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! CLICK HERE to read the rest of this interview at Vice…
Or watch this REALLY amazing Ali documentary, When We Were Kings, about the “Rumble in the Jungle”: