Even weak, Ali had an imposing stature

Many consider Muhammad Ali the greatest athlete of the 20th century. He died Friday at age 74.
Many consider Muhammad Ali the greatest athlete of the 20th century. He died Friday at age 74. AP

It was 1980 and Muhammad Ali had no business being in the ring against a younger and stronger Larry Holmes, no matter how much his entourage kept telling him how good he looked in training.

And he did look good. He had lost nearly 40 pounds to get his body to a reasonable replication of its magnificent prime. At the age of 38 he had also grown a mustache to show off during the prefight press tour.

“I’m Dark Gable,” Ali said, much to the delight of the writers who could barely conceal their glee in having Ali in front of them once again.

It was my first Ali fight and, like most of the 25,000 in the crowd outdoors at Caesars Palace that night, I hoped against hope I would see the Ali of old in the ring. He had convinced me, and many others, that there was one more fight left in him, one more heavyweight belt to wrap around his waist.

When Ali talked, we all lis tened. We couldn’t bear not to listen, even when his greatness had obviously faded and the words that electrified a generation didn’t flow quite as easily as they once did.

Surely he could beat Holmes, his former sparring partner. This, after all, was a man who whipped a scowling Sonny Liston, stopped the fearsome George Foreman in Africa and won a battle nearly to the death with Joe Frazier in the Philippines.

But the one opponent Ali couldn’t beat was Father Time. Ali barely laid a glove on Holmes, taking such a beating that Holmes begged the referee several time to stop the fight so he wouldn’t permanently damage his idol. The fight was finally halted after 10 rounds, with Ali sitting on a stool, offering no resistance.

Later that night Holmes paid a visit to Ali’s hotel suite. In a darkened room, he leaned over and, kissed Ali on the cheek and told him he loved him.

“Then why did you whip my ass like that?” Ali said.

There weren’t many bad nights like that for Ali in a pro career that spanned 61 fights over the better part of two decades. Still, his willingness to take punches in the ring — he estimated at one point he had taken 29,000 blows to the head — would soon doom him to a life of living with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s.

It hardly seemed possible then that this exquisitely sculptured man would spend his later years stooped over and trembling, unable to do the basic human tasks like tie his shoes or brush his teeth. Even more impossible was that the voice that roared so loud and so often would be nearly mute for the last few decades of his life.

The things he said about his opponents remain memorable, like before meeting Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964:

“The crowd did not dream when they lay down their money that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

Or before he upset Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire:

“Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”

Or his most famous, also directed at Foreman:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hand can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”

Or before one of three epic Joe Frazier fights:

“This might shock and amaze ya, but I’m going to destroy Joe Frazier.”

Or even his warning to Holmes before Ali’s one-sided loss:

“I got speed and endurance. You’d better increase your insurance.”

It wasn’t the poems that stood out, though they were fun. It was the simple way Ali talked to the world, even when a lot of the world didn’t want to hear what he had to say.

In 1966 he cited religious objections and refused to be drafted to Vietnam. It cost Ali three and a half years of a career that was in his prime. He came back a different fighter and, though he was still plenty good, there was something taken from him in the layoff that he never got back.

But his connection to people never faded.

His business manager Gene Kilroy told of the time Ali was in training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., for the Foreman fight and a father brought a young boy suffering from leukemia and bald from chemotherapy to visit. A few weeks later, the boy’s father called Kilroy and said the boy was dying, and Ali immediately left camp to go to Philadelphia to comfort him.

Ali told the boy he would beat Foreman and the boy would beat leukemia.

“No,” the boy said. “I’m going to meet God. And I will tell him that I know you.”