... to Muhammad Ali. He's officially a senior citizen now. I used to love watching him in his prime - he was just incredible - those 3 fights with Joe Frazier were great. I got to meet him once back in the early 70's when he came and spoke at my university and later that week he fought an exhibition match which I attended - I was fortunate enough to get into the ring with him afterwards and get his autograph which is still one of my most prized possessions!
Wednesday, Jan 17, 2007
Ali turns 65 with his voice muted, but his mind still clear
(AP) - The images are unsettling at best, upsetting at worst. The world, after all, remembers what he once was. Muhammad Ali trembles and has to be wheeled to a ringside spot to watch his daughter fight in New York. A frail Ali needs to be supported by basketball player Dwyane Wade at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
The voice that once bellowed that he was "The Greatest" is but a whisper now and he communicates mostly with facial expressions.
His body is ravaged by Parkinson's disease and the effects of recent spinal surgery. He tires easily. His mind, though, remains sharp and clear, and his passion for people hasn't faded with age.
Ali turns 65 on Wednesday. The heavyweight champion who shocked the world is a senior citizen now, eligible to collect Social Security.
Like many other retirees, he has moved from Michigan to the desert to be out of the cold.
Visitors to the home in a gated area of Scottsdale, Ariz., that he shares with his fourth wife, Lonnie, often find him absorbed in the past, watching films of his fights and documentaries on his life - and Elvis movies.
Even more, he loves to watch himself talk.
"Muhammad is a little sentimental. He likes looking at older things. He likes watching some of the interviews and saying some of the crazy outrageous things he used to say," Lonnie Ali said. "Sometimes I think he looks at it and says, 'Is that me? Did I really say those things?"'
Those were the days when Ali still floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, when he added to his legend by defying the odds to beat George Foreman in Zaire and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.
"Rumble young man, rumble," cornerman Bundini Brown would yell to him.
That young man's face is now distorted by Parkinson's, making him look far older than he is. Now, instead of the "Ali Shuffle" that once dazzled the boxing world, he is reduced to sometimes using a walker, the result of surgery to help correct spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal which causes compression of the nerve roots.
Some days are better than others. Ali reads fan mail every now and then and painstakingly signs autographs with his trembling hand. Sometimes, mostly in the morning before his medication kicks in, the family can understand every word he says.
"We give him enough meds to make his day go well enough, but not enough to make him look absolutely normal," Lonnie Ali said. "He would look better if we did, but we don't want to. We don't want him on too many medications."
His birthday will pass with calls from his nine children and other relatives. Ali's only request to mark the occasion is a trip to one of his favourite magic shops so he can pick up a new trick or two to show visitors.
One of his daughters, Hana, says no one should feel sorry for him.
"People naturally are going to be sad to see the effects of his disease," she said. "But if they could really see him in the calm of his everyday life, they would not be sorry for him. He's at complete peace and he's here learning a greater lesson."
The man who made headlines and countless television highlights with his predictions and boxing prowess can't really talk about himself anymore.
But others can:
Hana Ali listens often to the tapes, the ones her father made as an audio diary in 1979 when she and her sister, Laila, were little girls. On them, Ali's voice is strong, his opinions certain.
"This is Muhammad Ali making a tape for future reference explaining what's going on in the world," it begins.
Ali talks about his efforts to mediate the Iranian hostage crisis and meeting kings from different nations. He gives his thoughts on war and peace, and he has a talk with George Foreman on God and religion.
"Sometimes I have to stop listening because I get in this time warp thing," Hana said. "It's all him in his own words."
Of all his children, she may be the closest to her dad. She wants to take nursing courses so she can help care for him.
"He needs people like we need the air to breathe," she said. "He knows how great he is but at the same time he's very humble. He's shocked to see how people still love him and remember him. You see his eyes light up and it takes him back a moment when they chant 'Ali, Ali.' It's like charging a battery up."
Some days, Hana says, her father has more energy than others. Some days he's able to talk.
No one knows why. It just happens.
"Every now and then you catch yourself feeling bad," she says. "But he's here and he has a healthy, strong spirit and soul and mind, and that's what is important.
"He always says he's lived the life of 100 men. He got to see the world and do all these things. He has no regrets."
THE INNER CIRCLE
Gene Kilroy travelled the world at Ali's side. His official title was business manager, but Kilroy was known to most as the man who got things done.
He sheltered Ali from anyone trying to make a quick buck off him and took care of the people around him. For years, he was the lone white man in the champ's entourage.
"I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world just to call him my friend," Kilroy said. "If I was to die today and go to heaven it would be a step down. My heaven was being with Ali."
On the walls of Kilroy's office at the Luxor hotel-casino in Las Vegas are pictures of him and Ali taken around the world. Kilroy tells stories easily - the time he and Ali landed in the early- morning darkness in Zaire for Ali's fight with Foreman only to find several thousand people waiting.
Ali turned to Kilroy and asked him who the people of Zaire hated most.
"I told him white people. He said, 'I can't tell them George Foreman is white,"' Kilroy recalled. "Then I said, 'They don't like the Belgians, who used to rule Zaire."'
Ali stepped out on the tarmac, called for quiet and yelled:
"George Foreman's a Belgian!"
The crowd erupted, chanting "Ali boma ye, Ali boma ye." Translation: "Ali, kill him."
Kilroy worries about his old friend. He frets about his health and believes Ali shouldn't travel so much. He cried the last time he saw Ali, a year ago in Berlin.
