Muhammad Ali was the greatest there ever was. The iconic boxer, who passed away earlier this month, was not just an athlete that redefined boxing but a man who simply enjoyed living life to the fullest.
In a touching tribute for Billboard, musician Bill Withers recalls the time that he hung out with The Champ during Zaire 74, a music festival in Africa that also featured performances from James Brown and B.B. King. The event preceded the historical “Rumble In The Jungle” boxing match between Ali and George Foreman, a fight that is considered the greatest sporting event of the 20th century.
“I hung out as much as I could with Ali and George [Foreman] both because they flew food in for them — so if I hung around, I got to eat what they ate,” Withers says. “I remember walking around with Ali and his brother [Rahman] in the middle of the night. And Ali’s father [Cassius Clay Sr.] was this great character who would sing ‘My Way’ at the drop of a hat.”
However, one of the best parts of the “Lean On Me” singer’s homage is reading how Ali never turned anyone away, talking with people no matter who they were.
“He talked all the time. From the guy who parked the cars to Fidel Castro, everybody had some kind of moment with Muhammad Ali. I would see old-time bigots who obviously had issues with his political stance. But after five minutes with Ali, they were fans. You know how you call friends up on the phone? You couldn’t harness Ali. He always was in perpetual motion. It would be like trying to catch a hummingbird in your hands.”
After reading this it really puts Ali’s infamous quote “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” into perspective, especially the first half. That was one of the beauties of the legendary heavyweight boxer: he moved with a free energy both in and outside of the ring, extending a kindness and warmth that people gravitated to and loved. Plus, he was practically a real life superhero. May your influence and impact live on forever, Ali.