The directive was to design a line of boxer shorts for Muhhamad Ali's new line, "KnockOut Wear." The proceeds would go to fight various diseases, including Parkinson's. The boxers were high-end silk, and I was pretty proud of them, but designing these shorts were not nearly as cool as actually meeting the legend himself. (Please excuse the graininess of the images. This was taken from a scanned print. The original file is probably on a SyQuest disc somewhere in storage.)

If you care to read the story of my meeting with the Champ, scroll on down. That's a photo of Ali and I in the 90's when I had the honor of hanging out with him in his suite at the Hilton in Vegas.
 
I thought I'd share this photo that was taken when I had one of the coolest experiences of my life. The day I hung out for a couple hours with Muhammad Ali in his hotel room in Vegas. I was hired to do some artwork for a line of boxer shorts and neckties Ali was putting his name on. The proceeds would go to "Knocking out Disease."

I was told I'd get to sit in the audience of the press conference, and that alone had me excited. When the head of the company I was working for motioned me to the front row of the conference, I thought - "Wow, I'm fifteen feet from Ali. This is the coolest thing."

And then it got way cooler. After the conference I was asked to meet them all in two hours in the Champ's suite at the Hilton because they wanted to introduce me to him. He wanted to meet the artists who contributed to the project.

I had been assigned to design the boxer shorts, and the directive was make them kind of Pop Art looking. (As seen above.) The guy who did the neckties made each necktie look like what the actual disease looks like under a microscope. The art was a stylized version of the illness, so some ties looked like a paisley-ish pattern.... others however, looked a lot like Cystic Fibrosis.

This was the late 90's, and I didn't have a camera on me, so my friend James (whom I brought along for the fun, and he later repaid me for the favor by taking me to a Rolling Stones concert - second row, Dodger Stadium. I sat right next to teen sensation of the moment, Jonathan Taylor Thomas - in case you're interested) and I ran down to the hotel store and bought box cameras. We then spent most of our two-hour waiting period posing in front of various mirrors - hoping we'd get a chance to have our pics snapped with The Greatest.

I was perfecting my “Ali face” in the lobby mirror. James was critiquing. It was kind of an open mouthed/wide-eyed expression he’d pull off after saying something bold. He was mugging to the camera, and I wanted to perfect that look. I figured Ali and I would both do it together, and it would make for a great photo and better story.

When we got to his room at the Hilton, we were presented with a packet. In each packet was a postcard type thing with Ali's photo and bullet points about his career and his involvement on this project, a printed bit about the event, and a necktie. (The boxer shorts hadn't come back from the printer yet, so I was a little bummed.)

On the back of each tie was sown a label identifying the disease. I got Malaria and was pretty jealous to find out James got Chlamydia and refused to trade.

The room was packed with vendors, sales people and owners of various retail stores, and everyone was getting an autograph, and posing for pics. Ali didn’t say a word. He was heavily medicated because of his condition. Even standing took effort. You could tell he was aware of his environment, but speaking out loud seemed to be more effort than he was able to give. He’d occasionally murmur something softly to his wife, and she’d react, but even that took great concentration on his part.

That is why this next moment is so perfectly crystalized in my memory. Some clearly very successful, nattily dressed middle-aged gentleman walked up to Ali, his attractive blonde wife and equally pretty young daughter in tow. The man brimmed with confidence all day long, but suddenly he was a bit tongue-tied, though he did managed to introduce his spouse and child. “Champ, I’d like to introduce you to my wife and daughter.”

Ali smiled, greeted the wife first, and then he turned his attention to the daughter – who couldn’t have been more than nineteen (and probably closer to seventeen.) He grabbed her extended hand in both of his giant mitts, beamed broadly, looking around the room and loudly proclaimed, “She’s a fox!” Ali turned to his wife and sort of winked. She chuckled and shook her head in good humor. These were the only words he uttered to the crowd during the entire two-hour event.

I waited for the crowd to die down, and after an hour it finally did. I approached the man. James stood stoically, box camera in hand, waiting to capture the event for the ages. James knew the shot I wanted. Me and Ali - squaring off; fists raised, open mouth, open eyes. I walked up, told him it was an honor. I shook his hand. It was noticeably trembling, and his fingers barely gripped, and yet even though he didn’t display an ounce of strength in his handshake I could still feel the weight and the power in the man’s palm.

As we stood there, I struck my pose, legs spread and bent at the knee, fists clenched, my right just inches from his chin. I expected the legend to instinctively respond in kind. He just stood there. James was on the same page as me. He understood the shot. We’d been rehearsing it for 120 minutes straight. James, to his credit refused to snap the pic. Why wasn’t Ali playing along? This was incomprehensible to me. Didn’t he realize I’d spent the better part of the last two hours posing in the mirror of a casino? He’s been photographed every day for decades. This assignment was simple. How did he not get it?

I looked at him in disbelief, and finally, I said to him, “Hey. Do the Ali face.” It wasn’t until I heard the words coming out of my own mouth that I recognized how ridiculous my expectations were.

The next thing I know, a slight smile crawled across his face. He raised his fist and placed it directly on my now unsuspecting chin. I smiled the widest smile and burst out laughing. It was a weird but sincere laugh. It was a sudden understanding-the-surreal-ness-of-the-situation laugh. It was a unique laugh, that’s for sure. I was laughing and James was watching me laugh and for a moment he forgot he was supposed to take the shot. Quickly though, he remembered his part in all of this, and that’s the picture you see here.

Right after that, Ali raised his hand again, pointed directly at me, shook his still mighty fist, and extended his index and middle finger to me, which I interpreted as him saying he'd knock me out in two rounds. Even in his current condition, I appreciated the generosity he displayed by indicating I would make it to the second round.

And that’s my Muhammad Ali story (and to a much lesser extent, my Jonathan Taylor Thomas story.)

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