Felix Manuel Rodriguez touches the hand that knocked out Liston and Foreman.
Rarely does a man get a chance to meet his hero, write a book about his hero, talk about the impact and influence his hero had, be invited to his hero’s 70th birthday party, and fist bump his hero. I am lucky enough to have this connection to the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali.
My admiration for Ali began when I was about thirteen years old, living in the public housing projects. I grew up poor, surrounded by seven siblings with a single mother who barely spoke English. I was the youngest of the boys. My dad left when I was about five years old. Growing up, I didn’t have any positive male role models to look up to.
I watched a film about Ali’s life in and out of the boxing ring. The film highlighted his childhood growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, his flamboyant confidence, his 1960 Olympic Gold Medal victory in Rome, his classic fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman, and much more.
I instantly fell in love with Ali and immediately became an Ali fan—or what we devoted Ali fans call ourselves, “Aliologists.” I enjoy reading books and articles about Ali. I started collecting Ali memorabilia. By reading and watching old re-runs of his boxing footage and life story, I gained a deep respect and admiration for him.
It never gets old. I was born in 1975, and I didn’t have the privilege of witnessing some of his greatest fights. But that didn’t matter to me. His life story and love for people inspired me. It was something I believed in. Ali loved people … all people. He often visited sick and poor children around the world. Ali once said, “I love going to hospitals. I love sick people. I don’t worry about disease.” He helped the homeless and saved a man from jumping to his death. His wife, Lonnie Ali, once said, “Muhammad is all about love.”
Ali’s life and legacy is led by his six core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, and spirituality. I made a promise to the Champ. My three encounters with Ali cemented my commitment to live by these core values as best as I can.
In December of 2004, I had the pleasure of meeting my hero in person in Harlem, New York. Ali was promoting his new book The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. I brought my nine-year-old son, JoJo, with me. Although we were warned that Ali will not be signing autographs or posing for photos. Ali not only signed autographs for us, he signed our book three times and once signed it “Cassius Clay.” He even waved for JoJo to come close so he could bear hug him. It was an incredible father-son moment that I had to write about. From that experience, Ali inspired me to write Dad, Me, and Muhammad Ali: A Father and Son Story, in which I highlight the importance of fatherhood and pay homage to my hero. The book is dedicated to the nearly 25 million father-absent children in America.
In September of 2010, Lonnie Ali invited me to conduct a book signing at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. This was a huge moment in my young life and ranked among the top—next to the birth of my children, my wedding, and meeting Ali for the first time. I was certainly “floating like a butterfly” on this day. I played a small part of a larger celebration. The Muhammad Ali Center was celebrating Ali’s 50th anniversary of winning the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal. Ali made a surprise visit, and another dream of mine was realized. I was able to present my book to him personally. Lonnie told me to sit with the Champ and to share my story. When I told Ali how much of an inspiration he was to me, he stopped browsing the book and with wide eyes he slowly reached out to shake my hand. My heart raced, and I had goose bumps. My hero reaching out to shake my hand.
Most recently, I was invited to Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party in Louisville. Only 350 people were invited by Lonnie and family. I was humbled to have received an invitation. During the birthday celebration, I had an opportunity to sit down with my hero once again. This time, I told him that I loved him. I also asked if he could show me the famous right handed fist. The same fist that knocked out Sonny Liston and George Foreman. Ali slowly raised his fist, I raised mine, and together we fist bumped. Admirer and hero together again. It was a dream-come-true experience. I am grateful to have built a friendship with him and his wife. Muhammad inspired and empowered me to believe in myself and to make a positive difference in the world.
Thank you Muhammad for inspiring this poor, skinny, Puerto Rican kid from the housing projects to believe that he too can make a positive difference for people of his race: the human race.
Photo courtesy of the author.