I have been very fortunate to meet many of the greats but only one person ever left me in awe. That man was Muhammad Ali.
I grew up studying all of the old Muhammad Ali footage and I became totally captivated by his unique character. Muhammad is iconic, he stands for so much more than just sport & he has inspired millions of lives in a million different ways! I’ll never forget the day I stood in the presence of his greatness.
It was August 2009. I was invited to a black tie dinner in Muhammad’s honour. The event was held in Old Trafford, home of my beloved Manchester United. I was one of the lucky few who were ushered into a special VIP reception where we would have a one to one personal meeting with the champ. I vividly recall one gentleman who met with Ali just before I did. He must of been in his early 60’s.
He was visibly nervous and he could barely look Ali in the eye but I will never forget what happened next. He handed Muhammad a sealed envelope. He explained how he wrote a letter to his hero when he was just 10 years old. For some reason he never sent the letter but he never dreamt he would personally hand deliver it over 50 years later. Ali took the letter and offered a warm smile. The man collapsed and simply broke down in tears of happiness. He was literally carried out of the room by his friend as he became totally overpowered by the experience.
Security was extremely tight and we were constantly reminded reminded of Ali’s frail state & instructed not to put our arm around him for the photo etc. Of course you have to respect the rules but I’m proud to say the Irish charm worked it’s magic as I was one of very few to shake the great man’s hand. When I was introduced to Muhammad by his lovely wife Lonnie, I told him what an incredible honour it was to meet him & I simply thanked him for inspiring my life. I finished by telling Muhammad that I wanted to be able to say ‘I shook the hand that shook the world’ and with that, Ali looked me deep in the eye, smiled and extended his hand.
Security just smiled as they knew I was clever about it. How could I now ‘not’ shake Ali’s outstretched hand. They say you can tell a lot about a man, based on his handshake and Ali’s told me “I’m still the greatest!” And the eyes, in his eyes he was still dancin’!
In Ali’s condition, even back in 2009 he was a man of very few words but there’s no doubt his mind was still as sharp and witty as ever. When Lonnie asked me where I was from & I told her Ireland, Muhammad quipped, “Could you not wait a week?”
He was of course referring to his planned trip to Ireland a few days later. Lonnie and me shared a great laugh about that.
After the photographs we all sat down to a lovely meal and I was sitting no more than 10 feet away from Ali. I couldn’t get my head around this, for the incredible life he has lived and here I am sitting across from Muhammad Ali having dinner! It was surreal. Ali caught me staring at him at one point and simply winked at me as he pointed at his food with his fork and gave me a thumbs up.
As the night progressed, many TV personalities took turn to pay tribute to the great man, even boxer Ricky Hatton did a wonderful stand up comedy routine. Ricky is a natural at stand up but he later told me how he was more nervous speaking in front of Ali than he ever was in the ring! Football legend Bryan Robson then presented Muhammad with a Manchester United jersey with ‘ALI 1’ printed on the back & it was signed by the entire squad.
At one point, after a video tribute played on the big screens, it was followed by rapturous applause. The audience then came to a complete silence as we noticed Ali being helped to his feet.
He leaned in towards the microphone and said, “You make me wanna make a comeback!”
It was a wonderful moment.
Through my work as an actor, I have been blessed with many opportunities to meet many greats but meeting Ali was special. When that man walked into a room, the room lit up. There was an incredible aura surrounding him & that handshake left me with goosebumps.
Later in the evening, the entertainment was in full swing & Ali put on a pair of sunglasses due to his sensitivity to the flashing lights. I noticed Ali was attempting to make a discreet exit. I knew this moment would probably never happen again so I walked out to the lobby for a final and private farewell. His wife Lonnie was trying to find the elevator, and with me knowing Old Trafford like the back of my hand, I happily directed them. I thanked Ali one final time as he entered the elevator. He turned around, raised his right hand and with one last fist pump, he smiled before the elevator doors closed.
What a moment…What a man!