Muhammad Ali
Photo: Ira Rosenberg. (Wikipedia)
I don’t know why but for some reason I just seem to bump into well known people. It’s always been like that. I can be getting into a lift just as Ricky Gervais is coming out or waiting to board a plane and see Madonna being escorted to First Class. I once even saw the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh from the open top-deck of a tourist packed Big Bus outside the Natural History museum. They were travelling in their Bentley State limousine. We all gave her a wave and she graciously gave us a royal wave back!

But there was one occasion when I was within touching distance of someone I never thought I’d ever see - Muhammad Ali.

I was working for the Big Bus Company training tour guides in London and had been asked to visit Philadelphia and see how their operation was going. My travelling companion was the Big Bus Head of Marketing, Mark Osborne. We had a pretty bumpy flight which resulted in us touching down in Philly an hour later than we should have.

There wasn’t too much panic despite the fact that both of us had to be in our seats at the National Constitution Center where Muhammad Ali, no less, was going to raise the American flag in the Grand Hall Overlook. This had previously flown over every state and territory capitol and was obviously of huge importance to the nation. The date was 14th June 2003. It was to be a special Flag Day ceremony ahead of the official opening of the Constitution Center on 4th July.

We calculated that there would easily be time to check into our hotel, quickly freshen up and then walk over to the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.

But plans have a habit of going awry.

We picked up our luggage off the carousel and sailed through the airport managing to find a taxi straight away. It was all going so well. And then we hit the highway and a traffic jam like we’d never seen in our lives. It made the opening scene in La La Land look like an empty fairground carousel on a wet afternoon.

As we sat in the back of the cab watching the minutes melt away as the dollars were mounting up on the clock, Mark realised that we would have to go straight to the Constitution Center.

“But what about our cases?” I queried, “we can’t go to a major event like this pulling our suitcases on wheels. People will think we’re travelling salesmen.”

“We’ll have to’, said Mark as he desperately tried to use his mobile phone to contact Jim McDonald, our Big Bus contact at the Center. Unfortunately he couldn’t get a signal.

Eventually the traffic started moving and we drove straight into the Old City area of Philly. Our driver dropped us off on Arch Street at the end of the path leading to the National Constitution Center. The building itself looked busy; it was due to open to the public in three weeks time and there were workmen all over the roof climbing up ladders and swinging off scaffolding as they put the finishing touches in place.

We quickly paid the cab driver and then went running up the entrance path pulling our ridiculous cases behind us. We didn’t get far though. Suddenly two uniformed policemen barred our way.

“Where are you two going?” one of them demanded.

“It’s alright officer, we have passes to be here,” said Mark quickly searching his pockets for the relevant letters.

“What you doing? Moving in?” cracked one of the cops eyeing up our suitcases on wheels. “You can’t take those in there.”

“Well we hoped we could leave them in the foyer” I tried to explain, “you see we’ve come straight from our flight from England and there was a bit of turbulence that caused us to arrive late and…”

But neither of the policemen were listening. Their entire focus was now on their earpieces as they listened to a higher authority talking to them by radio.

“OK, you guys are not going anywhere,” said one of them. “Just stand aside and do not move.”

At that moment a large black limousine swept up the street and pulled up right beside us.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The Guest of Honor has just arrived - Mr Muhammad Ali.”

Suddenly there were people all over the place. Officials raced down from the Constitution Center to meet the ‘Greatest’. Someone opened the car door and he slowly stepped out helped by members of his family. It was a slow process, his movement not helped by his Parkinson’s Disease.

Then, as he slowly made his way up the path, the most extraordinary thing happened. All work stopped and the ‘hard hats’, the construction guys up on the roof of the building, climbed down to the ground. They moved to the edge of the path and gave Muhammad Ali a continuous handclap of respect. More and more of them poured down from the building and lined his route. It was a proud moment. Muhammad Ali stopped for a moment, took it all in and smiled.

After the Louisville born legend was safely inside the Center, Mark and I were also allowed in and our suitcases were searched by security and then stored away in a locker room. We quickly made our way to our seats just as the speeches started and The Mayor was about to introduce Muhammad Ali sitting on the platform with other dignitaries.

Our contact Jim McDonald was already in his seat in front of us. He turned around and hissed “Where the hell have you two been? You nearly missed seeing Ali!”

As we watched the man himself being introduced at the far end of the hall, we both realised just how fortunate we’d been in arriving late.

We had been as close to Ali as you could get without being knocked out of the ring.

Philly may always have Rocky, but on this day up stepped the real champ!