In the spring of 1971, Muhammad Ali faced two of the toughest fights of his career, one against Joe Frazier, the other against the legal system. That March, Ali returned to boxing after being banned from the sport for refusing to comply with the draft, but he lost a unanimous decision to Frazier. A month later would come the main event: the Supreme Court hearing that would result in the justices ruling in favor of Ali, finding that a lower court gave no reason for refusing to grant the Muslim convert conscientious objector status.
Beyond those two major battles, the once and future champ had plenty to keep him busy, traveling the country speaking about his political and religious beliefs to anyone who would listen: journalists, college audiences, even a 19-year-old Illinois hitchhiker named Louis Diamond who found himself suddenly in a car with the most famous man in America.
VICE spoke to Diamond, now a 63-year-old Chicago social worker, about his unexpected, but meaningful, personal encounter with the recently departed great while the boxer was on his way to speak at Northwestern University, just before the Supreme Court hearing.
VICE: So I'm dying to hear how you randomly met Muhammad Ali.
Louis Diamond: Well, every Sunday in Chicago for many summers [in a park on the North Side], bands would set up and play, and people would come hang out to be around one another and drink cheap wine and pass around doobies. Sometimes people would be leafleting for political stuff. The Chicago police's Red Squad [who were in charge of infiltrating and sabotaging left-wing groups] would have cops with very new bellbottom pants and T-shirts taking pictures of all the people there.
I was still living with my folks in a nearby suburb, and instead of taking public transportation, I would hitchhike about ten miles.
So you were hitchhiking home?
Yes, I was on the roadside waiting for a ride, and it had been a while, and it was incredibly hot. I was sweating. And I'm looking at the heat waves rising from the street and the cars coming at me, and this big, big RV started heading toward me… And I remember thinking, Gee, that'd be really cool if that thing stops for me. And then it slows down, then slows down some more, then it stops.
The door opens, and I get in, and there are five or six well-dressed black guys —dress shirts, polo shirts, some pressed suits—and one of them comes in and says, "Hi, would you like to meet the Champ?" What? And I look over, and Ali's stretched out on this bed in this motorhome! There's the Champ!
Were you a big fan?
I was a political person, so I was very supportive of him and his struggles, and upset that they'd criminally taken away his title because of his refusal to go to Vietnam. I was very involved in anti-war stuff, and this was one more person who was being discriminated against because of his political stances.
Did you tell him that? Did he lay some wisdom on you?
He got up and smiled and introduced himself. He starts telling me about his philosophy of life. I don't remember a lot of the details, just that he stressed the necessity for peace and people working together, and how important this is, us being brothers and sisters and being together in society and life.
And meanwhile, as he's talking, the motorhome is pulling over and picking up someone else!
Whoa. Did you get to watch that person freak out?
I was still talking to Ali when she got on, and they only took her about five or six blocks. By the time they dropped her off, I was still chatting with him. She may not have noticed that he was even there.
But I was agog at the idea that, here is this man who is hated in America, and there's no one there who seems to be his bodyguard, and he's stopping and picking up stray hitchhikers on his way to speak at this public event…
How long did you converse for?
Maybe five or six minutes. Then they all wanted to know if I knew where the Triangle Fraternity was on the campus of Northwestern University. I didn't know exactly, but still I said, "Sure!" I was supposed to be at home, but I knew my folks weren't going to be upset when I told them the reason I was a little bit late—this was an important thing!
Northwestern is a big upper-middle-class and ruling-class school, and I think this might have been the year before a black student was made president of the student body there. So that night, Ali was going to speak at an auditorium on campus, and then go speak again at this black fraternity.
Did you stay to hear his talk at Northwestern?
No, I had to get home. And I didn't feel I needed to stay and watch his speech, because nothing was going to top this personal experience I just had. Nothing could have been more important to me…
But the funny thing is, he went on to live in Chicago for a several years [and get married there], and people I knew had similar experiences with him—my event with him was not that unusual. In that Kartemquin Films documentary called The Trials of Muhammad Ali, someone tells a story about sitting on his lap at a Halloween party. Another woman tells a story about catching a flat tire, and Ali pulls over and fixes her tire. So this just seemed to be the kind of guy that he was.
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