THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
“Champ,” I said, “when you’re in the ring and someone has
you on the ropes, do you leave the ring?”
“I get your drift,” Ali said, and turned to the ambassador.
“Where’s downtown?” he asked.
Neither the ambassador nor I had the slightest clue what he
was driving at. But when the ambassador mentioned Tinubu
Square, Ali took me by the arm, “Let’s go there now.”
The long line of minibuses that had brought us from the
airport was downstairs waiting, press corps and State Depart-
ment delegation included. As we pulled into Tinubu Square, Ali
jumped out and began to shadow box with passers-by, of which
there were hundreds.
Soon he was recognized, and the growing crowd began to
chant: “Ali! Ali!” When he had whipped them into a frenzy, he
turned to me: “Where was that first appointment?”
I replied that I had gotten his drift, and off we went with a
large, chanting crowd in tow to the foreign ministry and our
first appointment. We saw other ministers, but not the Nigerian
The score so far: one loss in Tanzania, one win in Kenya and
a technical KO by Ali in Nigeria.
The next stop was Monrovia, Liberia, a friendly nation once
founded by freed American slaves and sure to back us in our
pleas to boycott the Moscow Olympics. Having learned my les-
son in Kenya about Ali’s ability to turn meetings to his advan-
tage, I simply told him that President William Tolbert Jr. had
been a preacher. And, indeed, the president’s office was set up
like a mini-church, with rows of pews facing the chief of state’s
Tolbert was very formal, welcoming Ali and me with all the
old-style protocol of which the Liberian state was so enam-
ored. As he spoke, Ali leaned forward from his pew and began
to chant: “Speak to me! That’s right, speak to me! I hear you
preaching. Oh, my Lord…”
I thought, now you’ve done it—managed to get the champ
to insult a strong ally and probably lose sure support. But no—
His sense of timing and
his ability to get inside his
interlocutor’s head and heart
were a beauty to behold.
Tolbert began to rap back, and before my eyes the two were
transformed into brothers. We were on a roll.
As we pulled into the airport at Dakar, our last stop, there
was the usual press conference that we had encountered at
every stop. But this time, everyone was tired; they had heard
the questions and Ali’s answers over and over. The TV cameras
were turned off, and folks were about to take a nap—when a
reporter stood up and, with a heavy Russian accent, launched
into the same line about an imperialist ploy that we had heard
The press corps began to wake up when Ali looked at the
reporter and asked, “Are you a Russian?”
Yes, was the answer.
“Are you a communist?” Ali continued.
After some hesitation, a reluctant yes came out.
“Well,” said Ali, really wound up now, as if this were the last
championship round. “I’ve been to your country. You don’t
believe in God. Well, I’ll tell you something, we’re in Africa
here, and we believe in God!”
The Russian sat down, abashed, as the press corps and
onlookers cheered. The champ raised his arms in victory.
“Could I Be a Diplomat?”
Washington considered Senegal to be a sure thing, but I
told Ali that President Leopold Senghor, an honest man, had
refused to go along with an Olympic boycott against South
Africa on the grounds that politics and sports should not be
confused. He would not change his stance, I said, even for
Muhammad Ali—but as a renowned poet, he would welcome a
brother bard. I told the champ to enjoy the interchange.
And that’s what happened. Pres. Senghor invited us all to his
personal seaside residence, where he and Ali hit it off as they
recited their poetry. It was a perfect end to an extraordinary
As Ali’s plane took off for Washington with the press corps
and State Department delegation, I remained on the tarmac. I
had to get back to that aborted meeting in Luanda, I thought.
Ali waved at me with a twinkle in his eye, as I am sure he
recalled the several long conversations we had had along the
way centered on his question: “Do you think I could do more of
these missions? Could I be a diplomat?”
I had told him then, and I meant it, that he was “a diplomat
extraordinaire.” His sense of timing and his ability to get inside
his interlocutor’s head and heart were a beauty to behold. Ali
combined a sense of strategy, learned from the ring, with the
unparalleled ability to muster popular support, above and