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Posted on 06/04/2016

By Michael Satchell

One sunny Spring afternoon in 1968, I was a recently arrived English immigrant and cub reporter on the Kansas City Star. Cassius Clay, now calling himself Muhammad Ali and in legal and boxing limbo, was in town to speak at a local mosque. His Muslim handlers refused to give the media any information on his schedule. My assignment: Find him and get an interview.

Playing a hunch, I drove to 31st street and Prospect avenue, then the heart of the so-called Eastside ghetto. Sure enough, a large buzzing crowd surrounded the fighter. Dressed in an expensive gray sharkskin suit, tall and handsome as hell, Ali was dancing around the sidewalk, play-sparring with excited men and boys. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” he yelled. “Who’s the champ?”

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I watched the action from the fringe and it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t welcome. “White devil,” they shouted . “Get your ass outta here honky mother****er.”

With no cops in sight, I was scared, especially when I felt a steely hand clamp on my shoulder from behind. When I turned, I was looking at a huge man in an electric blue suit and snap-brimmed hat, crisp white shirt and skinny black bow tie…. one of the famous Fruit of Islam bodyguards. “What do you want son,” he asked quietly. “I’m a reporter for the Kansas City Star, and I’d like to interview Mr. Ali” I stammered, reminding myself not to say “Clay.” The hulk told me not to be afraid, and began guiding me through the crowd.

As we reached the middle of the throng, Ali suddenly noticed me. He dropped his hands and looked at me with theatrical eye-popping surprise and derision. “Well, look what we got here – a white boy come to pay his respects to the champ,” he yelled. “What you want white boy?”

I told him who I was and what I wanted but the Louisville Lip was in rare form. “He says he wants to interview the champ,” Ali shouted. “I don’t give no interviews to no white reporters. Should I give him an interview?” The crowd responded with a chorus of jeers and “No, No” as Ali circled me, throwing lightning shots and jabs inches from my head and chest as the crowd cheered him on. “Get this chump outta here,” he yelled. “I got better things to do.”

It was quite a show, the crowd was growing more hostile, and now I was really scared. Then Ali put his hand on my shoulder as if to push me away, leaned in close, and whispered in my ear: “Six o’clock. Admiral Motor Inn.” The bodyguard steered me safely back to my car.

The Admiral inn was a modest black-owned motel on the fringe of downtown. At 6pm sharp, a lone Ali walked into the lobby, shook hands warmly, and with a friendly smile invited me to sit with him on a couch. He ordered grapefruit juice and chocolate cupcakes for both of us and answered my questions patiently for close to an hour. We talked about boxing but he mainly wanted to discuss religion. Witty, articulate and thoughtful, he said he expected to end up behind bars. “If I do get sent to prison, it will be for my God and my people,” he said. “I will go quietly if I have to. I will be proud to have served Islam.”

In that brief and bizarre interlude decades ago, Ali used me as a theatrical foil for the entertainment of an adoring audience. He repaid me with honesty and respect, opening his heart and sharing his time and thoughts with a young and unimportant reporter.

The interview was the first byline I earned at the KC Star and it launched my life career as a print journalist. That day, May 28, 1968, I became an instant, dedicated, lifelong fan and admirer of the boxer who went on to become a beloved global legend.

Michael Satchell went on to become a writer for the Washington Star and U.S. News & World Report.

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