It was January of 1980. The boxing legend was in Delhi. There were only two ways of seeing him: attend the exhibition bout and see him from a mile away or go for the pricey dinner hosted by his sponsors in a five-star hotel. The first option was meaningless and the other unaffordable. But he had to be met nevertheless. And this is what exercised our minds when we friends got together for a Bacchanalian evening. And a solution emerged - why not park ourselves in the hotel lobby when the dinner got over and catch the great man as he walked out? With the heady liquids swirling inside us, there was no dearth of Dutch courage to pull off the caper. We reached the hotel lobby to find half of Delhi had had the same brainwave. We barely managed to find a standing place.
Soon all hell broke loose. The dinner had got over and 'The Greatest' had walked into the lobby.
We stood glued to the spot, awestruck by the unbelievable fact of his actual presence before us mere mortals. The trance soon passed and we faced the cold reality of not being able to have the private tete-a-tete
that we had originally planned. The multitudinous hordes stood between us like an insurmountable wall.
It was then Bacchus stirred to wakefulness. A shrill banshee wail rent the air. "Hey, Muhammad Ali! You are way past your prime man. Why don't you hang up your boxing gloves and retire gracefully?" A hush descended on the lobby. The crowd was aghast at the effrontery. The man waved at me and then looked at the other way. That goaded me further. "Hey, Muhammad! If you are for a real, man, then fight with us. Let us see if you are still a fighter." This time he wore a frown and looked a shade grim. "Come on, Muhammad! What are you waiting for? Either fight or admit you're yellow."
That was it. Like a mad bull the man charged at me. The crowd quickly parted, expecting mayhem. He approached and growled, "Take guard, little man! You've asked for it." Seeing the giant looking down at me, his fist as large as my face, I knew that my end was only moments away. Sheer terror immobilised me as I waited for the deathly blow.
In 1980, in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Delhi, Muhammad Ali got into a "fight".
But it didn't happen that way. Bending down, he held my fist and placed it on his nose. As his nose puckered he made a grimace. It was then that I saw the twinkle in his eyes and realised that he was only clowning around. And after that what a mock fight we had! The crowd went berserk and the photographers had a field day.
Muhammad then chatted with us awhile and asked us about ourselves. Never serious for a moment, he was all wit, humour and affection. He exhibited considerable patience in handling our school-boyish enthusiasm and excitement. We all had a lump in our throats as Muhammad hugged us before he took his leave.
The man who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee had shown that he had a heart of gold. The encounter with him is one of the most cherished memories I possess. The photograph may have faded, but the incident is still deeply etched in my mind.(Ajay Mankotia is President, Corporate Planning and Operations, NDTV)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.