Bill Withers
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Musician Bill Withers was a longtime friend of Muhammad Ali’s. Withers met Ali shortly after he was stripped of his boxing title in April 1967 for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.

In a recent tribute to the late boxer, Withers recounted the time he spent with Ali in 1974 at the Zaire ’74 concert, right before the "Rumble in the Jungle" match between Ali and George Foreman:

I became involved in Zaire ’74 when Gary Stromberg, who had a PR firm, asked me if I wanted to go to Africa for the fight. It was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. In the Kinshasa Hilton were people like [author] Norman Mailer, [journalist] George Plimpton, B.B. King and James Brown—you don’t get those kinds of people in the same space too often. It really showed the magic about Ali. The people in Zaire loved him; they followed him around, and he was running his mouth and going on.

Withers went on to recall how Ali interacted with people from all walks of life, in Zaire and all around the world:

Ali would talk to anybody. I’ve never seen anyone with the energy to talk that much. He talked all the time. From the guy who parked the cars to Fidel Castro, everybody had some kind of moment with Muhammad Ali. I would see old-time bigots, who obviously had issues with his political stance. But after five minutes with Ali, they were fans. You know how you call friends up on the phone? You couldn’t harness Ali. He always was in perpetual motion. It would be like trying to catch a hummingbird in your hands.

Advertisement

Withers said that the last time he saw Ali in person was in the '90s, and that even while dealing with Parkinson's disease, Ali still got into his boxing stance, prompting Withers to say, "My man, still going."