At 70, the man who made us all richer

THIS afternoon, in Louisville, Kentucky, the bell will ring for a week-long birthday party in Muhammad Ali’s honour.

Seven Days for Seven Decades, they are calling it, beginning in the cultural centre and museum that bears his name.

Guests will chip in $1,000 a seat to honour the city’s favourite son, with funds enabling the centre to continue its work with young people; passing on Ali’s six core values of respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality. The virtues on which the greatest ever sporting career was built.

A beautiful love letter from old foe George Foreman has decorated the occasion.

“I do believe he’s the greatest, but forget about boxing — give that to Joe Louis, or somebody. I believe he’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever met.”

To George, it almost degrades his now friend to regard him simply as a fighter.

“If you put Ali in boxing, you won’t get what he really was. The life he lived outside of the ring, what he had to say, the bravery he had, made him what he was: a prophet, a hero, a revolutionary — much more than a boxer.

“What makes Muhammad Ali special is that he loves life. He didn’t fall in love with being young and doing the shuffle, he fell in love with life.”

Ali turns 70 on Tuesday and, in one sense, it seems preposterous to pin him against the ropes with dated notions about age. As he famously put it: “Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are.”

But so underwhelming was Ali’s final send-off from the ring he bestrode for two marvellous decades, it’s only right that every opportunity to honour him is now taken.

That sad finale in a shambolic contest in the Bahamas just over 30 years ago, when the moderate Trevor Berbick beat him was, as Hugh McIlvanney put it, “like watching a king ride into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck”.

“Father Time caught up with me. My mind said do it. But I know I didn’t have it out there. I did good for a 39-year-old, did all right considering I’ll be 40 in five weeks.”

He mightn’t have fallen in love with being young, but youth suited him very well, those that knew him then insist. As a boy, he raced his school bus on foot along its route, laughing every time a fresh stop allowed him overtake once more. But his introduction to boxing was spurred by the theft of his bicycle, aged 12.

Reporting the crime to police officer, Joe Martin, young Clay admitted a thirst for personal vengeance. The cop, who was also a boxing coach, suggested if he wanted to ‘whup’ anyone, he best learn how to fight, and brought him to the gym.

Lawrence Montgomery Snr — a neighbour in the West End of Louisville — recalls early glimpses of the trademark bravado that earned Cassius Clay the ‘Louisville Lip’ nickname.

“He told me then he was going to be heavyweight champion of the world, and I didn’t believe him.”

FIRST, there was Olympic gold to win. Ali was a light-heavyweight, fresh out of high school, with just one amateur defeat in two years, when he flew out of New York to Rome for the 1960 Olympics.

Looking back, a decade later, Newsweek writer Dick Schapp remembered picking up the 18-year-old before the flight and bringing him around Harlem to find his hero Sugar Ray Robinson.

“He had no doubts, no fears, no second thoughts. It was ‘I’m great, I’m beautiful. I’m going to Rome and I’m going to whip all those cats and then I’m coming back and turning pro and becoming the champion of the world.’”

“Don’t mind him” another prospect Will McClure said, from the back seat, “that’s just the way he is”. When Sugar Ray idly autographed a picture of himself and got back in his Cadillac, Clay made a promise. “Someday I’m gonna own two Cadillacs — and a Ford for just getting round in.” He also vowed never to turn his back on a fan.

In Rome, he followed through again, having packed a parachute with him on the plane to beat a fear of flying. His outgoing ways earning him the label ‘Mayor of the Olympic Village’ and his beautiful hands and trapeze balance out-manoeuvred Pole Zigzy Pietrzykowski in the gold medal bout.

The gold medal he would later throw away in disgust was cherished. “First time I slept on my back. Had to or the medal would’ve hurt my chest.”

Now known for his loquacious tongue, Clay stepped up to heavyweight, turned pro and began to divide opinion. Foreman recalls the time fondly.

“When I was young, Ali was the first athlete you would turn on the television to see. He called himself pretty — and he was a handsome boy — and he could do tricks with his feet. He’d tell jokes, make people laugh; you couldn’t miss it. If you didn’t love him, you must have been jealous, which is the same thing as loving him. If I could have recorded him, I would have listened to him 24/7.”

