An afternoon among friends: A visit to Muhammad Ali at his ranch in Berrien Springs, Michigan 1999
by Jeannine & John A. Kantara
Pic soon to come …
You do not keep a man like Muhammad Ali waiting. Highway 94 seems to dwell on endlessly; up to the small town of Berrien Springs, a three-hour drive away from Chicago. The dead-end road with the typical suburban architecture, leads to a large iron fence. After passing through the gate, the road continues into a spacious compound with neatly cut lawn, old oak trees and four wooden houses painted in white. No bodyguard, no carpool, just a modern station wagon.
There are five of us: A camera crew from Germany and Hans-Juergen Massaquoi, an old friend of the famous boxer, together with his wife Katherine. We feel a bit nervous about the encounter. For fifteen years, the 57-year old former heavy weight champion has been suffering from Parkinson disease. His last public appearance already dates back three years. Everyone recalls the touching moment at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, when he rather shaky, but proudly lightened the Olympic Fire, thereby moving a whole nation to tears. And it was not more than a few seconds that the cameras turned on him when he attended the funeral of John F. Kennedy junior.
Melanie, his assistant, opens the gate. The „world’s greatest“ drives towards us in a white golf cart. He gets out to welcome us with open arms. At first glance, in his khaki trousers and chequered shirt he looks like a normal old age pensioner who has retired to the countryside. Then, however, we recognize a man, who can hardly walk as his feet keep stumbling while he is on the verge of loosing his balance and falling over. He cannot control the tremor in his hands and the disease puts considerable limitations to his mobility. Worse, he can hardly articulate himself. His voice, once so loud and powerful, is nothing but a mumble. It takes a while before we can filter out certain words. During the three-hour trip from Chicago, Hans Massaquoi told us that Ali used to give ad lib hip hop performances, improvising the lyrics as he went along. For instance, his famous excuse for not doing a show fight in front of the Vietnam troops:
Jeannine Kantara, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, THE GREATEST
“And if you ask me for so long / ‚bout the war in Vietnam / I shall sing the song / I isn’t got no quarrel wither Vietcong”. Ali, the godfather of hip hop! Today he is struggling with every word. But look at those eyes! They are smiling – still smiling. And they are evidence of the sharp mind behind the visible limitations that the disease has put on this man.
He knows that the world is watching him with pity. And despite being a sick man, he is still struggling to uphold his legendary image and to keep his dignity. Filming is not allowed and just the occasional photograph can be taken. But for now, he insists giving his guest a personal tour around the compound. Construction workers are busy erecting a new building. „This will be my new office“, Ali explains.
Our first stop is his fitness studio, a fully equipped gym including weights, a training bench, a sandbag in the corner and a real-size boxing ring right in the centre with a Jacuzzi next door. Everything is unused, almost clinically clean. Not a drop of sweat, no atmosphere of exhaustion in the air. The photographs on the walls are reminders of the champion’s greatest moments – the victory against Joe Frazier in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1974, and, of course, his triumph in the same year against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Here in his boxing hall, surrounded by the memories of his greatest victories, Muhammad Ali, the black boy from Kentucky, does not seem to quarrel with his fate. He seems relaxed while entertaining his guest with little anecdotes. He is flirting with the camera assistant, pointing to her husband: »Leave him …« Finally, he invites us for lunch on his terrace where the midday heat seems a bit more bearable. Lonnie, his wife who is sixteen years younger than him, is out. The tuna sandwiches are already prepared. Ali und Massaquoi, two old friends, are sitting next to each other. They do not need many words; the connection between them is quite perceptible. They are bound together by many memories evolving around boxing.
Hans-Juergen Massaquoi, a native of Hamburg, left Germany more than fifty years ago pursuing a successful career as a journalist in the United States, more precisely, as Editor-in-Chief of „Ebony“ magazine, the black response to „Life“. Massaquoi is one of Ali’s oldest friends. It was the boxing sport that brought the two men together. Germany was a Nazi state when Massaquoi, the only Black German in Hamburg’s quarter of Barmbeck, became an amateur boxer. „Boxing was a way for me to gain respect“, he recalls and the strong dialect of Barmbeck can still be heard in his voice after all these years.
Hans-Juergen Massaquoi still has a vivid memory of the first encounter with his friend. It was at the end of 1963 – Muhammad Ali still called himself Cassius Clay -, when he decided to start his own PR campaign and to pressure ”Ebony” into writing an article about him.
»One day«, the journalist recollects, »a colleague at our head office said to me: Look out of the window.“ A coach was parked right in front of the building with big lettering reading: I AM THE GREATEST. A giant young man jumped out of the bus followed by ten young girls dressed in cowboy costumes, with huge hats and plastic guns at their hips.“ The young boxer immediately stormed into the building letting everyone know that his name was Cassius Marcellus Clay and claiming he was going to be the world’s next heavyweight champion. “I will knock out Sonny Liston”, he declared. What an outrageous claim! “Sonny Liston was a giant with an incredible punch, and none of us had ever heard about this Clay, who was only nineteen years old. As a professional boxer he was a complete nobody.”
Even before a fight, Ali knew how to shake up his opponent. „Man before you can blink, I have already landed my combination“ Like many others, Massaquoi simply dismissed such a swaggerer. »Everybody wanted to see Sonny Liston polishing this big mouth. And then, in February 1964, the unthinkable happened: He knocked out Sonny Liston.« In a style the world had never seen before, a boxer who left his hands down during a fight. Speed was his weapon as well as his graceful footwork. »My god, he is boxing with his legs«, the famous choreographer Georges Balanchine once said. Such incredible lightness of movement inspired the term »Ali-Shuffle«.
But eventually even the Ali-Shuffle became slower and slower. In the end, the champion fought several fights where he had taken a lot of stick. Years later, in an honest moment, Ali vividly described how he felt after such heavy blows: »My head vibrates like a tuning fork; neon lights go on and off. You see bats playing trumpets and alligators blowing trombones.”
Nothing but crumbs are left of the sandwiches. “When Hans told me that he was bringing some friends from Germany, I expected white people”, Ali says, “And now I am sitting here with a bunch of Black Germans.” Again he closes his eyes and seems to recall his memories of Germany. He mumbles a name: “Mildenberger”. Ali beat the then European Champion 1965 in Frankfurt. “Is there still racism in Germany?” he wants to know. We tell him about the attacks in Moelln, Hoyerswerda and Guben. Hans-Juergen Massaquoi does not say anything. He is also listening. Ali nods, then recalls a famous anecdote.: “What did Abraham Lincoln say to his associate when he woke up after a three-day drinking bout? I freed whom? “ The Civil War – nothing but a coincidence of history. Ali smiles, as if to say: There you go – you’re not better off than us.
Hans Massaquoi brought a gift for his friend – the galley proof of his new book about his childhood in Nazi Germany. „Neger, Neger – Schornsteinfeger“ is the German title (which literally translates into „Negro, negro, chimney sweeper“), a phrase that children used to shout after Massaquoi. Muhammad Ali is one of the first people to receive the English translation („Destined to witness“).
The 73-year old Hans-Juergen Massaquoi still vividly remembers one particular fight: Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis. That was in 1936. However, the “Braune Bomber” Joe Louis was knocked out in round 12 by an invincible Max Schmeling. It was a blow for the ten-year-old Hans-Juergen, who wanted to see his idol win, and it was a personal defeat. Once again he was just “a negro“ in Nazi Germany.
Time to leave. After three hours, Ali is exhausted. We say farewell: A hug and a long handshake for his friend Massaquoi. “See you!”
The article was originally published in DIE ZEIT no. 42, October14th, 1999