At first, he was just a commotion, far down State Street.
Muhammad Ali was usually a commotion in those days.
Then he materialized, followed by a raggle-taggle army, Muhammad Ali’s irregulars, your basic rainbow coalition of the late 1960s, falling in step behind him, chanting: “Muhammad Ali is our champ! Muhammad Ali is our champ!”
This was Chicago, circa 1968, while Ali was suspended for refusing to enter the military draft, uttering the famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.”
I remember it as a sunny midday in Chicago, one of his cities — heck, a lot of cities were his in those heightened times — and perhaps the Champ was just out for a stroll, as I was, a young baseball writer in town with the Yanks, or maybe it was the Mets.
I had never seen Ali in person, but geez he was beautiful, big and limber and smiling, and it didn’t look like he had much else to do but walk down State Street, collecting black people and white people and brown people and young people and old people, surely not everybody in America, for he was a draft dodger and a Muslim and whatever else you wanted to call him, but he was the champion of State Street that day, the once and future champ.
That was Ali in America in the late ’60s, a lot of things wrapped up in one graceful, complicated package.
Later I got to watch him fall apart, and know him just a little bit, and once I jogged with him for, oh, maybe half a mile. These stories come back to me as I mourn Muhammad Ali.
The first time I got to report on Ali, as best I can remember, was in 1974 after he beat George Foreman in Zaire and came back home to Louisville, Ky. By now, I was a news reporter who had lived in Kentucky for a while — more familiar with coal mining’s human toll than boxing’s — and The New York Times asked me tocover Ali’s homecoming.
They introduced him at dusk in the big plaza alongside the Ohio River as whites and blacks celebrated him, the actual champ again. As always, he was a master at manipulating the crowd. He stood on a stage and towered over a tiny black man who looked to be about 12 years old. Ali saw the humor in this and asked if anybody knew who this little brother was, as Louisville’s mayor, Harvey Sloane, seemed to fret about where this was all going.
Ali told the crowd who the little man was — Galenge Mbangu, 22, the pilot of the Air Zaire DC-10 that had flown Ali before he came home with his championship belt.
“He didn’t have no blond hair and blue eyes, but we made it anyway,” Ali told the crowd, like it was still the ’60s and there were lessons to be taught.
He wasn’t so beautiful by the time I went back to sports in 1980 because he had taken a lot of punches. He trudged slowly, with some dignity and some tremors, as he prepared to fight Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, and I got to meet some of his people, like his photographer, Howard Bingham, one of the truly sweet people, and Ali’s lippy cheerleader, Drew (Bundini) Brown, who had invented the phrase, “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!” Ali got beat up by Holmes, an ugly sight. It was the first time I saw him fight.
His next fight was Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. I was sent down to cover it, and wangled a chance to jog with Ali in the traditional predawn training regimen. Always before dawn. I was a five-mile runner in those days, and looked forward to jogging alongside the champ, who was meek and sweet now, no trace of the vitriol that Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier had felt so viscerally.
We shuffled out into the darkness for a minute or so, and I hadn’t broken a sweat yet, and Ali whispered hoarsely to nobody in particular, “Let’s go back.” So we went back to the training camp and he did magic tricks, as a good Muslim, following the Quran’s position about magic, explaining each trick. That was how Ali spent many hours of training.
My wife flew down a few days before the fight. The camp was highly informal, and by now, I knew everybody in the entourage. Boxing is like that. I ushered my wife into the midday alleged sparring session and was told the champ was resting on the training table, so I ushered her to the inner sanctum where Ali looked like an ancient African prince on his deathbed.
“Champ,” I said, “I’d like you to meet my wife,” and he whispered something, with barely enough energy to speak, and I motioned for Marianne to move closer, and he said something to her, and she laughed, very sweetly. What he said was, “You can do better.” (People told me it was his stock line. No matter. She was charmed. Plus, he was probably right.)
So that was Ali, the people’s champ, and he got beat up by Berbick and never fought again, and the rest of his life was a testimony to the destructive force of boxing, a sport I would abolish if I could. But then again, boxing gave us Ali and his counterpart, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, quivering with anger for the rest of his life at the way Ali called him a gorilla.
They were America, as much as anybody — race playing out between two boxers, one from a Gullah section of South Carolina, one with white roots from Kentucky.
The Champ lived a long time after that, three and a half decades, many things to many people. I would see him at banquets or sports events, escorted by his lovely wife, Lonnie. He was in there, whispering to people he knew well – Dick Schaap, Howard Cosell, Dave Anderson, Bingham — the mother wit, the intelligence that no I.Q. test could ever measure. In his later decades, he was a gentle soul, courtesy of boxing’s ravages.
He was America’s broken prince, one of our princes, anyway, and when I saw him shuffling, I always remembered the erect beautiful prince striding down State Street as the crowd chanted, yes: “Muhammad Ali is our champ! Muhammad Ali is our champ!”