How Mohammed Ali taught me magic
Hours after he died, David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker Magazine, penned what will definitely be the most eloquent and elegant obituary of the greatest and the prettiest titled, The Outsized Life of Mohammed Ali. He said Ali was; arguably the most famous person on the planet, known as a supreme athlete, an uncanny blend of power, improvisation, and velocity; a master of rhyming prediction and derision; an exemplar and symbol of racial pride; a fighter, a draft resister, an acolyte, a preacher, a separatist, an integrationist, a comedian, an actor, a dancer, a butterfly, a bee, a figure of immense courage.
He quoted Ali’s mother, Ma Odessa, who confessed that she was actually the first victim of her son’s jabs. At aged six months, while stretching on the bed, she said, his little muscle would hit me in the mouth and it loosened my front tooth; it affected my other front tooth and I had to have both of them pulled out. So I always say his first knockout punch was in my mouth. When he started talking, she confessed, I don’t know how any body could talk so fast, just like lightening.
For such a stupendously famous, likeable and endlessly charming man, who would not treasure any minute or memory of him and even brag about it? I believe by sheer chance and luck, I fortunately earned my own bragging rights. Who would miss a chance to add his voice to the millions of mourners of the passing away of the most handsome and prettiest sports man of all time, the late Mohammed Ali, formerly, Cassius Clay?
In November, 2000, I was on my way from New York to South Bend, Indiana, and had to connect a flight in Chicago. My flight from New York had been slightly delayed and I was therefore one of the last to board the plane. It was a rather small plane and by the time I boarded, almost everyone was already seated. As I struggled with my hand luggage, my eyes were fixed on locating my seat which was in the middle of the plane. As I walked on, a hand blocked my way. Not bothering to look, I just pushed it away, but somehow, the hand was stiff, apparently resisting me.
At that point, I decided look right to see who was up to these pranks. Behold, in all his majesty, sat the prettiest, the best and the greatest. My jaw dropped in shock. As our eyes met, he smiled and shook his clenched fist in acknowledgement, literally saying, yes, you guessed right, it is I, the greatest, the prettiest and the best. It turned out the he had apparently noticed me as I boarded the plane. I later realized that we were the only two black faces in the entire plane! My assigned seat was still some two rows ahead but he motioned for me to seat next to him. I was literally star struck.
Quite unlike me, I was tongue-tied. His face was still handsome and smooth, but looked weak yet joyful. He was the face we had all gotten used to. How could Ali be flying in a commercial plane and not even be seated in business class or given a front seat? Now, what was I to say? Ask what he had for break fast or lunch? Ask where he was going, why he was not in his own private plane, or ask what he was going to do in South Bend? As I tried to get over the excitement, I prayed and prayed that whoever had this vacant seat on which I was temporarily seated should either miss the plane or not show up at all. I had already made up my mind that should any attempt be made to move me from this seat, I would create a scene and move only in handcuffs. I was prepared for a fight. I was already rehearsing my lines of resistance; preparing to invoke the racist Niger- hating clauses if the need arose. Happily, there was no need for that.
He saw my clerical collar and with difficulty, asked, You are a priest? But before I could answer, he followed up with another question, Catholic or Protestant? I told him I was a Catholic priest and was from Nigeria. Do you live in South Bend or just visiting, he asked. He was determined for a conversation. No, I told him, I am a Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, England. Oxford?, he asked, tilting his head as if he was dodging a Joe Frazier punch. I nodded. Then the Airhostess began the usual departure ritual. He pointed ahead as if to say, now let us listen to instructions. I watched as his shaking hands tried to buckle his seat belt. As he struggled, I leaned over to help him with the belt. As it clicked, he said, thank you very much. I felt some kind of extra adrenalin race inside me. I was delighted by what I had just accomplished. I felt great that these hands which had blown away many jaws, broken chins and teeth were now so weak and under my control. Here I was helping the greatest, the prettiest and the best get his seat belt around him. It was a great feeling but I felt a bit guilty entertaining such thoughts.
