The Day I Met Muhammad Ali…I Was Nine

    Silliest thing on the planet.  My buddy Amelia gave me a  box of Wheaties because Muhammad Ali was on the front. She knows I have had a ridiculous love affair  with Ali for more than forty years. I read the Wheaties caption for Ali…” the Ambassador of Sportsmanship”! I dropped my cereal spoon in shock.

Ali was a vain, pompous, braggadocio. “I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round,” he said famously.

He was famous for insulting his  opponents relentlessly. He said to Sonny Liston, “Hey, come on you big ugly bear, I’ll turn you into a rug! ”

He called Joe Frazier  an “Uncle Tom” a “gorilla” and  said he was “so ugly he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wild Life.” — Ali was a terrible loser and an even worse winner. His genius in and out of the ring was blazing hot and unmatched in the world of sports, but when he was fighting, Muhammad Ali was no sportsman. He was a brilliant athlete and boxer, salesman, Muslim, comedian and human being but he was not the Ambassador of Sportsmanship.

Still, despite his showboating and poor manners, I do love Ali. I have loved hims since I was eight or nine years old.

Last night, while staring at the box of Wheaties and Ali’s pretty face I realized I’ve never written about the  extraordinary day I met Muhammad Ali. My poor kids have heard the story, over and over, because that’s what McDaniels do…tell stores. But I need to write it down so it’s in the books.

When I was a skinny eight or nine year old, my brother, Granger, my mom and I flew to Boston to watch my other brother, Jack, graduate from prep school.

Granger was a gorgeous, golden haired, 19 year old and he had a full leg cast because he constantly totalled my parents cars. He was on crutches and grumpy all the time.

My mom left Granger and me at the airport terminal with the luggage while she returned the rental car. It was Spring time. Back then, in the late 60’s, little girls  got very dressed up to fly in an airplane. That day, I wore a a baby blue dress, white tights and white dress shoes. I was miserable and to make things worse I had to drag the luggage as I tried to keep up with Granger on crutches.

Suddenly Granger stopped and said, “Do you know who that is? Look down there.”

I didn’t know or care. But Granger was really excited.  “Good God, Pooh Bear, that’s Cassius Clay,” then he corrected himself. “Muhammad Ali!.” He looked at me. “The heavy weight champion of the world. Come on!” He he took off like a Thoroughbred on his crutches, galloping  across  the enormous Logan Airport and I started dragging the suitcases, trying to keep up. I stopped once and tried to figure out who he was chasing but all I could see was a great big group of dressed up black people. I readjusted my grip and trudged on.

By the time I reached the group, Granger had already introduced himself.  I stood behind him in awe of the group.  I had never, in my life seen so many gigantic black people, all dressed up. Ali was surrounded by several body guards in dark suits and they all towered in front of me like Red Woods.  And their was a lady in the group. I was transfixed because I had never seen a gorgeous and fancy black lady. She seemed to shimmer in front of me, like a goddess and I was speechless until the largest of all the men stepped in front of me and said, “And who are you?”

I dropped the bags. “Diana Ross McDaniel, we’re from Hot Springs, Arkansas.” I extended my hand as I’d been trained to do. That’s when it happened.  His hand was the size of a catchers mitt and it swallowed my hand then part of my arm. I didn’t know if my hand would ever return.

“Nice to meet you Diana Ross McDaniel, I’m Muhammad Ali.” First he made his eyes get big and round then he winked at me. I had no idea who he was but I was entranced.  “Why is such a little girl  carrying all those bags?”

I started to say something about Granger and his crutches but Ali stopped me. He nodded at one of the other men then told him to take the luggage for me. At that moment I didn’t know who Ali was but I loved him cause he made those men take the damn bags off my hands. My fingers still ached.

Quickly, he scribbled his name on Granger’s cast then said, “Kids, I’ve got to go before the press finds me but you take care of your little sister, Granger.”

Then he was gone, they were all gone and we were left in his vacuum.

Before that day I had no idea what a “heavy weight champion of the world” was but I figured it out pretty quickly. That massive man made my day so much easier so he was the champion of the world.

For years after that day, I was the little white girl who defended Ali against all critics. From Vietnam to Rope-A-Dope, Ali, the “heavy wight champion of the world,” could do no wrong in my eyes. When Daddy and I listened to Howard Cosell and watched his epic battles live on Friday nights, I would tell anyone who would listen about my friend, “Muhammad Ali”.

And I still defend him today, though his  philanthropy and humanitariandedication have made him unmatched in the world of sports.  He doesn’t  need my defense. But I will always think of Muhammad Ali as my friend…was he an Ambassador of Sportsmanship? Well….I’ll reconsider that in a few years.

*****Please tell me what you think.  I’m spilling my soul here. Comment or write to

2 thoughts on “The Day I Met Muhammad Ali…I Was Nine”

  1. I too had a kind of “guy who helped make Ali” related encounter at Churchill downs in the mid 70s. Myself and a pack of motley Hot Springs boys who all cut our teeth on the King of Sports here at Oaklawn in our formative years traveled around the country working various jobs at the race tracks. I would work in the mutual department at Churchill for several years during Kentucky Derby week through the 70s. One year I had the Friday before the Derby off and they had already issued me my employee pass a day early. With time off I headed to the Clubhouse to see if I could catch a glimpse of a star or two. I popped into the first side bar on the long hall that went from end to end of the grand old building. When I spied my first star and encountered him for his autograph on my racing program he obliged. It was the great actor Jack Klugman. Wow I thought can’t get any better than that. He was cool and conversational and signed my program and off I went thinking that might be my only encounter, nope nothing compared to who I was about to meet. I strolled the entire 100 yard length of the Clubhouse to the far end when in another side bar who did I see standing with a man in conversation but the one, the only, HOWARD COSELL 7 inch Cuban cigar and all. I waited until he had finished his conversation. Then there he stood alone and approachable I mean NOTHING like the ease of approaching Klugman this was, HOWARD COSELL the HOWARD COSELL I had watched do every important sporting event I had ever watched on TV, the guy who was Ali’s greatest ally in good times and bad. WOW I walked up and said, Mr Cosell would you please sign my program. SURE SON it was HOWARD COSELL with HIS voice, the voice was talking to me, “THAT VOICE”. I thought I will never forget those two words SURE SON and expected to hear no more from him when he looked a the autograph on my program he asked. Son does that say Jack Klugman? I excitedly replied it sure does Mr Cosell. Then he made my day, NO month, No year, SON (now he had called me SON three times I’m thinking adoption about now he loves me) where did you see him and get this signature. Mr Cosell, then I got real vague in how he could find him but I said, I,I,I,I, can take you there sir. Take me SON and off we went side by side through the Clubhouse he and I talking sports and the Derby Horses like old buddy’s. We reached the side bar and sure enough his old friend Jack was still throwing back Martini’s at the bar. They slapped backs while I held back a couple of steps in continued awe. Mr Cosell turned to me and thanked me for bringing him to his friend and he then signed my program. I can’t even remember what horse won the derby that year but will ever forget all of those times HOWARD COSELL called me Son in that unforgettable 10 minute’s at Churchill Downs.

    1. Oh my lord, what an amazing day. Jack Klugman and Cosell! Of course he had a big fat cigar, Son. That makes everything better. I always liked giving Granger crap about that day cause he was being so mean to me and all the hot women on the plane wanted to help him do everything.

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