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, just as he convinced others, that there was one more fight left in him, one more heavyweight belt to wrap around his waist.
When Ali talked, we all listened. 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 the 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. He 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 stopped 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 replied.
There weren’t many bad nights like that for Ali in a pro career that spanned 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.
It wasn’t just the things he said about his opponents that were so memorable, though they were. I mean, who else could possibly come up with this line before meeting Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964 in the biggest fight of his young life?
“The crowd did not dream when they lay down their money that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny,” Ali said.
Or this 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.”
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.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said after revealing he was a follower of the Nation of Islam.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said in 1966 after citing religious objections and refusing to be drafted.
That decision 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.
I first saw him in 1972, training at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas for a fight with Jerry Quarry. He came into the makeshift gym behind the hotel resplendent in a white robe, then proceeded to put on a show.
The fight was part of a card that featured light heavyweight champion Bob Foster against Mike Quarry, so of course Ali came up with a name for it: The Soul Brothers vs. the Quarry Brothers.
I didn’t get an autograph from Ali that day, though most everyone else did. Ali signed everything for everyone, making sure he took plenty of time with any children who came to watch.
I later became friends with his business manager Gene Kilroy, who told stories like the one about Ali stopping to help other motorists as he piloted a motorhome from Pennsylvania to Las Vegas for a fight. Ali was fascinated with buses, and had always wanted to be a bus driver, and the motorhome felt pretty close.
Kilroy also told of the time Ali was in training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, 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 that the boy was dying, and Ali immediately left camp to go to Philadelphia to comfort him.
Ali told the boy that 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.”
For many it was hard to reconcile that side of Ali with the side that belittled Frazier, calling him a gorilla, before the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975. Ali had a mean streak when it came to promoting fights, though he never held a grudge and seemed surprised that Frazier would hold his for so many years.
Indeed, for a man who became so revered later in his life, Ali was hated by many in his prime after his conversion to the Nation of Islam and his refusal to be drafted. And while he said many memorable things, he wasn’t well educated and made statements that would turn heads today.
Most of them had to do with his views on race, including his call in 1968 for separation of the races because “it’s nature to want to be with your own.”
Those were mostly forgotten by the passage of time and worries about his health. With his voice silenced, Ali became a sympathetic figure to most, even his former opponents.
I was in the stadium in 1996 in Atlanta when Ali appeared out of nowhere to light the Olympic cauldron. His left arm trembling badly, it seemed like it took forever to get in position with the torch before the cauldron was lit.
Looking around me I saw people crying. It was hard to keep from crying myself.
Over the years Ali would make appearances at various games or events. He was always the A-list celebrity everyone wanted, with his presence filling the room wherever he went even though he couldn’t speak.
At home in Scottsdale he led a quiet life. Ali would fiddle with the magic tricks he enjoyed so much, often listening to Elvis on the stereo. Most of all, though, he loved to watch tapes of his fights, his eyes following closely the fighter he once was.
I last saw Ali on a February morning in 2012 in the lobby of the MGM Grand hotel. He had been feted at a brain research dinner the night before, and now was the chance for the average fan to take a picture or see him in person.
The expression on his face never changed as Kilroy called Ali’s family and friends up in the ring to be with him. Moon walker Buzz Aldrin and singer Kris Kristofferson were among the notables, while Leon Spinks and Evander Holyfield also joined him.
His wife, Lonnie, took off his sunglasses and gave him a fork, and everyone watched as Ali concentrated as hard on the task at hand getting some of the chocolate cake in his mouth as he ever had fighting Foreman in Africa.
A few of his daughters hovered around, and grandbabies were put in his lap. Then, with Holyfield holding him by one arm and his wife by the other, Ali made a slow, trembling, walk around the ring, holding his right arm up waist high to salute the cheers from the crowd.
He was still The Greatest.