COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., June 5, 2016 – “The one athlete who stood by me . . . Muhammad Ali . . . He and I became great friends. I traveled the world with him for years. Muhammad is the finest man I’ve ever known. I love him like a brother and I’ve missed him.”
So said Larry J. Kolb, American spy and agent to Muhammad Ali, as he recounted in his memoir, “Overworld: The Life and Times of A Reluctant Spy.”
Ali admirers know the poet, the fighter, the man who fought the fight of his life these past years with Parkinson’s disease. But only those closest to him know the humanitarian, diplomat and clown.
Years later, when Kolb was writing his book, he visited his old friend in Beverly Hills. They were out driving; Ali wanted to know all about his project.
“Another book about me. What you gonna call it?”
“It’s not about you.”
“We didn’t hear from him for at least five minutes. For all I knew, he might’ve been asleep back there. Until: Wham! My head and neck went flying forward. Due to the punch Muhammad had just leveled into the headrest I’d been leaning into.”
“Wham! Another one.”
“Not about me!”
Whump! This time a left uppercut through my seat back and aimed at my kidneys.
“What you mean you writin’ a book that’s not about me?”
“. . . Then Muhammad started flicking precision left jabs that stopped about an eighth of an inch from my eyelashes. One of them touched me gently. Muhammad moves a lot better than you would think, sometimes. He isn’t always frozen by Parkinson. Not always.”
“Not about me!”
“What’s it about then?”
“Actually, it’s about me.”
“Ain’t gonna be much of a book.”
“Shut up, fool!”
“Better make it about me if you want it to sell.”
“Stop the car, Bingham. I’m gonna kill him.”
It’s said a man’s charity is measured by what he does when no one is looking, when there is no obvious advantage for him. Ali’s interactions with people when he was out of the spotlight are the most revealing.
Kolb was with Ali a few weeks later, when an old African man and a young African boy rang his doorbell in Los Angeles. The boy, as is customary in Africa, came bearing food. It was an hours-old Big Mac, which Ali proceeded to eat as he talked with the two.
“How long you been in America?”
“Eight days. First we went to Chicago. But found you no longer live there. Three days ago we arrived in Los Angeles. Today we found you. Tomorrow we can go home.”
After they’d eaten, Muhammad drove 40 minutes across town to the run-down airport hotel where they’d been staying. He hugged them goodbye. Kissed them. Told them to go with God.
“Every one of us has an angel watching us every day. Every time we do a good deed, the angel makes a mark on one side of his book. Every time we do something bad, the angel makes a mark on the other side. When we die, if we’ve got more good marks than bad, we go to Paradise. If we’ve got more bad marks, we go to Hell.
“Everything on earth we do, we do right in front of Allah and his angels. Maaaaaann, that’s heavy. That’s powerful. Think of it.”
Ali traveled the world, an ambassador for peace.
Kolb: “As I said, we were experts at moving through crowds. For all the leaders he met, Muhammad loved the common people more. Wherever he went, he made sure to see them. And to let them have a chance to see him. When his visits were announced in advance, the crowds were enormous. One day in Seoul, more than two million fans filled a city square to greet him.
“In New York, one of Muhammad’s favorite things to do was arrive unannounced in Times Square, pop out of a taxi or a limo, and then leave a few minutes later – once traffic had come to a standstill. Horns honking everywhere. Bus drivers out of their buses getting autographs. Passengers climbing out of taxis to shake Muhammad’s hand. Swarms of people moving down the sidewalks and through the streets toward Muhammad. I saw him perform his Times Square trick many times.”
To standing ovations, Ali arrived at foreign palaces over the world to greet important people who gathered to see him.
“And, after the Lord Mayor has welcomed him and given him something shiny, Muhammad takes over.”
“Deadpan, he says:
“He pauses for effect.”
“All that production flying me across the ocean. All that strugglin’ getting me through the crowd to bring me in here. And you give me this little medal?”
“And now Muhammad breaks into verse:”
“I enjoy your city, I admire your style. But your pay is so cheap, Don’t call me back for a while.”
“He stomps off a few steps. Then comes back grinning. And gives, sometimes a beautiful canned speech. Other times: one of the craziest speeches of all time. Off the cuff. From the hip. Straight out of his head. Branching out in all directions at once. Standing in the wings, or sitting on the dais, it seems to you he’s totally lost the thread of what he’s trying to say. You’re praying he knows where he’s going with it, but increasingly convinced he’s lost it. Then somehow, in just a few words, he brings it all back together exquisitely. And, even though you’ve heard him speak a thousand times, you listen carefully. For you’ve just remembered you’re listening to a mind like no other.”
“All my years of boxing were nuthin’. Just God’s way of giving me fame. So I can deliver a message.”
Kolb, the son of a spy, was reluctant to follow in his father’s line of work. When he finally allowed himself to be recruited, (the CIA likes to hire trusted family members into the clandestine world), he traveled the world with Ali and another famous personage, billionaire Adnan Khashoggi, meeting kings, potentates and, on occasion, fellow spies.
A recruiter told Kolb, “Only one quality is essential for a spy, and that’s access to a target.”
Kolb had that access. He also had patience, an eye for detail, the guts of a cat burglar, and the ability to insinuate himself into settings off-limits to the common man. He was a natural.
Was Ali aware of Kolb’s other work? He must have had an inkling, as he accompanied Kolb in an effort to release American hostages believed to be in Lebanon. It was said that American hostage Jeremy Levin was freed out of respect for Ali. Using Ali’s reputation as a starting point, a group was put together to travel to Beirut to try to free more hostages.
Once inside Beirut, the Ali party traveled at night, often having to change cars to escape detection. They met strange men with rifles in safe houses in the worst sections of that war-torn city. At all times they were in great danger, but Ali’s faith, calmness, and celebrity as America’s most famous Muslim, contributed mightily to keeping them alive during their harrowing stay.
His stubbornness was also on full display when, following several close calls, everyone in his group wanted to flee the city for the safety of Cyprus. He finally agreed to leave only after he was informed of how fearful the others were.
“The moment Muhammad reluctantly agreed to leave Beirut, for Jabir’s sake . . . the rest of our visit to Beirut felt pretty much like being fired out of a cannon. No traveling party of well-intentioned Americans ever packed faster. An hour after we’d decided to leave, we were in the near-total madness of Beirut International Airport, where babies wailed, and women ululated, and the walls were pockmarked with gunfire . . . ‘We’ll take the next flight to anywhere, please.’”
Kolb’s stories about Muhammad Ali tell us not just the facts of the man. Most important, they inform us of the fighter’s heart and soul.
“A month or two later. In a working-class neighborhood on the edge of London. In a crowd. I’d never seen so many faces in a single block. We’d worked our way out of the car, through a multitude, and up some steps. Policemen were holding a door open for us. We were almost there. A red-haired boy, about 10, and his beefy father were the only ones still blocking our way. The boy was right in front of Muhammad, staring up into his face.”
“Muhammad reached out to shake the boy’s hand. But the boy was frozen in awe. ‘Go ahead, son,’ said the father. ‘This is your moment. Shake the hand that shook the world.’”
Kolb: “I knew I’d never forget it. I looked back to take it all in one more time.”