Sports

Encounter with Muhammad Ali in Gulfport brief but memorable

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/2003 
 Muhammad Ali holds up four fingers at Gulfport/Biloxi International airport to indicate his prediction on his daughter Lala's boxing match in Biloxi in August 2003.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/2003 Muhammad Ali holds up four fingers at Gulfport/Biloxi International airport to indicate his prediction on his daughter Lala's boxing match in Biloxi in August 2003. SUN HERALD

I’m not much for the paparazzi style of photography. As a rule, celebrities don’t impress me.

Muhammad Ali was different.

In 2003, then–Sun Herald sports reporter Don Hammack had received a tip that the Great One would be flying into Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport to attend his daughter’s boxing match the next night.

Laila Ali was creating a stir in the women’s boxing world in 2003, and not only because of her lineage. She was a good fighter.

Don and I sped to the airport, wondering whether we would make the 10 p.m. deadline for the next day’s paper.

Luckily, we were not prevented access.

Ali arrived, presumably on a private plane, and entered the luggage-pickup area with a small entourage.

A handful of people had gathered — airport employees and some hopeful fans.

Someone called out to him. He waved and briefly stuck a classic boxer’s pose, offering a one-two.

His wife, Lonnie, then grabbed his hand to help steady his shaky walk as they headed to the door. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease almost two decades earlier.

Despite his frail state, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

Hammack asked Ali for a prediction on the fight. He didn’t say a word, but held up four fingers and gave a confident stare.

I got the photo, and we made it back to the paper in time for deadline.

The next night, Laila Ali knocked out Christy Martin in the fourth round.

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