That time Muhammad Ali pounded the Thrilla In Manila into a napkin

Felix Sabates' collection of autographed Ali memorabilia includes a napkin on which Ali illustrated one of his most famous fights. Courtesy of Marty Smith

The knocking was incessant, and it was perplexing. Annoyance was creeping in.

Coming into the gala, attendees at Charlotte's historic Duke Mansion were uncertain of what to expect, but they were quite certain this behavior wasn't it.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

For 45 minutes, the pen pounded the table.

It was 2003, and some of Charlotte's most affluent personalities and businesspeople were attending an awareness fundraiser for Parkinson's disease. Many in the room were restless because of the repetitive banging.

The most famous guest in the room was making a scene. Muhammad Ali lived to make a scene.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Tap. Tap. Tap.


Charlotte business mogul Felix Sabates, minority owner of the NBA's Hornets and a NASCAR racing team owner, sat with a group at the table beside Ali's. He, too, was admittedly aggravated by the tapping, but he suggested to the others that possibly Ali couldn't help it. Maybe the Champ's battle with Parkinson's was to blame, and maybe they should have greater patience and empathy.

Sabates, a Cuban-born American dream, had adored Ali for decades. He had attended several fights to cheer the hero, including some of the most famous bouts in Ali's incomparable career. In 1964, he and some friends piled in a car in Charlotte and drove south to watch Ali battle Sonny Liston in Miami Beach.

Sabates openly admits that he initially took offense to Ali's decision to change his name, feeling it was an attempt to dodge the selective service draft. But within a year, Sabates said he began to understand the conviction of Ali's decision.

"In those days, see, all my friends figured out ways to get out of the draft. They did not want to go to Vietnam and get killed," Sabates told ESPN.com this week. "So I thought Ali was one of those guys. Come up with an idea -- I'll become a Muslim -- and I won't have to go.

"But he was true. He practiced his religion, and he did exactly what he said he was going to do. He wasted the best three-and-a-half years of his life, but he had a conviction. He had that much conviction. You've got to respect somebody for that. I do. So I went from being a big fan to not a fan to the hugest fan. It was meant to be that he became what he became."

Twenty years after he attended the Liston fight, Sabates was in Las Vegas for an electronics trade show when he met a man named Gene Kilroy. In previous years, Kilroy had been an integral player in Ali's life, managing the business minutia so Ali could focus only on the boxing ring.

By 1983, Kilroy had moved on from his work with Ali to a management role at one of the many Vegas hotels. The friendship never wavered. Throughout the week, Sabates dined with Kilroy. Then, the day before Sabates planned to return to Charlotte, Kilroy asked if he would like to meet a celebrity.

Sabates wasn't interested. He met celebrities all the time. But Kilroy insisted.

When lunch ended, they took off across the street to Caesar's Palace. Kilroy had a key to the private elevator. Up they went.

"The door opens, and there's Ali, sitting, eating a half-gallon of ice cream in his shorts and a T-shirt, watching television," Sabates said with a wide grin. "And I was like: 'Oh my god! Is this what I think it is?'

"Ali turned around and said, 'Sit down.' So I sit down next to him. Gene had already told him that he was bringing me over and that I was from Cuba. All he wanted to talk about [was] Teofilo Stevenson."

Stevenson, a Cuban boxing icon, is one of just three boxers in Olympic history who won three gold medals. He was often compared to Ali.

"At the time, he could have been the only guy to give Ali a run for his money," Sabates said. "But he was a communist. He won the Olympics, and they tried to get him to come to America. But he wouldn't. He stayed in Cuba.

"Ali thought he was one of the greatest fighters he had ever seen. [He] saw him fight in the Olympics and said: 'I'd like to have gotten the chance to fight him in the ring. I think he could be the only one who could beat me.'"

Sabates, a man who, in his own right, has plenty of flair and the affable gift of gab, said he couldn't get a word in. He just sat with his mouth open, awestruck. It was just Ali, Kilroy and Sabates. No bodyguards. Just the three of them.

Ensuring he didn't overstay his welcome in Ali's room, Sabates left after 20 minutes. The next day, he returned from the trade show to find a bag on his bed. Inside was a pair of bright red Everlast boxing gloves, on the top of which was signed, "To Felix Sabates From Muhammad Ali 5/21/83."

Kilroy explained to Sabates that it was rare for Ali to personalize and date an item. He wanted to ensure Sabates kept them forever.

Sabates and Ali never met each other again ... until that night in Charlotte 20 years later. It is difficult to imagine the millions of people Ali met, but at the Parkinson's fundraiser in Charlotte, he remembered Sabates.

As lunch ended that day, the tap, tap, tapping on the table ceased, and an announcement was made. There would be an item auctioned off momentarily: Ali's napkin.

The Champ held the white linen napkin up to the crowd. Someone bid $50.

Ali turned the napkin around, and the room gasped.

On the napkin's reverse side was a stunning, marker-stippled rendering of the Thrilla In Manila. Thousands of single black dots and some 20 straight lines melded together atop this white square cloth to form a beautiful piece of art depicting a pair of swollen-hand stick figures engaging in the sweet science before a raucous, packed house. There even appeared to be a bubble floating from the crowd that read, "Frazier."

It was the showman's canvas, the megaphone for the muted to amplify a silent, deafening voice.

"When everyone realized what he had done, what he had just created, you had a lot of people eating crow," Sabates said. "That was the noise. Think about that: To do that with a Sharpie, you've got to beat the hell out of that Sharpie. And the table, underneath, had some padding. And he's doing it hard enough that you hear it -- tick, tick, tick ... tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ..."

Sabates had to have it. He is uncertain of the exact sum he sent to charity that day. Some say he spent $10,000. Others claim it was as much as $14,000. He doesn't care.

"I told a friend of mine to stop wasting his time [bidding] and sit down. I was getting that napkin," he said.

Afterward, Ali called Sabates over and asked for the napkin back. Again, he personalized it. He didn't ask Sabates' name.

"It was amazing that after all those many years, he still remembered me," Sabates said. "It was so great for me. I couldn't believe that the man met me for 20 minutes in his life, and 20 years later, he still remembered my name and where he met me. That's amazing."

The napkin is framed now and positioned alongside a photo of Sabates and Ali from that same day, one of the countless photos of an Ali fan's fake punch to the Champ's famous face. Visitors see the art and invariably demand its story.

"It's special to me because it's one of a kind, and I saw him making it," Sabates said. "It didn't show up from China. I saw the guy beating, beating this table with his Parkinson's disease. The Thrilla in Manila! That's spectacular!

"This man. ... He made it so that any minority -- black or whatever color, nationality, religion -- he made it OK to be that. Until Muhammad Ali came around, a lot of people apologized for their race. A lot of people were unsure of admitting their race. What he did in this world was show it's OK to be whatever you are. You're a human being.

"It's nice to have a small piece of him. Every time I look at that napkin, I will be proud that I met the greatest athlete of all time."