The day I met Muhammad Ali, I was nineteen years old and working for a security company that provided services to the gated community wherein Mr. Ali lived. Our duties included alarm response and patrol, and there was a sentry stationed at the gate, 24/7.
It was circa 1982, and Mr. Ali had not yet been officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome.
That day, the sentry radioed for assistance. I responded, along with another patrol officer.
A well-known former child actor—who as an adult had struggled to stay out of trouble with the law—had walked into the private, gated community, dismissing the sentry’s efforts to stop him.
The procedure for visitors was to check in at the guard station. Their visit would have to be cleared by the resident they wished to visit before being allowed to enter. Expected or welcomed guests were on a list in the guard shack. But this uninvited guest walked in without stopping at the gate, and as he did, he told the guard where he could stuff it.
We Responded to the Call
We arrived and contacted the sentry, a short, robust Englishman with a great sense of humor but easily excitable. He told us what had happened, and identified the suspect to us by his name. Most of us knew him from previous encounters and his childhood celebrity.
I asked, “Where’d he go?”
“Where the f%@# do you think he went?” was the reply. “He went to Ali’s house!”
There were few problems in the community, and unfortunately, when there were, it seemed they would stem from the unwanted, perhaps uninvited guests of Cassius Clay.
We drove in and parked on the street near Mr. Ali’s home.
A neighbor—who also was famous and black—stood watching from his property. He must have witnessed the incident, and he was none too happy about the intrusion. He called out to us, “Arrest that n#$*&^!”
A Chat with the Champ
I knocked on Mr. Ali’s door and was shocked when he answered it; maybe I had expected a servant to do so. What I didn’t expect was to have the giant of a man himself, the Great Muhammad Ali, open the door and stand in front of me, within (his) arm’s reach.
I had seen the legend on other occasions but never met him. There had been times when I was parked at the guard shack and Mr. Ali passed through driving his Bentley. Each time he had smiled and waved, giving me the impression he was friendly.
This day was no different: he greeted us in the doorway of his home with a warm and friendly smile.
He said, “Yes sir?”
Sir. He called me, ‘Sir.’
“Where is he?” I asked, forgoing the pleasantries and getting right to it.
“You know who, Mr. Ali. He walked past our security officer at the gate and came straight to your house.”
At that moment, the intruder in question walked through the house in plain view from the open door. I pointed past Ali and said, “He’s right there!”
He turned and glanced inside, then looked back at me and shrugged with a hint of embarrassment.
I said, “Mr. Ali, there are rules established by your association regarding guests entering the premises. You each have signed a contract that authorizes us to enforce laws on the private property within these walls on your behalf, and we do. In return, we expect our clients and their guests to abide by the rules, not make our jobs more difficult. Mr. (name withheld) cussed our sentry and walked through the gate without permission or prior approval. Your neighbor, Lou, is upset about this situation. Quite frankly, had I arrived before he made it into your home, I would have arrested him for trespassing.”
He said, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”
There was nothing else to say. Though he initially tried to cover for his guest, Mr. Ali offered a sincere apology and assured us it wouldn’t happen again. That was good enough for me; I had no doubt he would handle it.
We shook hands and my partner and I walked away.
Debriefing the Situation
Standing near our vehicles in front of the mansion, my partner said, “Jesus, dude, you just chewed Muhammad Ali’s ass.”
His remark caught me off-guard. I didn’t think I had chewed his ass. To me, I was only doing my job. I was careful to be respectful and reasonable, but I also had a duty to the clients—each of them.
The alarm company had contracts throughout Beverly Hills, Bel Air, West Los Angeles, Brentwood, Santa Monica, and beyond. In the two years I worked there, I had many encounters with big-name celebrities. I treated them all the same as I would treat anyone, the glamorous star or her gardener. With no regard to their wealth or fame, I did my job without favor or prejudice.
Lessons of Life
A mentor once told me, “Never forget where you’ve been.”
Our experiences shape who we are and what we become. The encounter with Muhammad Ali is one such experience that helped shape me, reinforcing the adage that a person is a person, no matter how large or small.
Albert Einstein said: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”
* * * Postscript Notes * * *
Though quotations were used to tell this story, the incident occurred more than thirty-five years ago and there is no record of it with which to check for accuracy. The quotes are only used to establish dialogue in the manner of story-telling, not to indicate factual statements. (The black neighbor did use the N-word when he called out to us to arrest the intruder.)
I would also be remiss if I didn’t emphasize what a gentleman Mr. Ali was, where many in his position may not have been. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was polite and gracious. He also exhibited class in choosing to deal with the guest outside of our presence. I wish I could have heard their subsequent conversation.
The photograph of Muhammad Ali was obtained through Google Images ‘labeled for reuse’ and attributed to H. Michael Karshis on Flickr.com (no changes were made). His attribution is as follows: ‘My all-time favorite AP photo of Ali clocking Liston in the first round May, 25th 1965. That’s ref Joe Walcott working this championship bout in Lewiston, Maine.’
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