It was the most extraordinary book signing in Edinburgh’s history, and it took place at the now defunct Waterstone’s store at the west end of Princes Street.
The man doing the signing was not even the author, yet thousands had queued earlier in the day at Waterstone’s Glasgow store just for the chance to meet him and have their books signed. One of them was a fresh-faced Rangers FC striker by the name of Ally McCoist.
Now in Edinburgh on the evening of Friday, 19 November, 1993, hundreds of people who had queued patiently for hours to await the arrival of their hero heard the buzz grow, spreading upwards through the crowd, as he was sighted on the street outside.
Then, as if in a dream, we watched Muhammad Ali walk in the door.
Walk is not the correct word. The man whose athleticism had made the Ali Shuffle legendary was now perambulating on legs that shook with the palsy of Parkinson’s Syndrome. His hands, too, shook quite violently, the fists that had defeated Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and so many other great heavyweights now turned to mush by the impact of the disease that came from taking too many punches.
He had to be helped to walk through the store. He was clearly a suffering man.
Yet when we saw his face, you felt your world light up. Here in person was the three-time world heavyweight champion, The Greatest, the Louisville Lip, Ali. The most famous sportsman who had ever lived was right in front of us, and we were all his adoring fans, regardless of his condition.
With applause following his every step, as Ali reached the halfway point of the stairs, one of the staff of the bookshop motioned forward a grey-haired bespectacled man whose face was very familiar to those of us who love boxing. Ali, too, recognised him instantly, and promptly had an emotional reunion with Ken Buchanan, the finest professional boxer ever to come out of Scotland.
They had known each other at the peak of Buchanan’s considerable powers, and when the Scot, then the world lightweight champion, fought the unbeaten Donato Paduana in a non-title fight on 7 December, 1970, at Madison Square Garden in New York, it was Buchanan who topped the bill.
That night Ali, then on the comeback trail after his years out of the ring, stopped the brave Argentinean Oscar Bonavena in the 15th and final round. The two fighters that night acknowledged each other’s boxing skills. Now almost 23 years later, Buchanan somehow retained his composure as he and Ali briefly chatted, the latter calling Buchanan ‘Kenny’ in the softest of tones. Then Ali moved on into the room where he was to sign copies of ‘Muhammad Ali, A Thirty-Year Journey’ by Howard Bingham, the photographer who was Ali’s best friend – it is still the best book of Ali photographs in print.
As soon as Ali was out of sight, Buchanan’s eyes flooded with tears at the shock of seeing The Greatest’s condition up close and personal. “Poor…” was all that Buchanan could manage to say.
At the signing session, a p.r. woman attempted to get Mike Aitken of The Scotsman and myself to stand off to the side. No chance – the normally affable Aitken gave the woman short shrift and we gained price of place behind the signing desk.
When Ali was helped towards his chair, we were able to shake his hand and it was then I looked into his eyes and knew the real horror of his disease. For those dancing dark eyes were as bright and knowing as ever, and I knew instantly that his mind was clear and functioning inside a body that had once been the envy of the planet but was now his trembling prison.
The people began to come forward, and it was their faces which became the story. For each and every one of them was clearly dazzled to be in the presence of Ali, and as he had done throughout the book signing tour, Ali struggled to write his autograph while listening intently to catch the name of the dedicatee.
He posed for pictures – no smartphones then, no selfies – and his face remained set in a part-grimace, part-smile throughout the evening.
A couple of young teenagers who could not have been born when Ali fought the Rumble in the Jungle came forward with eyes like saucers.
As they walked away, one said to the other: “I dinna believe it, I’ve met Muhammad Ali.” That lad will be so much older now, maybe with kids of his own, and you can bet they have often been regaled with the tale of the day their dad met The Greatest.
One man in his thirties, well dressed as if he had come straight from an office in Charlotte Square, was unable to speak in Ali’s presence and after his book was signed he almost staggered away. I caught up with him and asked how he was feeling: “I didn’t know he was that bad. But he was The Man, you know?”
Outside it was a cold calm November evening, and as I drove home, my mind whirled with what I had seen. The car windscreen misted up, and I realised that was because of the salt tears in my own eyes.
For I had finally met the man I had idolised since boyhood, and having discovered for myself the hellishness of his situation, I knew with sickening certainty that even The Greatest, the most gigantic of heroes, had feet of clay.