-racist one, summing up the futility of an imperial war and the oppression of the black man. Only Muhammad Ali – shackled twice with his slave name Clay and a demand to be drafted into the army and who twice broke free – could say it.
The courage he shows on the eve of his 70th birthday has defined him all his life. He was born in the racially segregated city of Louisville in 1942 and left school illiterate. But he discovered boxing and won Olympic gold in 1960.
When he returned to Kentucky only to be refused service in a whites-only restaurant, he threw the medal in the Ohio River and left town for good.
It was courage that saw him beat not just Sonny Liston to become world champ, but the US boxing establishment who loathed his arrogant persona and a style of boxing that broke all of their rules.
They called him The Lip. He amended it to the Louisville Lip. Once he became world champion in 1964, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali in a gesture that riled white America. This was the mid-60s. Boxers didn’t do that. Especially black ones. They were mute patsies who took the blows and knew their place.
t was courage that kept him from the Vietnam War when he refused the draft in 1967. How many high-profile black Americans would even contemplate saying today what he said back then: “I can’t take part in nothing where I’d help the shooting of dark Asiatic people who haven’t lynched me, deprived me of my freedom, justice and equality, or assassinated my leaders.”
The price he paid was immense. He was demonised by white America as a coward and a subversive, made bankrupt, criminalised, and stripped of his licence, which cost him his world title, his livelihood and three-and-a-half of his finest years in the ring. But Ali only grew taller.
It was courage that inspired his 1970 return for the Joe Frazier trilogy, the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman and, eight years after his comeback, victory over Leon Spinks, which made him the first boxer ever to win the world heavyweight title three times.
But in the mid-80s he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a disorder of the nervous system that stiffened his muscles, froze his face and reduced his voice to a whisper. He refused to blame it on two decades of having his brain pummelled. Many opponents of the brutal sport did.
Here was one shackle he could never throw off, but he never let it beat him. When three billion people saw him light the Olympic Flame in Atlanta in 1996, the world fell in love with him again.
When I spent that day with him in 2001, I found my emotions alternating between awe and pity. He would fall asleep, take minutes to raise a cup to his mouth, and go into a trance. But I could still find the giant within the wilting shell. After showing me a photo taken with The Beatles I told him I was from the same city. He came back in a flash: “Then you ain’t no fool, if you from Liverpool.”
It reminded me of his mesmeric use of language when he was king.
Before the 1974 Rumble In The Jungle in Zaire, he recited a poem whose stunning imagery eclipsed anything they ever taught me at school. “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale. Handcuffed lightning, and threw thunder in a jail. I can run through a hurricane and not get wet. Only last week, I murdered a rock, I injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
Ali had his flaws. He could be cruel beyond the call of duty as Joe Frazier found out with his shameful Uncle Tom slurs. He was a serial womaniser, as his four wives and countless children testify. And some of the propaganda he spouted when he was being fleeced by the white-hating Nation of Islam was embarrassing.
But Muhammad Ali remains unique. He transcended sport like no one else, disputing all our beliefs about how an athlete should behave and what he could achieve. And he is entirely his own creation.
Which is why today there are now seven billion people on earth but he is still the one most would like to meet before they die.
He’s still the greatest of us all.