Late last Friday night it came to my attention that I’d lost Muhammad Ali. Not that he’d died. I’d learned that along with the rest of the world hours earlier, a newsflash that sent me in search of an Ali drawing I’d done years before. It was a pencil sketch comprised of two elements: a close-up of the fighter as modeled after the photo on the cover of David Remnick’s outstanding Ali biography King of the World, combined with a speech bubble that in graphic title fashion melded the two-word poem “Me. We.”, which Ali once delivered at a Harvard graduation.
As keepsakes go, this picture lived in the same space that much stuff does: so precious there’s no way I’d have ever thrown it out, so irrelevant to my daily life I wasn’t sure where it was, so singular that there was only a few places it could possibly be. Yet it wasn’t there, there, or there: not still attached to any one of the old sketch pads on my shelf ; not in a pile of old clips and copies and print-outs-of-note dating back decades ; not even unceremoniously folded and stuffed into the binding of the Remnick book.
GOOD, BUT NOT THE GREATEST — Among the items I laid hands on during the search for my “Me, We, Ali” drawing: the David Remnick book whose cover photo helped inspire the missing design ; a pencil-mimic of a Walter Iooss, Jr. portrait of Paul “Bear” Bryant ; and two Vince Lombardi holiday season sketches that never made it onto one of my annual Christmas Cards. Maybe this will be the year St. Vince meets St. Nick?
I had expected to locate the image without much thought or effort, but when more of the latter was needed more of the former came along. My mind went back to an evening in the spring of 2002, the only time I stood in the same room as the Greatest of All-Time. It was in the Joyce Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame during the school’s annual amateur boxing tournament, known as Bengal Bouts. Notre Dame is in South Bend, Indiana, just 25 miles from Berrien Springs, Michigan where Ali had a home. He’d made previous appearances at Bengal Bouts, but that didn’t take any luster from the moment: when he entered, the building buzzed like the bee whose sting Ali had so famously claimed he could replicate.
What happened next lives in my mind’s eye like a stop-action sequence of still photos. Not because the years have made the motion fade from the memory, but because that’s how it actually felt as the moment unfolded.
First, I could see his entourage far on the other side of the floor level on which I was standing. Next, the small group in which the Greatest was at the center was halfway around the arena. Then suddenly, it was in front of me. The next two instants I recall with perfect clarity: I made blink-long eye contact with Muhammad Ali ; he noticed the female spectator beside me wearing a Notre Dame Women’s Boxing sweatshirt, and he began charmingly, playfully shadow-boxing with her.
I have no idea how well he could speak back then, or even if he had the desire to in such a crowded, fluid setting where the main objective was simply to get to his seat. But clearly, the old Champ could still kid, still joke, still float like the butterfly he’d so often promised he would resemble — and became again right then: fluttering out of the space in front of us as instantly and magically as he’d appeared.
Being delusional, selfish perhaps, I’d always felt that my Ali experience was a unique one — the way I’d seen him appear to defy physics as he moved through physical space ; by simply walking, somehow performing the unforgettable in a way that even the witnesses of it would later describe as unbelievable. But I was way off thinking there was anything unique about the stirring presence Ali had had that night in northern Indiana, and it took only the first few bits of reaction and reflection that followed his death to illustrate it. So many authors used the same language as I had to describe completely different interactions with Ali, and so striking was the shared quality of the collective memory of “meeting” him, that even if you believe just a fraction of what seeped into the world simply on the day of his death, the only comparison that feels apt for the Greatest is not to another person but to a heavenly body. Because like the Sun, Ali seems to have touched everyone on Earth.
Long after midnight the day Ali died, my Artwork Search Party of One continued. Perhaps I was clumsy enough to leave it buried inside the frame of my boxing-centric collage that it wasn’t part of ; or alongside the Bear Bryant drawing I’d certainly done around the same time, and ultimately that night found in the basement. No. It must be somewhere in the inches thick, Usual Suspects-style sedimentary formation I called a bulletin board in my office at work. Certainly, after passing the weekend, I would poke around that paper-relief sculpture on Monday morning and find my sketch faster than I could say Keyser Soze.
On Monday, no dice.
Just as he was in the ring, Ali is proving elusive rendered in pencil. I refuse to believe the picture got tossed ; searching for it has turned up far too many other pieces of less important creative driftwood for it to be plausible that THAT of all pieces is gone. I imagine someday it will appear suddenly and remarkably, just like Ali did both to the world at large and to the individuals who for even an instant were in his physical presence. I am one of those lucky ones. So even if my hand-drawing of him never surfaces, the greatest image I have of Ali will never fade.