"He had a belief and a goal in his life. He wanted to see freedom, equality and justice for the black man," Kilroy said.
"The artist, Leroy Neiman, said it best: Whoever touched Ali's robe was a better person for it."
Larry Holmes was proudest of the black eye.
He got it as an amateur the first time he stepped into the ring for a sparring session with Ali at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa.
"I didn't want to put ice on it," Holmes said. "Having him give me a black eye meant a lot to me."
Holmes would later give Ali much worse. The two met on Oct. 2, 1980, at Caesars Palace, with Ali lured out of retirement to fight a former sparring partner who had become the heavyweight champion of the world.
Ali had given him his first chance in boxing, but Holmes had a job to do against the aging former champion, who grew a moustache before the fight and presented himself as "Dark Gable."
The fight was lopsided from the opening bell. Holmes was young, fast and strong. Ali was a shell of himself and took a beating until he finally quit on his stool after the 10th round.
"He was like a little baby after the first round," Holmes said. "I was throwing punches and missing just for the hell of it. I kept saying, 'Ali, why are you taking this?'
"He said, 'Shut up and fight, I'm going to knock you out."'
When the fight was over, Holmes and his wife went upstairs to pay their respects to Ali. In a darkened room, Holmes told Ali that he loved him.
"Then why did you whip my ass like that?" Ali replied.
Holmes hasn't seen Ali recently, but said he heard he was down to 185 pounds.
"I can't just say Ali was the greatest because there were so many great fighters out there. I can't say he was greater than Marciano, Louis, Dempsey and everyone else," Holmes said.
"A lot of it today is that people feel sorry for him because he's got that Parkinson's or whatever is wrong with him. They feel he doesn't have too much longer to live and they want to be part of the legend."
Bob Arum wonders if it was somehow partly his fault. A lot of the punches Ali took came on his watch.
Ali had 61 professional fights, winning 56. Arum started with him in March 1966, promoting his fight against George Chuvalo in Toronto. Twelve years later, Arum promoted his 25th and last Ali fight - his second against Leon Spinks in New Orleans.
"I feel terrible about what happened because for better or worse I played a part in it," Arum said. "Not that it wouldn't have happened if somebody else was involved. But I feel I played a part in his physical decline."
Arum said the first indication he had that Ali might have taken too many punches came after his third fight with Ken Norton.
"I tried to talk Ali into not fighting, but there were so many people dependent on the jobs and everything," Arum said. "That's one of the reasons why I made the fight with Leon Spinks, because it was an easy fight."
Arum's wife, Lovee, and Lonnie Ali still often talk on the phone. He sees Ali on occasion and each time he feels conflicted.
"Here was a guy who my memories of him were larger than life. He was full of life, like nobody I've ever seen in my life," Arum said. "Now to see what is essentially a shell of what was is hard. Every time I see him I'm glad to see him, but I feel terrible."
Don King also sees Ali occasionally. Ali was so big that he started the careers of both of boxing's biggest promoters.
"The man had magnetism. He exuded charm and magnetism," King said. "He also stood for something. He stood up for the rights of black people and himself in a time when it wasn't commonplace."
In typical King fashion, he even coined a phrase for Ali that he recites to this day:
"Every knee must bend, every head must bow and every tongue must confess thou are the greatest of all time."
Musician and sometime actor Kris Kristofferson and his band were touring the country when they stopped by to see Ali training in the Poconos for his last big fight with Holmes.
It wasn't long before Kristofferson's tour bus was headed back down the highway, Ali at the wheel.
If there was anything Ali loved better than boxing, it was driving a bus.
"He drove the bus and then he did magic tricks, which he also loved," Kristofferson said. "I had my six-year-old daughter on the bus and she was entertained quite a bit. He went all the way to Buffalo with us and then he had a limo take him back."
Kristofferson first saw Ali in Rome at the 1960 Olympics. He later became his close friend - and one of his biggest fans.
The two even starred in a television movie together, with Kristofferson playing a plantation owner and Ali an emancipated slave in 1979's "Freedom Road."
Kristofferson lives in Hawaii and doesn't see Ali much these days, but he thinks a lot about his old friend.
"He'll be remembered more than any other great athlete because of his humanitarian work and the courage he showed in his life," Kristofferson said. "He's probably the most remarkable person I ever met on the planet. He's an amazing human being."
Howard Bingham had no idea his life would change that day, in 1962, when he went to take pictures of a young fighter at a Los Angeles press conference.
"My assignment that day was to cover this big loudmouth coming into town," said Bingham, who took pictures for a black weekly newspaper. "I had never really heard of him."
Turns out, Bingham was photographing a young Cassius Clay. For the next few days he squired Clay around town, showing him the sights.
He's been with Ali ever since and calls him his best friend.
"I've had the opportunity to meet and greet kings and queens. And kings and queens have had the opportunity to meet me, too," Bingham said. "It's been wonderful."
Bingham doesn't know how many pictures he has taken of Ali over the years; he estimates it's in the millions. It's been a great ride, but he has some regrets.
"I wish I would have known the Cassius Clay that I met was going to become the Muhammad Ali of today," Bingham said. "I would have archived the pictures better, written notes, done a lot of things differently."
Bingham still travels with Ali and talks to him regularly on the phone. They talk about the past, how things once were.
They both were young men then. And they both remember better times.
"I can't believe that on January 17, 2007, he'll be 65," Bingham said. "It just doesn't seem real."