Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie invited me to join them on a humanitarian trip to Cuba to deliver medical supplies to the island. It was a delegation really headed by Ali. Ed Bradley was in the group as he was doing a piece on Ali for 60 Minutes. Author Gay Talese was with us as well. It was a wild experience.
Gay was interesting. White suited and fastidious, he seemed to be from another more romantic era. Because Ali was not really talking much, at least not to him, he had to construct his story for Esquire by talking to everyone else, including me. At the time, I'd never been written about in a magazine before. It was weird being interviewed. I didn't feel I had anything important to say and tried to deflect, to no avail. Like a dog with a bone, he chomped down on me and stuck me in the narrative even though I didn't want to be in the story.
This trip was one of the highlights of my life. To travel with Ali is like riding down the Nile on a royal barge. The waters just part. There is a smile on every face. Things, great things, just happen when he is heading your party.
We had dinner with Che's daughter, also doctor, Aleida Guevara. You could see Che in her eyes. She is like royalty on the island.
We were there three weeks meeting all these great people, but no Fidel. On the last night we were there, we got a call. Now we would meet him. I was filled with anticipation.
We proceeded to the presidential compound. We were all excited, nervous as we poured into a curtained reception room. And then it happened. The big man walked in. Like a rooster. Cock of the walk, indeed. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I shook when I took pictures. Here he was, the bane of America's leaders for almost 40 years: FIDEL!
It was the first meeting of these two 20th century icons. Ali looked at him as a child would look at Santa Claus, amazed that he really existed. Ali hadn't been talking much during the trip, but being in the presence of Fidel shut him up completely.
Fidel (through his cutie interpreter): "Muhammad, I see you have gained weight from the earlier pictures of you I have seen. For myself, your Metropolitan Life Insurance tables say a man of my height should weigh 175 pounds. I weigh 199 and am in excellent health. Therefore, the insurance tables must be wrong."
And off to the race we were. He went on like that with little anecdotes for two hours. It was a Tour de Fidel.
He came to me, looked at my girth, and through his interpreter: "My goodness, you need to make exercise and eat less." I said, "Commandante, mis amigos llamame Flaco," my friends call me skinny. He cracked up and shook my hand.
He remains, to this day, one of three most impressive people I've ever met.