As long as we have life, we will have bigger and bigger battles to fight. You will win some and lose some, we can’t win them all, but the secret to success in life is – you must pick your battle carefully. That was the life lesson I got when I met the GOAT, The Greatest of All Times – Muhammed Ali, on a Monday morning in the summer of 1989. A Monday morning that would change my life forever.
I was about to step into the elevator at the Lincoln Building in Manhattan, New York, as I did every work day for the past fifteen years. Suddenly, the door began closing slowly when a giant hand reached out. The door sprung open. I looked up to thank the perfect stranger, only to realize that he was no stranger.
Standing majestically in front of the marquee was Ali. I stepped back; he said, “get in! what floor you’re going to?” Like he was the elevator operator. Now, this is no table topic question, but tell me what you would have said or done. I froze, then whispered – I’ll take the fifty-second, please, sir – as I stepped into my neutral corner in the elevator – bewildered.
At that moment, a little voice popped into my head, screaming don’t say anything stupid. Still, the motor in my mouth started running. I know you. Ali -No, you don’t. Then silence until my engine revved again. So, I see you are going to the thirty-sixth floor – The Banquet Hall? Ali Yep! – To retire again, Champ! It’s over – it’s over, Champ!
The GOAT did not like my comment. Like a caged lion, he growled, spun around, and came at me with his clenched fist, screaming – No! It’s over for you! Get them up! – I shall return! Luckily for me, the elevator bell tolled for his floor just then. It was only when Ali stumbled out of that elevator in stitches I realized that the world’s greatest prankster had just pranked me. Yes, he got me good. Like Elvis, I was all “shook up.”
We immediately realized that the thirty-sixth floor was in darkness, except for a dimly lit red sign – EXIT. And that was not the reception we both had expected, so I offered my services. Jokingly, I said Champ, I can stay and protect you. I know this building well. Oh! Ali replied, now you want to be my bodyguard. OK – And we began chatting, not like a prince and a pauper, but like two mere mortals. We spoke about some of his fights going back to the first I against Sonny Liston.
As we spoke, Ali kept looking at his watch. I told him my dad was his biggest fan. He asked who’s your dad. – Big George – I said. Ali growled – I hate that name, George. But I could tell he was uneasy about something. Ali then said, yes, today is the day. Looking at his watch again, he said, “I’ll finally be announcing my retirement to the world at seven am today.” And it was then I got my life lesson.
Soon after, his entourage arrived. And I was tickled when he introduced me as his newfound bodyguard. We all had a good laugh as his photographer Bingham, took pictures. What I remember most about that morning was Ali’s reflective mood. He finally realized that he had reached the end of fighting many battles inside and even outside the ring. Of all the pictures we took that day, I will always cherish the one when he gave me his secret to success. Again, the little voice in my head said -listen and lean. – this is not an accidental meeting. Ali is your messenger!
Ali didn’t know that I, too, was fighting a child custody battle within. I was at that building at six thirty that morning because I couldn’t sleep. I struggled for weeks with a major life-changing decision that I knew could even land me in prison. But, after that meeting with Ali that morning, I knew what I had to do. And one month later, I was driving to San Jose, leaving all my earthly positions behind to start life all over.
Before that day, I had never driven further than New Jersey. Five days later, I arrived in San Jose shaken. It was the day after the Loma Perata earthquake. To this day, my grown kids still say – Dad, when California heard you were coming, the earth shook. My child custody battles were many. But I never lost the most important of them all, the custody of my children.
My friends, if ever you are faced with a life-changing decision, remember this secret I got from the GOAT- As long as we have life, we will have bigger and bigger battles to fight. You will win some and lose some, we can’t win them all, but the secret to success in life is – you must pick your battle – carefully.“ It is a message that changed my life and could also change yours forever.