After the plane gained altitude and the seat belt sign was turned off, he leaned over and said to me, Let me out, I gotta show you guys something. I went over the ritual of helping him unbuckle the seat belt. I was quite surprise at his determination, despite his health. He got up haltingly and stood right in front of me and in the middle of the main passage. All eyes turned to him as he struggled to pull out something from his pocket. Hi, everybody, I gatta do some magic for you guys, just watch me, he said with his slurred speech. Literally everyone nearby turned with excitement but no one really knew what he wanted to do especially as he was visibly shaking a bit. Seeing him standing drew applause from the passengers.
He took out a red silky handkerchief, waived it to everyone and then raising his hands, clasped them and did as if he was washing his hands. Then, again, he raised up his hands, opened his fingers fully and lo, the handkerchief had disappeared. The passengers burst into applause and those who did not know what was happening behind them turned around. He was not done yet. He went through a second ritual of clasping his hands, kept playing around with them again and behold, he literally pulled out the handkerchief from his empty hands!! Again, there was applause as he waived the handkerchief to the passengers. As he acknowledged the cheers, he smiled with some child like affectionate innocence. As he returned to his seat, I rose up, feeling as if I was the sorcerer’s apprentice.
I turned down the Airhostess’s offer of coffee because I was anxious for her to move on. I turned to Ali and asked, I don’t think the world knows that you retired from boxing only to become a magician. Again, he smiled and said: You wanna know how I did it? I nodded with excitement especially at the prospects of being an emergency apprentice Magician seemed exciting. Then he pulled out the tools of the trade and showed me. There was the red handkerchief and a thimble, the little metal cap that tailors often use. As if sharing a little secret to a black brother, he leaned over and said, You see, while your hands are clasped, you push this little handkerchief into the thimble. Being silk and small, it snugged into the thimble. He then put the thimble on his thumb and with an innocent smile, he said, See, it is that simple. But he was not done yet.
He decided to decode it: When you have got it right inside the thimble, then, you push your thumb into the thimble. You see, the handkerchief is right inside the thimble and your thumb is in the little space left, but you turn your empty fingers to the crowd but make sure that your thumb is facing you. Your audience is not interested in the thumb because they can see your fingers as you spread them out and are empty. Make sure the thimble is of the same colour as your skin, so no one will notice. You got it, Father, he said again, with calm innocence and childlikeness. Now, I have made you a magician! But can a priest be a magician?, he said again haltingly I nodded with pride at my sudden induction into the occult world of magic by the no other than the prettiest and the best.
Suddenly, the Pilot announced that we were starting a descent into South Bend. I turned to the greatest, the prettiest and the best and said: Now that I do not have a certificate to prove that I am now a magician, can I please have an autograph? No one will believe my story. He pulled out a little flier for a charity he was involved with and I watched as he struggled to write, To Fr. Matthew painfully scrolling his name. I smiled as I collected it but I said, Champion, I need two more for my friends who adore you, I ventured. He nodded and I wrote out the two names, Tony and Chuka. One was Tony Nnachetta my friend and Chuka Momah whom I had never met, but knew him to be the best boxing analyst. I had also read a piece he did on Ali for Newswatch. I needed this to show off to both Tony and Chuka.
As the plane touched down, the greatest, the prettiest and the best and I had to part. Good luck with Oxford, Father. As a black man, you are privileged to be in Oxford, he muttered, struggling with his speech. I looked at him and some pall of sadness hung over me. We all stepped aside and let him walk haltingly through to the waiting hands of his hosts. I had been with the greatest, the prettiest and the best. As he struggled to walk, I felt so sad that he looked so vulnerable, would no longer dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I knew I would never see him again, but it felt like I had been part of some miniature, human epiphany.
His death has stung the world like a bee, but his beautiful memories will remain like the multiple colours of a butterfly seduced by the aroma of the petals of a beautiful rose. Rest in peace, Champ. You will always be a champion in our hearts. Forever, the greatest, prettiest and the best.
Bishop Hassan Kukah of Sokoto Diocese.