I met the great Muhammad Ali in Miami in 1976. I was staying at the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. I was there for a public health conference, and planning to meet many of my grad school classmates from UC Berkeley.
I have told this story a few times before. I was out jogging in the early morning Miami heat and humidity. As I was cooling off in the lobby, I spotted a handsome young African American man walking toward me. He was wearing the traditional old sweaty, gray sweats, and some funky shoes.
As he got closer, we both remarked about the weather, and our runs. We exchanged some small talk, and soon, I asked him if he played tennis. We needed a fourth for doubles later that morning.
I soon realized, when the words came out of my mouth, that this was the great Muhammad Ali!!!! He politely declined, saying, “My folks don’t play tennis” if you know what I mean. But he was very nice, and more handsome than his photos.
Now, a story emerges about a more famous meeting, of Ali and other leading African Americans:
One would think the setting would be an afterthought in a movie about the meeting between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. But that’s not the case in One Night in Miami, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, which is a fictionalized version of their real meeting at Hampton House, the preeminent motel catering to African-Americans in 1960s Miami. (After a limited release on December 25, the film will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on January 15.)
The story takes place on February 25, 1964, the night 22-year-old Cassius Clay wins the world heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston. Afterwards, Clay makes his way to Malcolm X’s suite at the Hampton House, where they’re later joined by football legend Jim Brown and singer-songwriter Sam Cooke.
The viewer becomes a fly on the wall of this hallowed hotel room, as the four enjoy each other’s company and take comedic verbal jabs at one another. Between glimpses of Black patrons lounging by the pool and a boisterous gathering between the men and Clay’s fans at the hotel dining room, it’s clear that Hampton House was a place of joy and refuge for Black Americans during a time when disrespect and humiliation were part of their daily experience.
I love my little story, which of course, pales in comparison. But I can say I met the great man, if only for a few minutes.