Muhammad Ali was naked when we met.
Naked, as in stark.
You tend to notice such a thing when the man shaking your hand is a sculpted 236 pounds on the 6-foot-3 frame of a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion. His chest was massive; shoulders, too. I glanced nowhere south of his face. He smiled.
Ali was 34 on that warm June Friday almost exactly 40 years before his passing Friday night from respiratory problems and Parkinson disease. Under the calm, watchful eye of his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee that afternoon, Ali donned a robe and a pair of boxing trunks. Nothing else. Literally.
We were in a Tokyo hotel locker room. The occasion was a weigh-in before an unusual exhibition between the world-famous Ali and a giant Japanese pro wrestler named Antonio Inoki. Ali was there because, $6 million. No other rational reason really.
I had already interviewed Inoki, a very pleasant man with a jaw beyond Jay Leno-scale. Inoki was speaking onstage but turned instantly irrelevant as the charismatic Ali entered the ballroom.
The crowd erupted at the sight of the iconic Ali. Surrounded by a half-dozen sycophants and little old me, Ali bounced athletically as he walked. I was the New York Times Tokyo bureau chief, and the sports desk assigned me to cover the weird match, precursor of what would eventually become the modern sport of mixed martial arts.
As we made our way down the aisle, Ali feigned lunges toward the stage. “No, Champ!” his handlers urged. “Save it, Champ!”
Ali looked down at me amid all those excited people, that noise and jostling, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye said, “I don’t want Inoki. I want that redhead over there.” Sure enough, nearby stood a tall, beautiful woman with red hair.
I’ve never been a big ring fan. But I was long fascinated by the fighter formerly known as Cassius Clay and his feats of fisticuffs against the legendary likes of Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier and pre-barbecue George Foreman.
And I was intrigued by his magnetic media manipulations. Donald Trump is a publicity piker compared to Ali. To my youthful amazement, Ali not only won upsets; he accurately predicted what round he would finish his favored opponent.
The Tokyo bout was peculiar. Wary of Ali’s 80-inch reach, Inoki spent most of the match on his back kicking at Ali’s legs. The boxer landed fewer than five punches. It was ruled a draw. Some people booed. Sportswriter Josh Gross has done the definitive account of that day and its repercussions in “Ali vs Inoki: The Forgotten Fight,” published this month.
Afterward, I fought my way to the locker room through a mob of unruly Japanese media. Dundee let me in. His gloves off, Ali straddled a bench, looking exhausted. His head and arms hanging. Blood trickled down the backs of his legs. Later, he’d be hospitalized for blood clots.
“My legs hurt,” Ali said. At those words, his followers began yelling, “Everyone out! Everyone out! Champ needs quiet!” And they forcibly emptied the room. Without warning, Dundee grabbed my shirt, shoved me into a locker and slammed the door. “Be quiet!” he said.
I was. Oh, I was.
Maybe five minutes later – it seemed like 20 – Dundee opened the locker. “He wants to ask you a few questions,” trainer told trainee. I straddled the same bench. Ali’s head was down, sweat still oozing. Blood, too.
In quiet mumbles, the Champ expressed puzzlement and frustration at Inoki’s style. He winced a lot. It wasn’t a great interview.
After a few minutes, I just wanted to leave him alone. The weathered world champion seemed vulnerable. I thanked him and wished him well. “Yeah,” he said with a slight wave. I stood and started to move away.
Then, Ali raised his head and spoke: “Did you get the redhead’s name?”
And there was that twinkle I’ll never forget.
Andrew Malcolm is a veteran foreign and national correspondent, whose most recent piece for The Bee was “Blindly believing in Trump.” firstname.lastname@example.org @AHMalcolm.