Muhammad Ali’s death reminded me of a formative episode in my youth. You see, he taught me how to fight.
In the early- to mid-’80s, I traveled with my family to Israel, where we spent parts of each summer. At the time I was just a scrawny kid with a big mouth from just outside of New York City; the type of kid who would look up big words in the dictionary, then use them to prove to the other kids just how smart I was. They didn’t take kindly to this, and they let me know with their fists. I was beaten up often and my self esteem was quite low.
One morning at breakfast in the King David Hotel, which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, my sister pointed out that three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was sitting just a few tables away. He was eating breakfast. Even though he was surrounded by a large entourage, he was clearly enjoying a few minutes of quietude. Lacking any inhibition, I got up from my table and strode right over to the prizefighter.
“Mr. Ali, the kids in my class beat me up,” I said. “Can you teach me how to fight?”
He put down his fork and turned to me with a smile. “Sure,” he said. “Show me how you make a fist.”
I proudly showed him my fist, squeezing my hand as tight as I could. “Oh, I see the problem,” he said, eyeing my fingers. “You have to keep your thumb on the outside.”
I smiled back, and nodded. I was transported, infused with a rush of confidence I’d missed my entire childhood. The most famous boxer on the planet enabled me to stand up straight, all eleven years of me.
Somehow, I still had the presence of mind to ask for an autograph. The Greatest signed a napkin and wrote: “To my friend Ezra, keep on fighting.”
I’ve held onto that napkin for more than 30 years now. It’s somewhere in my parents home, in The Five Towns, NY, in a drawer with my other childhood treasures. I’ll never let it go.
A couple months later I returned from Israel and returned to school. When my classmates tried to pummel me, again, or take my lunch, as usual, I told them: “Stay away! Muhammad Ali taught me how to fight!”
They didn’t believe me, and the bullying continued. My fists, thumb in or out, did not suffice. My meeting with Ali did not stop me from being bullied for even a single day.
But during that one Israeli morning, Muhammad Ali made me feel like I was on the top of the world. I’ll never forget it.
Ezra Y. Schwartz is a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, where he also serves as the Associate Director of the Semikha Program. From 2009-2019, he was senior rabbi of Mt. Sinai Jewish Center of Washington Heights.