But he hadn’t yet backed up the words. “Suppose Clay won the heavyweight championship,” Norman Mailer asked in 1964.

“It would mean every loudmouth on a street corner could swagger and be believed.”

It was really only in the title defeat of Sonny Liston that year that good judges began to notice as well as listen. In the build-up, Clay had coined the ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ motto.

Pulitzer winner Murray Kempton wrote after the fight that Ali had idled through round one like “someone killing time in a pool room”.

“But it was his rhythm and not Liston’s, second by second, he was taking away the big bouncer’s dignity.”

At one point, when Liston had him tight against the ropes, in that zone “where fighters kill boxers”, Clay danced away from a left, slipped under a right and jabbed blood from Liston’s eye.

Kempton was a believer. “For the first time there was a suspicion he might know something about the trade.”

Conversion to Islam followed, as did opposition to Vietnam and the removal of his title. Exhibits dotted around the centre where today’s party will be held remember the divisiveness of those days. While many admired his conviction, Ali’s decision to reject the draft on religious grounds made him a polarising figure, reviled by many in the US.

But even when he professed to having “no quarrel with no Vietcong”, Ali accepted “there were people who thought the Vietnam war was right. And those people, if they went to war, acted as brave as I did”.

On his return from exile, the fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman defined the golden era of heavyweight boxing. The shame is that Frazier didn’t make it to today and there seems to have been no true reconciliation between the pair. There will surely be some kind words later for his fallen adversary — the many insults sent Frazier’s way must now feature among Ali’s greatest regrets.

Thankfully, he and Foreman have long been firm friends, despite the great Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974, Ali’s famous rope-a-dope performance that lured the younger champion in for the kill.

Ali once described that victory as “his greatest thrill”. As Norman Mailer put it in The Fight, having seen him afterwards in his dressing room; “I have stolen the jam,” said his eyes, “and it tastes good.”

Foreman lumped regrets around like heavy luggage for an age, but has long since shed the baggage.

“I thought he was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear: ‘That all you got, George?’ I realised that this ain’t what I thought it was.

“I’d never lost before. I was so high with this power that for years I was in denial; they cheated me, I got tricked, something was wrong. Then, in 1981, a reporter came to my ranch and asked me: “What happened in Africa, George?” I had to look him in the eye and say, “I lost. He beat me.” From then on it was clear. I’ll never be able to win that match, so I had to let it go.”

Foreman does regret some cheap shots he flung in desperation that night, especially in light of the suffering Ali now endures thanks to the punishment he took throughout his career.

What I really regret is, when he got up against the ropes, I kept hitting him on the side of his neck. I hit him hard. I wake up sometimes and wish I’d never done that. Not to say I caused his illness, but I cheated a little bit. If I had to do it all over again, I never would’ve fought him.”

Sadly, Ali’s toughest battle was still in front of him. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, he has battled the effects of his cruel illness bravely. “This is a trial from God. He gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not number one, he is.”

Foreman knows the lowest blow he could deliver now would be pity.

“I don’t find his illness sad, though, as the guy is a hero. He’s still beautiful to me. You can talk with war veterans and not know they have a wooden leg. What they did makes their illness unnoticeable. A hero is a guy that you get into a corner and you beat him and you beat him and you beat him and, rather than going down, he says to himself, ‘If I go down, all the people that believe in me will go down with me. I must stand.’

“And because Ali stood, he got injuries. I don’t feel sorry for him; I feel proud that I even know him.”

In the Muhammad Ali Centre today, his fourth wife Lonnie will lead the celebrations. “As a young man, he had the most beautiful physique,” she says.

“This disease has transformed him into something different. It has silenced the ‘Louisville Lip’. His movement is not as fluid and as beautiful as it was,” she added. “He is still able to reach people with his eyes and his smile.”

He could always reach Foreman, who signs his letter with words anyone who has gained a moment’s pleasure from a remarkable lifetime’s work will echo.

“Happy birthday, Muhammad Ali. I love you.”

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