More than twenty-five years after writer and then-video-store-clerk Davis Miller knocked on the door of his childhood hero Muhammad Ali’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, the two continue to be friends. Ali, who is now 73, set Miller’s life on a different course and inspired him to pursue his love of writing. In his book, Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, Miller relives that first meeting and reveals details of Ali’s post-boxing-career days and life with Parkinson’s disease. Here, Miller tells the stories behind their friendship.
Why the word “reclamation” in your book’s title?
If you start to type a question online, “When did Muhammad Ali…,” the next word that comes up is “die.” Many people think that in one sense or another, Muhammad Ali is dead. After his retirement from boxing, his Parkinsonism revealed itself and he disappeared from public view for a time. From 1985 on, many people have thought his life is somehow less than it was before. But the Ali that I’ve spent time with is in some ways a greater person in the way he’s handled his Parkinsonism. It’s amazing—his stateliness and dignity. I think he’s been a great man for a long time, but he became greater. His mythology has rounded out.
In the book, you shared the story of meeting Ali at his mother’s home in Louisville in 1988. What was that first meeting like?
It was like living inside a dream. I knocked on the guy’s front door, he invites me in, and signs various things, including a book I happened to have in the back seat of my car. He signed it roughly one hundred times with annotations and inscriptions, and then handed it to me with both hands, saying “I’m giving you something very valuable,” as if he’s deeding me the book of life. And in many respects he did. At the time, I was clerking in video stores. I was writing, but no one was buying anything I wrote. Meeting him vitally changed my life. He inspired me to write. I hope that through this book, readers feel they’ve been intimately in the company of this icon.
Does he still feel connected to Louisville?
He loves Louisville. Louisville is, in many respects, a small town. Many cities were vying for the Ali Center, but he insisted it be built in Louisville.
What is it like to be around him?
He is a magician. He loves to deceive playfully and then let you in on the joke. He likes to pluck at the fabric of the universe and tease it some. He lights up around children more than anyone I’ve ever seen. In the book, I share a story about him playing with kids at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina—a wonderful thing to watch. Here’s this mountain of a man, deeply Parkinsonian, sparring with twelve-year-old boys who’d never been to a beach before. And even though people think he can scarcely walk, he chases a kid down the beach in business clothes in a full run.
It’s meant a lot to me that whenever someone has said who Muhammad Ali is—and that includes me—we’re invariably wrong. He recognizes that and takes great pleasure in it. It’s another one of his ways of being a magician. He did that as a boxer, a public figure, and private man. And maybe that says something about who each of us is—maybe each of us is larger than we’d like to pretend.
Have you seen him recently?
I saw him in Louisville in September and that was the first time he’d traveled since he was in the hospital last year. He had put on weight, and he just looked like Muhammad Ali. I saw how willful this man is. He still enjoys his life. He wants to be here still.