Nation & World

Recalling when Ali was pompous and proud, before Parkinson’s silenced him

Before he became Muhammad Ali, the boxer was known as Cassius Clay, as shown here in 1963 in a pre-fight publicity stunt with British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper, who would lose twice to Ali.
Before he became Muhammad Ali, the boxer was known as Cassius Clay, as shown here in 1963 in a pre-fight publicity stunt with British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper, who would lose twice to Ali. AP

Editor’s note: This column was first published in the Star-Telegram on Feb. 5, 2007, not long after Ali’s 65th birthday. It is being republished as a tribute to Ali, who died Friday night at age 74.

Muhammad Ali’s 65th birthday brought back memories of the champ at his loudest and brashest.

He turned 65 the other day, and for those of us who were blessed to see Muhammad Ali at his greatest, it was a sobering jubilee indeed.

Sadly, the enduring image that many now have is of Ali, the trembling Parkinson’s victim, the punch-drunk former boxing champ, whose quivering hands lit the caldron that began the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

They see the silent Ali. The Ali who seems barely able to stand and walk.

Nothing could be further from the Ali that was.

The young Ali spouted fractured poetry and brashly predicted in which round his upcoming opponent would fall. The young Ali, in his own words, used to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

In 1999 a British TV network voted Ali its “Sports Personality of the Century.” In 2005, the White House awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ali himself once claimed — and no one disputed it — that he owned the most recognized face on the planet, “because Jesus and Moses didn’t have satellites when they were around.”

To those of us who grew up with Disneyland, the Beatles and Vietnam, the Ali in our memories will remain forever young. My own personal thoughts — forgive the indulgence — will always take me back to a spring day at the champ’s log cabin training camp in Deer Lake, Pa.

Perched on a mountainside in southeastern Pennsylvania, the camp was built with Ali’s own sweat, from the gym where he held his workouts to the mosque where he recited his daily prayers.

Talking with Ali in 1980

In the spring of 1980, Ali was attempting yet another comeback. He had gained the heavyweight boxing title for the third time by defeating Leon Spinks in 1978. A year later, Ali announced his retirement, and his title was declared vacant.

At Deer Lake, Ali was claiming that history was summoning him back to the ring — history and, he winked, a purse of $10 million.

You didn’t make appointments with Muhammad Ali, I was told. You just drove up Highway 61, turned left at Sculpshill Mountain, and if the champ was there, he was there.

We had a mutual friend named David, a self-styled nutritionist from Baltimore whom Ali had appointed his “juice man.” The juice man was important, because before Ali could climb into the ring against Larry Holmes, he had to wage an uphill fight with his weight, which seemed to range somewhere between 235 and 260, depending upon who asked.

In the log cabin kitchen of his longtime cook, Lana Shabazz, Ali picked out a table and we sat. Just the two of us, for 90 minutes. I wouldn’t trade the cassette audiotape of that conversation for anything.

On that day Ali had redemption on his mind — becoming a record fourth-time heavyweight champ. But before any talk of redemption, the champ confessed his sins.

“I like desserts, “ he said, trying to explain the shape that he was in. “I like sugar. I like a big piece of apple pie with cheese on it and three dips of ice cream.

“I’d eat that, and then I’d be staying up late, watching movies, and I’d have a couple of cheeseburgers and a milkshake at 2 in the morning. I’d get up for breakfast and have a big bowl of corn flakes, maybe with some pancakes with syrup and butter. And then for lunch, a Spanish meal — some chili and hot tamales. I’d wash it all down with a couple of cold Cokes. At night I’d have a big steak dinner and then some more ice cream.

“Gaining weight is easy.”

‘He’s the greatest!’

The voice on the tape is like a time machine. This was Ali the showman, Ali the playful one.

During his free time at the camp, Ali said, he was working on a speech that he was invited to give at Britain’s Oxford University. The speech was titled, “The Intoxications of Life.”

“I want to go out as the greatest athlete in the history of all sports, “ the champ said. “Not just boxing. I already got that. I want to be ranked as greater than all the football players, all baseball players, all polo players and all Olympic champions.”

All he had to do, Ali said, was defeat Holmes, his former sparring partner. He had envisioned the moment.

Sitting at the table, Ali became the imaginary ring announcer.

“Ladies and gentlemen, “ he said, turning into Don Dunphy, “judge Ardie Ardello scores it 45-43, Ali. (The champ imitated the roaring crowd.) Judge Frank Costerano scores it 45-44, Holmes. (More roars.) Judge Arnie Armarano has 45-44, Ali. Ladies and gentlemen, he’s done it! Muhammad Ali is the winner and four-time heavyweight champion of the world!

“We can’t believe it! He’s the greatest! He’s the greatest of all time!

“And that’s why I’m coming back. I defy nature. I defy the experts. I defy all the traditions. Time magazine wrote that I was finished after the Spinks fight. I defy Time magazine.”

In October 1980, a trimmer but slower Ali lost an 11th-round technical knockout to Holmes. Ali would retire permanently one fight and one year later.

Yes, he turned 65 last month. His disease has all but silenced him.

To those of us, however, who grew up with him, Muhammad Ali will remain forever young.

His place among history’s “intoxications of life” is forever secure.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, @gilebreton