Magical Moments with ‘The Greatest of All Time’

The Amazing Hondo reflects on his close-up encounters with The Champ, Muhammad Ali

To this Baby Boomer who came of age in the '60s and '70’s, Muhammad Ali was larger than life. His boastful mouth was beyond “Minnesota Nice”, causing parents to cringe at the thought of him as a role model.

Initially I rejected his brash cockiness as an offshoot of my upbringing. But that did not last long once I discovered that, along with him always backing up his words in the boxing ring, that Ali was basically toying with us.

He was an entertainer and a showman every bit as much as he was a fighter. His quips and verbal spars with Howard Cosell were sheer delights in anticipation of the next bout. His catchy poetry and fearless predictions engaged viewers like nothing before. (Imagine if there were social media and cable TV in those days).

Via limited television and local newspaper reports, Ali became the most recognized person on the planet. His may have been the best example of PR before PR was popular.

Athletes and entertainers thrive on the thrill of performing under the pressure of the moment. And so it was for me when I got the call to perform my magic for the first time for my idol, the icon of all time, Muhammad Ali.

Knowing of Ali’s love of magic and that I would be spending several hours showing him close-up magic was cause for both excitement and fear. Was I nervous? Like never before.

If one was to learn anything from Ali’s bold predictions to Howard Cosell, it was that it was OK to believe in yourself, and to say so. Ali would tell the world. I chose to say it to the mirror, the same mirror for which I had been practicing my magic for some 25 years.

I recall telling myself, “This is why you became a performer, so it’s time to give it your best shot. He may be Muhammad Ali, but he’s just another person as far as you are concerned in this moment.''

That’s what I told myself to trick my brain.

The setup:

Minnesota business author Harvey Mackay had just written a book that included a chapter on Muhammad Ali and had invited The Champ to attend the book signing (how’s that for PR?).

Ali was to arrive at the Radisson Plaza hotel in Minneapolis at noon. The book signing wasn’t until 6 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in the City Center. Harvey knew that he needed to engage Ali. I received a call from Harvey to be magician to keep Ali engaged. It was an afternoon in April 1997.

Harvey had close friends and a few media people ushered into the suite in 30-minute shifts to sit at a round large table with Ali and myself. After introductions and handshakes (including a hilariously memorable and unmentionable Sid Hartman moment with Ali), the magic would begin.

With Ali as my magical assistant (and later to be foil), we dazzled and delighted the gathered guests with card tricks, coin tricks, sponge balls and vanishing thimbles. Ali’s reactions were priceless. With a raised eyebrow or a slow moan of approval, he spoke volumes without saying a word. And when a trick really got him good, he’d slowly raise his right index finger to his ear and make small circles around it as if to say, “I have no idea on that one”.

To win his praise and approval is something that I will never forget. His religious beliefs surfaced when he said “You know, to some, this magic stuff is considered the work of the devil.” To which I replied with no pun intended “Yes, Champ but that is often referred to a black magic. What I do is purely for entertainment and inspiration, much like you as an athlete.''

I was totally taken by his humbleness, his gentleness and his spirit. This was a Good Man to the core, a man who put those near him at ease, although often with a tease. He could ‘work a room’ without a word. His body language spoke volumes.

A decade later, I got the call to perform at half-time for a Super Bowl party in Paradise Valley, AZ, where Ali had recently relocated to with his wife Lonnie. Harvey Mackay was again the host and Ali was one of the guests along with Max McGee.

Most of the guests were over 60 years of age and when half-time hit, I was positioned right in front of the large screen TV. Ali was in the front row staring at me in anticipation of the magic.

I felt a bit sheepish as Prince was about to start his “real” half-time show. I asked the gathered crowd of 40 or so, “Are you sure you want to watch me now. Prince is about to perform.?” The resounding reply was “We want to see some magic”.

I think it was a generational thing. Pretty sure if it were a younger crowd, I’d have gotten the boot for Prince.

Again, Ali loved the magic and I was honored to be in his presence. The next morning I got a call from Harvey, “Hey, Hondo. Muhammad would like you to stop over to his house for some more magic. Can you do it?”

We arrived at noon to see Ali, clad in sweat suit, reclining in his living room with a Burger King lunch on his TV tray. We cleared his tray and I sat next to him with my deck of cards. We spent a half hour or so and I even got to teach him a trick or two.

A few years later, I saw him for the final time in Scottsdale at another of Harvey Mackay's book signings. Ali had gotten thinner and bonier in structure. He again was gracious with all the guests who wanted photos. I don’t recall him speaking at all on this occasion, but it did not matter. Just seeing this man in person spoke for itself.

RIP Champ.

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