Boxer Muhammad Ali Turns 65

Commentator Davis Miller, author of The Tao of Muhammad Ali, recalls his first face-to-face meeting with The Greatest: in the ring as a volunteer sparring partner. Ali turns 65 today.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Happy birthday, Muhammad Ali. The champ turns 65 today.

He was once as breathtakingly fast, agile and powerful as any boxer who has ever graced the ring. And he remains a legend despite the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease.

The man who once bragged, I am the greatest, now whispers when he talks. The Ali shuffle, once a prelude to devastating one-two punches, now mean something entirely different.

Commentator Davis Miller wrote "The Tao of Muhammad Ali" in 1996. He's been a life-long fan of Ali's that at the age of 22, managed to arrange a dramatic encounter.

DAVIS MILLER: I first met Muhammad Ali face-to-face in July 1975. At the suggestion of my friend, Bobby, who is Ali trainer Angelo Dundee's nephew, I driven 700 miles to Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, where Ali was preparing for a world title defense.

I'll see if I can get you in the ring with him, Bobby said, teasing me. I was 22 years old, muscular and agile; and because of Ali's influence, I was a junior lightweight kickboxer.

NORRIS: I'll prove to the world that I'm not only the greatest boxer of all times. I am the greatest martial artist. His was the most elemental voice I'd heard. It sounded huge, melodic, eternal.

Ali was standing in the center of his ring when I stepped through the ropes. He introduced me to the crowd as a great karate master, an accolade I didn't merit. Then pointed his gloved left fist at me and shouted, you must be a fool to get in the ring with me. When I'm through, you're going to think you've been whooped by Bruce Lee. How does it feel, knowing you're in the ring with the greatest of all times?

The bell rang. I tried to lever in a jab. His eyes were snappingly bright, his face beaming in round and open. He waited until my punch was a half-inch-missed nose, and pulled his head straight back. I punched nothing but air and dreams.

He took a seat on the second strand of ropes, where his head was level with mine, and beckoned me in with a brisk wave of gloves. I got a round kick into his right kidney, felt his flesh conform to the shape of my shin, and rocketed from my crouch, blasting a spinning back-fist jab, left-hook combination into the center of his jaw. The punches felt so good I smiled.

People in the crowd oohed and ahhed. He opened his eyes, fried-egg white in feigned disbelief. For two week-long seconds, I was flying. Then he came off the ropes and squashed me with one flyswatter jab. I saw the punch coming, tried to move away and couldn't - it was that fast.

The back of my head bounced off my shoulders. The spectators sounded way, way off. My legs went to soup beneath me. He knew I was hurt, and he stepped back. Then his eyes went kind. He slid an arm around my shoulders. We exchanged hugs, and it was over. But I had accomplished something I'd never - yet always - believed I'd have the opportunity to do. I had boxed with Muhammad Ali.

As we left the ring together, my childhood hero spoke softly, gently, almost purring. You're fast. And you sure can hit - to be so little. He may as well have said he was adopting me. I began to quake. My insides danced, but I stayed composed long enough to say the one thing I hoped would impress him most. With confidence I had learned from watching him on television and hearing him on the radio countless times, I said simply, I know.

NORRIS: Writer Davis Miller lives in the mountains of North Carolina. He's the author of "The Tao of Muhammad Ali," and "The Zen of Muhammad Ali."

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