Past Times

Two Ali visits to NC revealed two different men

Students from the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf greet Muhammad Ali in 1993.
Students from the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf greet Muhammad Ali in 1993. N&O Photo

As the world remembers Muhammad Ali this week, here’s a story by writer David Zucchino about the champ’s 1975 visit to Chapel Hill.

Neither a Joe Frazier hook nor a George Foreman right could have punched a path through the throng that gathered for a glimpse of the world heavyweight boxing champion here Friday.

Five times police asked an awaiting shopping center crowd of about 250 to clear an aisle. Five times the gaggle noisily refused. Then they saw him. There was a cheer, and then silence as a pathway magically appeared.

Muhammad Ali, master showman, and the bombastic, loquacious and undisputed world champion of rhetoric, passed regally through the masses.

With that display of crowd psychology, the self-proclaimed “Greatest of them all” informed three separate audiences here of plans to build hospitals and schools, to earn more money than Howard Hughes and to consider running for the presidency.

In town to plug his new book and address a group of University of North Carolina students, Ali threw in a bizarre … blend of wit, braggadocio and solemn morality. He signed autographs, danced his famed Ali Shuffle, spoke of friendship and religion and vowed to share his wealth with the poor.…

Meanwhile Ali signed hundreds of copies of his autobiography entitled, naturally, “The Greatest.”

He began by asking an overflowing bookstore crowd whether it “ever saw a world champion in this one-horse town before?”

Later, in a speech entitled “Friendship,” he told the crowd of about 3,000 not to be “too proud to be a true friend. The beautiful part of all of us can be made 1,000 times more beautiful through friendship.”

Ali, who said he was a “D minus” high school student, also extolled the virtues of education. “Stay in college and get some knowledge,” he said. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of your little head.”

Upon inclusion into the Order of the Longleaf Pine by representatives of Gov. James E. Holshouser Jr., Ali muttered, “All this is getting me closer to the White House.…”

Later, outside his room at a local hotel, Ali gave an impromptu monologue to about 20 bystanders, as members of his party tried unsuccessfully to coax him inside to rest.…

Then, in gathering darkness, he offered to give a demonstration of his quickness. He told a bystander to hold up his palm.

“I’m gonna hit that hand six times before you can say ‘One, two.’ You’ll never see it,” he announced.

Ali balled his fist.

The audience counted: “One! Two!”

Ali’s fist never moved.

“Want to see it again?” he asked. The N&O Nov. 1, 1975

Many years later, in 1993, Ali once again visited North Carolina. N&O staff writer Martha Quillin described his visit to Wilson schools.

The students couldn’t hear his speech and he couldn’t understand theirs, but it didn’t matter. A touch told it all.

As Muhammad Ali walked through the gymnasium at the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf, hundreds of little fingers reached out to touch the hands of one of the greatest fighters of all time. The hands that, when they were wrapped in leather and balled into fists, hurt so many men. That won three world boxing championships. That now tremble almost all the time.…

Slowly, patiently, Ali shook every hand he could reach. He signed autographs. He performed magic tricks. He bit his bottom lip and faked punches at boys who hadn’t even been born when Ali won his first heavyweight title in 1964.

Though he hasn’t fought in more than 10 years, they all knew who he was.

At James B. Hunt High School, they chanted his name, “Ah-Lee, Ah-Lee.” At Fike High School, several students stood at the back of the gym holding a banner that said, “We love you.” At the School for the Deaf, they beat the drum and spelled out his name in sign language, palms flashing as the letters were formed.

As a professional boxer, he spent a lot of time in gyms, and never was he treated so gently.…

As he moved through the crowds of students and teachers, they swarmed around him, patted his broad shoulders, hugged him. He walked into them, arms outstretched, and hugged them back.…

At each school, Ali made a brief speech about the purpose of life, telling students to find theirs and to try to fulfill it.

His own purpose, he said, has been “to be the first black champion who took time to stand up for the truth,” referring to his conversion to Islam and his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War.

North Carolina’s own former heavyweight boxing champ, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, joined Ali on his tour through Wilson, and said he was honored to be in the same gym with the man.

He told the students that they too should be the greatest at whatever they choose to do.

“You may not be a boxer or a professional athlete, “ Smith said. “But it doesn’t matter. Being No. 1 and giving it the best you’ve got is what’s important.” The N&O March 13, 1993

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