Turns out, he was right about almost everything, ahead of time, on Sonny Liston, the Vietnam War, black grandeur, his own singular majesty. Wrong only, it seems, about the humanity of Joe Frazier. Muhammad Ali was The Greatest of all time in Fistiana – maybe; but surely the greatest word-smart, street-smart public intellectual of our time. He was a wit at the level of Alexander Pope, an aphorist at or beyond the perfection of Emerson, Twain or Orwell. Only Donald Trump comes close in self-promotional genius, with the difference that Muhammad Ali’s collected wisdom is a full catalog of generosity, soul, courage and truth.
I had a touching weekend in Muhammad Ali’s company in the summer of 1980, through our mutual friend, the one-off Tennessee politician John Jay Hooker Jr., who was turning 50. Hooker dressed his crackling mind and heroic ego in three-piece suits, a high-collar cartoon of the old white South. Ali and he made an odd pair, but they’d had discovered a profound kinship, real love for one another. In his corner after “the Thrilla in Manila,” Ali’s near-death win against Frazier in 1975, one of the champion’s first gasping notes for TV cameras was that he wanted to thank his friend John Jay Hooker in Nashville — in words to the effect that “he taught me how to hold on.” Hooker was a courtroom performer and fried-chicken entrepreneur who had a long string of political defeats and one unforgettable rally in black Memphis, where Ali had come to endorse him. In the middle of his uproarious speech, Ali turned to the candidate: “By the way, Hooker, what have you ever done for black people?” Hooker jumped up and feasted on the bait: “Muhammad,” he roared, “I’ve always been a big tippah!”
On Hooker’s birthday weekend in 1980 we hung with the retired champ when his Parkinson symptoms were clear but not obtrusive. My three little treasures: that picture, from Ali’s great photographer and best friend, Howard Bingham; then The Joke, and our visit to Meharry Medical School.
“Muhammad’s got a joke,” Ali said, getting back into the car as we toured Nashville on a Sunday afternoon in August.
“What’s the joke, Muhammad,” somebody said, probably Bingham.
“Here’s the joke,” Muhammad said. “What did Abe Lincoln say, coming off a three-day drunk?”
“What did he say, Muhammad?”
“He said: I freed the What?”
Meharry was a main stop on our pilgrimage – second-oldest black medical school in the country, one of the holy places. Ali came to tour a hospital ward and specially to thank the nurses for being there. What sticks is the picture of the longest, most pure-hearted embraces I ever saw. Not just with those electrified nurses, one felt Ali’s mission was to download some of his confidence, some of his own divine spark in the rest of us.