(Photograph via the National Archives)
Sometimes you have a celebrity sighting of a famous Southerner, and it makes for an interesting blip in the day. Other times, you see a legend, and it sticks in your mind for a long while. We had the latter experience this week, on a Southwest plane from Louisville to Chicago, when Muhammad Ali sat across the aisle from us.
The magazine’s four executive editors as well as our Editor in Chief were bound for a meeting with the sales office in Chicago. During our brief stopover in Louisville (hometown of Ali and location of the fabulous Ali Center), as everyone from the first leg of the flight looked for better seats, a flight attendant told us the first row was reserved. No one seemed to mind, though it did seem odd for Southwest, with its strong egalitarian bent. Then, it all made sense when two women and a man shuffled into the plane together, and as they settled into the first row, I heard one of them mutter, "You sit here, Champ."
Parkinson syndrome has clearly taken its toll on Ali. He sat stooped and fiddled with a magazine most of the flight. But even in that humble state, he still possesses the broad shoulders and strong hands that made him arguably the greatest athlete of all time. As we deplaned in Chicago, he took a seat in a wheelchair. An airport worker pushed him through Midway, and slowly the crowds began to see Ali. People stopped and stared, some waved, and others pumped a fist in the air. That’s when Ali perked up, raising his shoulders a bit, a vaguely mischievous smile creeping across his face. For an instant, you could sense that familiar air of indomitability, that endearing cockiness. He was, and is, larger than life and a treasure of American history.
Watch below to witness one of Ali’s greatest fights, in 1966, when he knocked down challenger Cleveland Williams 4 times.
To learn more about the Ali Center and the boxer’s hometown of Louisville, read Wanda McKinney’s Southern Living travel piece, "Stories of the Champ" from December 2007.