MT. GREENWOOD — To people around the world, Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest” — an iconic brawler in the boxing ring and in the Civil Rights movement.
To Mike “Pickle” Joyce — a Beverly brawler who Ali once playfully slapped in the face and said “Can the white boy fight?” — the three-time World Heavyweight Champion was the guy who could have K.O.’d his chance at true love.
Back in 2009, Joyce’s relationship with a pretty girl from Blue Island, Jamillah Ali, started to get serious.
Before he could even think about popping the question, Joyce had to get permission from her father — "The King of the World" who, according to his own account, once wrestled with alligators, tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. A man so bad he murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. A man so mean, he could make medicine sick.
Mark Konkol talks about Muhammad Ali as a family man.
Joyce knew there was no getting around it.
Jamillah Ali said her famous father "told me when I was younger that he wanted me to be the very best.”
“He wanted me to have the best relationship and to approve whomever I decided that would be,” she said.
When Joyce telephoned Ali seeking permission to marry Jamillah, The Champ was 67 years old and, despite struggling with Parkinson's Disease, still a guy who took no mess.
“I had been up to his place several times with Jamillah, and I met him on several occasions with some boxing guys. He remembered me from that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to get him on the phone,” Joyce said.
The Champ worked Joyce over a little.
“He did want to know if I had been married before, if I had any kids. I didn’t. That made me nervous since I was 40 and a former boxer. I was worried what he thought about that. That maybe he thought I was married to the bottle or something,” Joyce said.
“But he was cool about it. He was like any good father. He asked me if I loved her and I said, ‘I do love her.’ ... He said, 'You better treat her right.' "
Ali did not utter the words “or else,” but they were implied.
Joyce — the son of South Side Irish Democrat powerbroker and former State Senator Jeremiah Joyce — got the message loud and clear.
Joyce and The Champ conspired to plan a surprise proposal for later that year.
It happened in a hotel room in County Clare, Ireland, where Ali was being honored in the city of Ennis, the hometown of Ali’s Irish ancestor Abe Grady.
“We were there and I said, 'Muhammad, I love your daughter and I want to marry her,' ” Joyce told me.
“She gave me a look that said, ‘Stop it, Mike. You don’t know my dad well enough.’ Basically, ‘Hey jerk, stop it.' "
Jamillah Ali started to panic at the thought of how her dad might react to boyfriend's wild declaration.
She had good reason.
Just a few months earlier, Joyce made a wisecrack when Kris Kristofferson, who was then married to Jamilla's good friend, asked Joyce if wedding bells were in the couple's future.
"I said I was just her 'future ex-boyfriend,' " Joyce said.
It was a "joke" that only Joyce thought was funny.
Kristofferson pointed that out by giving Joyce this advice: "You better quit it with that future ex-boyfriend s---."
So, when Joyce started talking about marriage in the presence of her father Jamillah Ali started to panic a little.
“Mike is always joking around. I thought he was going to say the same thing, future ex-boyfriend, to my Dad. And why would he say this stuff to my dad?" Jamillah said.
She reacted quickly saying, "He’s joking, dad. He’s kidding. He’s a kidder. He's a kidder just like you.’”
Then, Muhammad Ali, the ultimate showman, distracted his daughter with a concerned look as Joyce pulled out a engagement ring that Joyce says couldn't compare to the "Pink Panther" diamond on the Champ's pinkie.
“I was like, Is he serious?" Jamillah said. "And my dad, his eyes just popped out of his head. He looked at the ring. He looked at me. He looked at the ring. He looked at me."
Shocked, Jamillah Ali started to cry.
Her stepmother ended what was becoming an awkward moment by asking, “Well, what’s the answer?’” Joyce said.
"Oh, my God," Jamillah said. "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
Getting her father’s approval and having him in the room in that moment was just as important to her as getting engaged, Jamillah Ali said.
“Him being there meant the world to me. I love him so much and trust his judgment so much,” she said. “And to be in Ireland. His roots are there. It was all very sentimental.”
Not too sentimental for Ali to have a little fun at his daughter's expense.
"He snatched the ring, hid it and said, 'Where's the ring? Where's the ring?'" Joyce said. "He was playing a trick on her. After a while he pulled it back out."
They all had a good laugh.
In some ways that private family moment embodied the essence of what Ali told George Plimpton when the journalist asked, "What would you like people to think about you when you've gone?"
Ali said, "I'd like for them to say he took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, a teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness. He took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern, and then, he mixed willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith, and he stirred it up well, then he spread it over his span of a lifetime. And he served it to each and every deserving person he met."
It didn't matter that Joyce was a white guy who's father was political allies with late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who once stopped an Ali title fight with Roseland's Ernie Terrell from being held in Chicago by getting Ali's Illinois boxing license revoked.
All that mattered was that Joyce loved her and promised to treat her right.
“My dad is all about love and all about peace and that’s what my dad stands for. Love comes in all races, all colors. It transcends everything. All that have love and peace in their heart were all equal in my dad’s eyes,” she said.
“He discovered, as he moved beyond the ‘60s, that our struggle is not about one of color or one race ascending. It’s about all races working together equally in peace. That’s what my father represents. That’s why people from all walks of life from around the world love him.”
Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, died on Friday. He was 74. A public funeral service is set for Friday in his boyhood home of Louisville, Kentucky, which will be followed by a procession that will pass his boyhood home in Louisville.
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