The Day I Shook the Hand of “The Greatest”

Would you believe I shook hands with and received a mini-apology from boxing legend Muhammad Ali, a.k.a “The Greatest”?

In 1970, when I was a college freshman, my best friend Jackie and I went to hear Ali speak at the Mansfield branch campus of THE Ohio State University. We were excited, so we arrived early and sat in the front row. The person introducing the former heavyweight boxing champion presented a framed, oil painting of the Champ.

Ali looked around to see where he could safely set down the very large piece and motioned for me to come forward. I jumped up and took the portrait from him as he loudly announced: “Thanks, I always wanted a white slave!”

I thought it was a hilarious comment, but after his speech, Ali sought me out, extended his right hand, and said, “You knew I was just kidding, right?” And then the hand that would punch the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier warmly clasped mine.

True story.

In 1984 Ali announced he had Parkinson’s disease, and if you watched that incredible moment at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he shakily lit the torch, you could see what a painful turn the former Olympic gold medalist’s life had taken

Before his death in 2016 Ali advised: “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”

My beautiful friend Georgia, author, credentialed Christian life coach and survivor of four cancers–including stage 4 lung–shares a similar philosophy: “Life is a gift, so what am I going to do with it?…Live it purposefully and passionately, and make the time I do have count!”

Good thing Georgia didn’t “count” her days after the lung cancer diagnosis as she’s alive and healthy 11 years later!

If you or someone you love has received a life-threatening diagnosis–or like me, you are noticing more wrinkles in the mirror–you’re face-to-face with your own mortality.

And if a physician has told you that your days or your loved one’s days are numbered, I hope you are not trying to count them. Do not embrace those longevity guesses and allow them to become self-fulfilling prophecies. (I’ve lost count of the scores of cancer survivors I know who have outlasted medical predictions and weren’t “supposed to be here.”)

I hope you’ll ask yourself what you care deeply about and then allow that love to nurture your spirit and give you hope. If you have regrets, make amends where necessary and be thankful for the God of second chances. Seek out and enjoy the things that help you feel God’s peaceful presence.

The Bible says we ought to learn to “number” our days, but that doesn’t mean we should try to figure how many we have left. Instead, we should realize that every person—sick or well—has a limited supply. Illness and aging do us a favor when they remind us that however long we live on earth, it’s a blink compared to eternity.

Eternal One, let me understand my end
 and how brief my earthly existence is;
help me realize my life is fleeting.
Psalm 39:4, The Voice Bible

Teach us to realize the brevity of life,
so that we may grow in wisdom.
Psalm 90:12 NLT

Nobody really knows how many rounds we have left in us, but as long as you have this day, there’s no reason to throw in the towel. Ask God how you can make this day count in your life, in the life of someone you love, and for eternity.

Partially excerpted from Peace in the Face of Cancer, Tyndale Momentum, ©2017 Lynn Eib.
Please open in your browser to hear the video “God of All My Days” by Casting Crowns. 


    • Sally Gobrecht on April 24, 2024 at 9:26 PM
    • Reply

    Wonderful story, and very meaningful.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Sally,
      Thanks, it’s a very cool memory for me. Too bad it was pre-cell phones because it would have been a great photo! His words about making the days count always struck me as powerful because of the terrible physical decline he experienced. (It’s nice to connect with “old” fiends here once in awhile!)

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