PR pros share their 'Ali moments'

Following Muhammad Ali's death on Friday, PR pros shared their stories of the beloved champ.

Image via radcharliebrown / eBay
Image via radcharliebrown / eBay

More than half a century ago, Muhammad Ali forced Sonny Liston to surrender his heavyweight championship belt and sealed his place forever as The Greatest of All Time.

The world is reeling again now, but for very different reasons. After Ali died of septic shock last Friday, people are looking for new ways to keep his memory live.

 "I think almost everyone has an Ali moment," said Ray Kotcher, senior partner and chairman at Ketchum, in an email. "He touched so many."

Kotcher’s Ali moment came 20 years ago at the airport when he and his family were waiting for their luggage by the carousel, after returning from a vacation in Florida.

"On one side was my son — then seven or eight. On the other was the great man himself," Kotcher said. "We talked while waiting for our bags. I told him about the profound impact he had on me -- that I was at the famous Ali-Norton bout at Yankee Stadium in 1976."

Ali couldn’t resist making one final taunt.

"The champ drew me close and whispered in my ear, ‘I whooped him,’" Kotcher recalled. "After we grabbed our bags and started on our way, my son tugged at me and asked, ‘Dad, did you see the size of his hands?’"

Kotcher explained that he saw the star again years later when a client arranged for Ali, among other sports celebrities, to attend an event. By then, Parkinson’s had begun to take over Ali.

"It broke my heart to see him like this," said Kotcher. "One of my life’s idols, a gifted athlete, an important man."

The cumulative effect of boxing took its toll on Ali. Parkinson’s Disease rendered him silent — almost. He exhibited a fierce energy and his legend preceded him wherever he went. Former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann called it a kind of "telepathy."

"No one who met him nor even came close to him in a crowd would deny that Ali seemed to glow, or transmit, or vibrate in some nonverbal way," Olbermann wrote in a piece published by The Ringer. "You could see him with your eyes closed. You could hear him when he wasn’t speaking."

At a General Mills press event in New York in 1999, Bret Werner, chief client officer for MWW, was helping to hype up Ali’s Wheaties cereal box appearance. That’s when he met Ali, who commanded the room "without saying a word, just a smile and his presence," Werner noted.

"It was like walking with a superpower, anywhere he went," Werner said. "The hallways parted as he walked."

Werner described Ali as "humble" and "accommodating" for all the reporters that interviewed him, eager to shake hands and make sure everyone got what they needed. He didn’t have an "on-the-clock" attitude.

"For a professional who made the majority of his living as a fighter, I think he had a big heart and that easily came across," Werner said. "Even when Parkinson’s hit him, he was on the road extensively, making appearances, doing nonprofit work. He realized his sport transcended well beyond the ring and he was able to influence the lives of people, politics, and culture. That’s why I think he embraced the limelight."

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