By JOHN RAMSEY
Special To WAVE3.com
LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - I realize I am fortunate. My hero is also my mentor and best friend. He is also the best example of the human spirit I have ever had the honor of witnessing.
To write a story that reflects Muhammad Ali's charisma and allure is easy. To narrow my hundreds of memories to a singular experience is the true challenge.
I have known Ali my entire life and he has known me for more than 30 years. I have traveled to Australia, Canada, England, Ireland and countless American cities with him. He not only transcends boxing and sports; he transcends race, culture and religion. The expression and presence of love and respect may be the only common element in every Ali story I can recall.
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In the mid 1990s, Muhammad was in town to see his mother and he called me with an invite to dinner. At that time, the Outback steakhouse on Shelbyville Road was new and Ali -- always a steak and potatoes kind of guy -- wanted to give them a shot. A quick warning call to the restaurant assured a quick seating, and as usual we soon had a line of folks wanting an autograph from the champ.
This particular night was a bit unique because there was a fireman's convention being hosted in Louisville and Outback was standing room only. Macho firemen were tossing back beers and sharing their stories. Certainly a handshake and an autograph from the three-time heavyweight champion would be a great story to take home with them.
Ali was signing autographs between bites and although I had told him that I was willing to play the bad guy and politely ask folks to let him eat his dinner, Muhammad shook me off, as he always did. He loves meeting people, and truly enjoys his celebrity status.
One particular fireman was extremely excited about meeting Ali, as he was talking a hundred miles an hour and told us of his respect for The Greatest. He had a poster of Muhammad in his firehouse, He recounted pretty much all of Ali's fights and it became very apparent that this moment meant a great deal to the man. These are the kinds of meetings I enjoy the most because I can instantly see Muhammad's ability to lift and inspire others.
Ali explained to the fireman that it was he -- not Muhammad himself -- who was the true hero.
"You are the one..running into fires, saving babies, putting your life on the line," Ali declared. "You are the true hero."
The fireman looked stunned, but quickly presented his argument and backed it up with his recall of many of the nicknames that Muhammad gave his opponents.
"You fought the best, Champ!" the man said before rattling off nicknames for Sonny Liston, Floyd Paterson and George Frazier. "The Bear, The Rabbit, The Mummy and Smokin' Joe Frazier. You are the real hero."
Muhammad shook his head in disagreement and laughed.
"Yeah, but Joe wasn't really smoking," Ali insisted. I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my steak.
The firefighter walked away with a signed menu and a story of how Muhammad Ali respected the man's line of work more than his own.
God love him.