The following is excerpted from Writers' Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists, a compilation of boxing columns by John Schulian, who wrote for the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times. The excerpt contains 12 columns about Muhammad Ali that were written during the twilight of the champion's career, and is followed by a bonus column that was written after Ali's final retirement.
"He's a Champ, He's a Clown"
Sept. 29, 1977
There were maybe a hundred gawkers and groupies in the gym listening to a sermon. The preacher was Muhammad Ali, his pulpit was a boxing ring, and his subject was an old favorite—himself.
With no regard for the scene's cosmic significance, Bundini Brown, Ali's alter ego and chief peddler of souvenir trinkets, suggested the great man move parts of his body other than his lip. It did not seem a bad idea, since Ali will risk life, limb, and heavyweight title against Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden Thursday night. But Ali responded less like a champ and more like Richard Pryor.
"Hush, nigger," he said. "It's my show."
"But we got to win," Bundini bawled in the buzz-saw voice that has cut through the roar of the crowd in so many arenas, in so many countries.
"We got to win."
"We got to win."
"OK, go ahead," Ali said. "Get yourself some publicity."
"I was big before I met you," Bundini sniffed.
"You was a Harlem pimp," said Ali.
Bundini doubled up with laughter.
It takes a while to get used to the hard edge of Ali's humor. Part of the process is making yourself realize that his sociological commentaries involve people you might expect to bring out the softy in him.
There was the gent in blue who showed up at the Garden's Felt Forum Tuesday for Ali's final sparring session. The one who said his name was Cassius Clay, Sr.
"You be the champ," he yelled at Ali. "You be the greatest."
"He's my daddy," said the former Cassius Clay, Jr. "Used to ride on the ice wagon and the coal wagon back in the prejudice days."
"Tell 'em, boy."
"Went to neighborhoods where he wasn't s'posed to go."
"Yeah, tell 'em."
"Jumped down off the wagon and beat up four white boys. Then he come home and whupped me. He's bad."
"Hee-hee. Tell 'em."
Muhammad Ali, at age 35, exerts the kind of power perhaps no other black man has ever had in this country. He tells the white majority things it doesn't like to hear. Just as Martin Luther King did. But there is a difference in results. Martin Luther King, who preached peace, scared whitey. He scared whitey away. Muhammad Ali, who practices violence, scares whitey, too, but whitey always comes back because Ali is safe. Ali is an athlete, a champion.
As he gets older, the tendency is to think we have heard everything he has to say—once, twice, a thousand times. But on those rare occasions when his creative juices rouse themselves, the product is tougher, more biting than anything that has come before it.
It is as if he is trying to drive off the people who see him as an entertainer first and a boxer second. If that is so, Angelo Dundee, who trained him for all but the first of his 56 pro fights, can understand why.
"He's already done everything," Dundee says. "He has forced himself to the top of emotion—how many times? This will be his 19th defense. Maybe he's had it. Does anybody think he could go through what Ali has gone through? Ali is a champ, he's a clown, he is anything he has to be to make money. But after awhile, it gets thin. Maybe he's trying to stop being anything but the champion."
The closest Ali will come to saying that is: "I know I'm the world's best boxer and I won't be for long. I gotta think about that."
Everything else he says is in code, a code virtually unbreakable for the layman. You listened as Ali described the psychological edge he has on Shavers, and you thought it was a joke. It wasn't.
"Acorn gonna be like a man jumpin' off a 10-story building," Ali said of the challenger whose shaved head inspired his nickname. "He never seen nothin' like the crowd gonna be there. When he walks in that ring and they start playing the National Anthem—ta-da-duh-duh-duh-duh-da—his heart gonna he beatin' faster and faster.
"Then I come in the ring and the fans are chanting: 'Ali! Ali! Ali!' He's gonna be sayin': 'How'd I ever get in here?' I'm gonna look over and say: 'I'm gonna crush you, Acorn.' And when the referee give us instructions, I'm gonna reach over and rub Acorn's head."
Shavers may be finished right there.
Cus D'Amato, perhaps the fight game's most mobile septuagenarian, has seen it happen to better men. "They turn around in the ring and face an Ali or a Joe Louis or a Ray Robinson," he says, "and all the power they thought they had goes out of them like air out of a balloon. I guess it's just a special force a few great fighters have."
