King of Kings: No matter what else was happening in his life, Ali was always The Greatest in the eyes of his adoring fans.
My road trip began in Miami Beach, where a federal officer marched into the Fifth Street Gym while Ali was getting a rubdown and handed him a subpoena in a libel suit he eventually won. Without looking at the subpoena, Ali handed it to me and said, "See how I take care of you, Bob? When you're with me, you always got something to write about."
The road trip ended a week later on a high school football field near Daytona Beach. He had just finished a joke-a-poke exhibition match for charity and now he was back in the motor home he used as a dressing room, changing clothes while his bodyguard shooed everybody out, Jake LaMotta, Angelo Dundee, me, everybody except three foxes he had picked out of the crowd. Then two of the foxes left, and Ali grinned at us as he closed the door behind them.
I watched for a while, until the motor home began to jiggle on its springs. The champ was floating and stinging.
"Don't write about this," said Angelo, and one of the press agents added, "Not if you ever want to interview him again."
At that moment, I didn't much care. Soon after Joe Frazier defeated Ali in The Fight in 1971, I quit the Sports of the Times column to write novels and movies. While I missed out on going to The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila, there wasn't much else I missed about the grind of daily journalism. I could keep up with Ali with occasional freelance pieces, like this one for the Times Sunday Magazine. During the week, there had been a number of mysterious women in hotel rooms and foxes pulled out of crowds that I was supposed to forget about. If I had been a boxing beat writer for a paper or magazine that really cared, I probably would have forgotten about them. But it's easier to remember when you don't have to go back every day, and when losing access just meant you'd have to find something else.
So I could stand there, thinking freely about how I would write it. I thought about the scene in "Madame Bovary" when Emma and Leon did it in a carriage that jiggled on its springs. Could I steal from Flaubert? Ultimately, I didn't, but I wrote enough so I would never be able to interview him again. Too bad. Whenever I was with him, I had something to write about, usually in a warm city.
The Times titled the piece, "King of All Kings."