When Muhammad Ali’s Twinkle Shone Brightest
At the end, the mischief was still in his eyes. Even the pall of Parkinson’s disease never took that away, but for too many years before his death, Muhammad Ali was not the Muhammad Ali you wanted to remember. Instead of shouting, “I am the greatest,” he whispered. Instead of whirling in his white boxing shoes with red tassels, he shuffled. And instead of that wonderful face lighting up when he spoke, he wore a cheerless mask.
Whenever people asked you about him lately, you always preferred to tell them what he was like in all those years when you covered 32 of his fights, what he was like when he really was Muhammad Ali.
To go back to the beginning, you told them what he was like the first time you met him, when he was Cassius Clay in the days before he won a disputed decision over Doug Jones in 1963 at the old Madison Square Garden and you were in his Midtown hotel room.
“Stand up and put your hands up like a boxer,” he ordered, circling and then flicking his left jab inches from your chin as you blinked. “Pop, pop, pop. Ain’t never been a heavyweight fast as me.”
Sonny Liston learned that, twice. But for all of Ali’s flash as the new champion, you learned that he could be cruel when he tortured Floyd Patterson and taunted Ernie Terrell. And in 1967, with Ali surrounded by Black Muslim bodyguards in black suits and black bow ties, you listened as he sat in the basement of the Garden after a workout before his title defense against Zora Folley and implied that he would go to prison rather than obey his Army induction order during the Vietnam War.
“For my beliefs,” he said.
At a Houston induction center, Ali did not take the symbolic “step forward” in compliance with the military draft. Stripped of the heavyweight championship by boxing politicians and convicted of refusing Army induction, he began a three-and-a-half-year exile. By the time he fought Joe Frazier in their March 8, 1971, spectacle at the new Garden, he remained an unpatriotic villain to some, a hero to others for standing up to the government. The morning after his first loss and an embarrassing knockdown, his jaw was still swollen, and he winced whenever he moved on the bed in his hotel room.
“When a man gets me going, that’s a punch, and when a man drops me, that’s a hell of a punch,” he said, referring to Frazier’s left hook in the 15th round. “I didn’t give the fight to him. He earned it.”
When the Supreme Court reversed his 1967 conviction for refusing Army induction, he was free. But it took three years and a 12-round decision over Frazier before he got another shot at the title, then held by the undefeated knockout puncher George Foreman, in Kinshasa, Zaire. In a 1974 bout that began there at 4 o’clock in the morning to accommodate closed-circuit theater television in the United States, you heard his 60,000 worshipers in a soccer stadium chanting, “Ali, bomaye,” meaning “Ali, kill him.”
In the eighth round, Ali, who had covered up with his back against the ropes while Foreman punched himself out, threw a right hand that spun Foreman onto the canvas. KO 8.
“The surprise is that I did not dance,” you heard him say later outside his villa along the Congo River. “For weeks I kept hollering, ‘Be ready to dance,’ but I didn’t dance. That was the surprise. That was the trick. I told him, ‘You’re the champ, George, and I’m eatin’ you up.’ Don’t ever match no bull against a master boxer. The bull is stronger, but the matador’s smarter.”
As champion for the second time, Ali was suddenly more popular than ever. And he was having more fun than ever.
After he and Joe Bugner selected the gloves for their 1975 title bout in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, you noticed Ali staring at the commission official who put the gloves in separate boxes, then sealed the boxes with wax from a burning candle.
“Where are you taking the gloves?” he asked.
“We’re putting them in jail,” the official explained. “To make sure nobody tampers with them, we’re putting the gloves in a safe in jail.”
“The gloves are going to jail,” he said, his eyes wide. “The gloves ain’t done nothin’ — yet.”
Three months later, in what Ali called the Thrilla in Manila, he survived a brutal third fight with Frazier when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, would not let him answer the bell for the 15th round. Futch explained that Frazier, his left eye closed, could not see Ali’s right hand coming. Minutes later, Frazier was in the interview area, talking about what happened, and he later boogied at his postfight party.
Ali needed nearly an hour to face the news media, and when asked what the fight had been like, you heard him say, “Next to death.” At his postfight party, he sat stiffly and silently.
You’re not a doctor, but you have often thought that if Ali had retired after Manila, maybe Parkinson’s disease would not have hit him harder than even Joe Frazier ever had.
It wasn’t so much that Ali had too many fights after Manila; maybe it was that he had too many hard rounds with Jimmy Young, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks (losing the title, then gaining it for the third time), Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. When he finally retired, you stopped by a Miami gym where, at 40, he was working out before an exhibition tour of Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. That’s when you noticed he was slurring his words.
“Ihad aphysical inLosAngeles forthistour,” he mumbled, his words clinging together as cobwebs of dust do. “I’mperfect.”
He was far from perfect, of course. And month by month and year by year, his speech slurred more and more. Whenever you saw him and you watched him playfully pretend to throw a punch or do his magic tricks, you could see the twinkle in his eyes and you knew the mischief was still there. But he was not the Muhammad Ali you wanted to remember. And he never would be.