The Force. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, or maybe it sprang from the playgrounds of Norman Mailer's mind. If Ali knows, however, he isn't telling. He is going to let Shavers find out about the Force firsthand. You know what a quaint sense of humor Ali has.
No Garden Party for Ali
Sept. 30, 1977
It had been a long time coming. Even Muhammad Ali, who is seemingly beyond blushing, must have been embarrassed by the delay. But at last there was a heavyweight championship fight that deserved the name.
The explanation for this startling development was so simple you would think someone would have thought of it before. What it boiled down to was that the other half of the human equation involving Ali was not Richard Dunn, a butterfly waiting for his wings to be picked off, nor was it Alfredo Evangelista, the walking Spanish omelet. It was Earnie Shavers, a brave man, a stubborn man, a tough man. And he was exactly what Ali needed to prove he can still deliver the quality on which he swears he has cornered the market—greatness.
True to form, Ali waited as long as he could before doing it Thursday night. For 12 rounds, he stuck just enough stiff left hands in Shavers' face to turn it an ugly purple and pile up the points to be sure he would walk out of the Madison Square Garden ring wearing his crown. Then he woke up as Shavers tried desperately to knock him out.
The thuggish-looking challenger, 211 pounds of muscle packed under a shining dome, stormed out for the 13th and clouted Ali upside the head. "Hell, yeah, he hurt me," Ali said later. "He hurt me four or five times."
At least one more of those jolts came seconds after Shavers' first bomb. The rest came in the hailstorm that was the 14th.
Ali started the round by trying to show Shavers he hadn't been stunned. The ploy didn't work. Shavers went right back at him, tying him up against the ropes, banging away on Ali's kidneys and chucking him under the chin on the break. Then Shavers really got down to business.
He sent a looping right hand to Ali's head. And another. And another. Ali went stumbling backwards into Shavers' corner looking dazed, ready to be finished. But Shavers didn't move in. He moved 10 feet away and stared at Ali as if it couldn't be true that Earnie Shavers, who just two years ago was fighting in dumpy gyms for 1,000 grubby dollars, could have done such a thing.
"I thought he was faking," Shavers said afterward in the gentle, almost flutey voice that seems foreign to the rest of him. "He's a pretty good faker."
The problem was, Ali wasn't faking. "I was out on my feet," he said.
It didn't matter. In his corner, Angelo Dundee, the brains of the outfit, kept telling Ali it didn't matter. Dundee had a man in the dressing room watching the round-by-round scores as they were flashed on television, and he knew that Ali had the fight won if he could stay upright.
That was all Ali had to do. You had to wonder if he was up to it when Shavers raced out and popped him with the nastiest left he had the strength to throw.
Ali struck back with a left of his own. Shavers was more startled than hurt. Ali pumped two more lefts into his face. Now Shavers was hurt. Ali didn't need anyone to shout the news to him from his corner. He unlimbered the right hand he uses primarily for signing checks and rammed it upside Shavers' head. He was going for the kill. In a round that began with him in danger, in a round where he had to do nothing more than survive, he was putting on his greatest show since he and Joe Frazier gave us the Thrilla in Manila.
"He never hurt me bad," Shavers insisted. "I wasn't hurt."
If the round had lasted 30 seconds longer, Shavers would have known the truth. He would have been knocked out.
The brilliance of those final three minutes made a lot of things palatable afterward. You listened to Dundee say it was "the best 15th round I've seen in a long time," and you agreed with him.
"This is just Muhammad Ali," he said. "Muhammad always finds a way. He summons something up from out of nowhere and comes back. He's too much for all of us."
Even Ali, when he finally faced the press an hour and five minutes after he left the ring, had to be listened to seriously when he delivered his usual paean to himself. "I'm a courageous man," he said. "I have a whole lot of heart." Yes he does, and that is not all.
He has the ability to make us forget. Sad to say, there was much to be forgotten in this fight. There was the sleep-walking Ali did in the early rounds. There was the swing he took at Bundini Brown, his long-time good luck charm, after the fifth for telling him he should cut the comedy. There were the boos Ali heard when he tried to cover up some seventh-round soft-shoeing with a little showboating. And there were the boos Shavers' trainer, Frank Luca, is sure to hear for not being cagey enough to monitor the scoring on TV the way Dundee did.
