When Hunter Met Muhammad

“That crazy bastard didn’t even know who I was when I met him in Chicago. I made a GODDAMN FOOL OF MYSELF, Harold!”

It is disappointing to travel 2,000 miles to meet an interviewee who has no idea who you are. Hunter S. Thompson had dashed from Colorado to Chicago on the promise of interviewing Muhammad Ali on the boxer’s flight to New York. Having schemed his way into First Class, he found that neither Ali nor any of his entourage knew who he was or had any interest in talking. Hal Conrad, the promoter who had arranged the interview, was soon to find out that Thompson did not take disappointment stoically. After having been called a “pig-fucker” and been threated with an elaborate prank involving pantyhose and a press conference in a fountain, Conrad reorganised the intervew for Ali’s hotel.

“We both understood the deep and deceptively narrow-looking moat that eighteen years of celebrity forced Ali to dig between his ‘public’ and his ‘private’ personas,” wrote Thompson. “It’s more like a ring of moats than just one.”

Interviewing Ali was easy. Just turn up and you would be granted a killer quote. Few sportsman have been as skilled at performing for the media. Yet Thompson didn’t want to be just another reporter dutifully quoting the gospel according to Ali. He wanted to break through the familiar grand facade.

“I was still shaking hands with Bundini when I realised where I was — standing at the foot of a king-size bed where Ali was laid back with the covers pulled up to his waist and his wife, Veronica, sitting next to him… I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon and straight into somebody else’s movie.”

Thompson sounds more like an awestruck fan than a hard-bitten hack. He finds himself with a bit part in Ali’s “movie,” the court jester performing at the end of the king’s bed. Thompson had met countless celebrities but Ali’s aura left him shaken.

“I was, after all, the undisputed heavyweight Gonzo champion of the world — and this giggling yoyo in the bed across from me was no longer the champion of anything.”

He didn’t stay disorientated for long. Thompson fell back on his ego, a trusted tool that had saved him often. Sure, Ali was a star, but so was Thompson and he wasn’t going to be outshone. What unfolded wasn’t an interview at all. There were almost no questions, just garbled chat about  “drunkards,” “the sacred nature of unsweetened grapefruits” and “the madness of handling money.” Thompson hadn’t come for an interview but to play.

“His eyes lit up like he’s just seen the one toy he’s wanted all his life, and he almost came out of the bed after me..”

Thompson had brought “a spectacularly hideous full-head, real-hair, 75 dollar movie-style red devil mask.” He had never planned to find the real Ali through interrogation. Ali could answer a million questions. The plan was to take the champ out of his comfort zone by hitting him with something devastatingly weird.

“He laughed wildly and jabbed at himself in the mirror. ‘Yes indeed!’ he chuckled. ‘They thought I was crazy before, but they ain’t seen nothing yet.'”

Thompson and Ali both loved the mask because they both prided themselves in being wilder than everyone else in their  respective fields. Thompson understood that much of gonzo journalism’s appeal lay in the excitement of a freewheeling lunatic causing constant chaos. Ali knew that a hint of instability appealed to fans and the media who loved a “character.” More than that, however, he knew it could unnerve opponents. There was method to both men’s madness.

“He had decided one day a long time ago not long after his twenty-first birthday that he was not only going to be King of the World on his own turf but Crown Prince on everybody else’s…”

Thompson recognised that Ali was the talismanic sportsman of the age because he was always far more than just a sportsman. It’s not a novel conclusion; many other writers have explored Ali’s roles as entertainer, political figurehead and philosopher king. Where Thompson goes further is in arguing that none of these roles were accidental. He suggests that, from a young age, Ali had the ambition to claim power in worlds beyond boxing and that he reveled in playing the different parts. Thompson’s is not a typical piece about Ali, but it has the typical ending: writer leaves in awe.

“He came, he saw, and if he didn’t entirely conquer — he came as close as anybody we are likely to see in the lifetime of this doomed generation.”

Selected quotes from Last Tango In Vegas: Fear And Loathing In The Near Room, by Hunter S Thompson.