FAYETTEVILLE — Johnail Fairley was born in what was then Hamlet and would later change to Dobbins Heights.
He graduated from Hamlet High School in 1969 and spent his summers after school ended trying to make a living for himself. He volunteered for what he thought was three years in the military — but then he “went to sleep and woke up and almost 24 years had passed.”
It was because of his enlisting in the United States Army that on May 3, 1991 at Westover Junior High School in Fayetteville, he met Muhammad Ali.
Fairley, 65, is now retired and still living in the Fort Bragg area, but the story of his encounter with Ali came about through one of his former servicemen.
“One of my soldiers happened to be in Ali’s entourage,” said Fairley. “When Ali came to Fayetteville, he visited the school in my area, and I saw my former comrade in arms, and he told me, ‘Hey, look Ali is coming over to the school today. I wanna get you in to meet with him. Pal around for a period of time.’ That’s how I got to meet and be in his close area.”
Fairley said when he first approached Ali to introduce himself, the fighter yelled out, “Joe Frazier,” and threw up his dukes.
“I don’t want him thinking I’m Broadway Joe,” Fairley joked. “He was a very kind and very warm and very humorous individual even though he had the stature of a giant. He was just a real guy. He was a champion at every waking moment. He was a champion for the guy that was small, as well as the guy who was tall, as far as society was concerned. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”
Fairley got Ali’s autograph, and it still hangs on his wall today to go along with several pictures taken on that day. He called it a day very well spent and a hallmark in his life at that particular moment.
“We never know who God is gonna put in our path in this life,” Fairley said. “Seeing him, the other night I was looking at a documentary showing an expose on his life, my heart swelled with pride seeing this man through all of his charitable works and all the things that he had accomplished. He had a smart mouth. I’ve got to give him that. He was quick with the wit.”
It was certainly a point in Fairley’s life that he says he will never forget and something he’ll be able to look back on with fondness.
“During the end of my career, that was the high note of my being,” he said. “It couldn’t have been a better thing to reflect back that I was in the presence, shake his hand, speak with him and in a brief moment of history, share a moment with ‘The Greatest.”
Reach reporter Matt Harrelson at 910-817-2674 and follow him on Twitter @mattyharrelson.