It seems like an awful lot to be erased by just one round of boxing, just three minutes out of the lives of two men. But it happened, and when it was over, you realized something. Annoying as Muhammad Ali is, you are going to miss him when he's gone.
Straight from Champ's Mouth—Nothing
Feb. 14, 1978
Beads of sweat ran races down Muhammad Ali's fleshy torso. Ali, a heavyweight champion in training, paid them no mind. After 10 straight minutes of bobbing and weaving and four more of boxing his shadow, he was thinking instead of how his thirst was running out of control. He grabbed a bottle swaddled in tape and tipped it to his lips. Then, like a miniature whale, he spurted water into the center of the ring. It was the only notable thing to come out of his mouth Monday.
The sound in Ali's camp for the time being is the sound of no lips flapping. The great man has taken what his obedient servants solemnly call "a vow of silence." Given all the ears he has bent in the past, this may prove the most beneficial aspect of his 15-round title defense against Leon Spinks Wednesday night. It already is the most novel aspect, no matter what some historians insist.
They are doubtless thinking back 15 years to when Ali, cleverly disguised as Cassius Clay, had his mouth taped while training to fight Doug Jones. That maneuver differed from the current tapeless ploy because the idea for it came from his trainer, the esteemed Angelo Dundee.
"We just wanted to shut the kid up for a while," said Dundee. "But this business now, it's Muhammad's idea. I didn't have nothing to do with it. I was as surprised as anybody. Listen, if he didn't tell me he was gonna use the rope-a-dope against George Foreman, he's sure not gonna tell me about a little thing like stopping talking."
Speculating on the reason for Ali's silence has been so fascinating that only the wet blankets around the Hilton Pavilion are eager to learn the truth. In livelier circles, the guessing is that he has taken sides in an unpublicized split within the Black Muslims or that his pride has been hurt by vivid descriptions of his spreading middle. Or maybe he is simply tired of being an unwitting straight man, as he was when the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic book went public bearing a $2.50 price tag. "Champ," said an inquisitive fellow, "is the rematch going to cost $3.50?"
Nobody is enjoying the unsolved mystery more than Dundee. In his unfamiliar role as Ali's spokesman, he is getting more exposure than ever to the public as well as the press. "I'll bet some of these people didn't even know I could write," he said Monday after wading through a wave of autograph seekers. He talked with all of them along the way. "You know who else I'm talking to?" he asked at last. "Ali."
Their most fruitful conversations take place between four and six in the morning, after Ali has done his roadwork in solitude. If the hour is inconvenient, Dundee doesn't mention it, for he remembers too well that life with Muhammad used to be infinitely more difficult. "You'd go up in his hotel room and there'd be a hundred people there," says Dundee. "They'd be hustling this, hustling that, offering him every cockamamie deal you can think of. Muhammad was making movies, posing for pictures, doing everything but tending to the store the way he should have been." Now, where there once was chaos, there are only Ali's wife and two children and a handful of close friends. Tranquility has come to the Sweet Science.
It has done wonders for Ali's waistline as well as his work habits. When he checked in with Dundee ten days before Christmas, he was a bloated 241 pounds. Twenty of them have since disappeared. "He's in his best shape since he come back from the suspension seven years ago and beat Jerry Quarry," says Dundee, who refuses to notice the flesh that still jiggles everywhere on Ali.
Dundee prefers to see a champion to whom the $3.5 million he will earn Wednesday night is far down his list of reasons for fighting the wet-behind-the-ears Spinks. "Money isn't Ali's god," says Dundee. Similarly, Dundee refuses to consider the possibility that Ali really doesn't want to fight the ominous Ken Norton. "Muhammad would fight a cage full of lions," he says.
Obviously Dundee needs a while to get to the whole truth and nothing but the truth. At this point, however, it can't be avoided. "Muhammad Ali is 36 years old," he says. "He's at the end of the rainbow." With uncharacteristic subtlety, Ali is acting like it.
While Dundee has established a nostalgic mood by recounting the deeds of the champion as a young man, Ali has gone on a journey through his past. To begin preparations for Spinks, he used Dundee's charmingly dilapidated Fifth Street Gym on Miami Beach. When he walked up to the second-floor ring, he saw people who had been there when he was laying the foundation for his legend, people he hardly remembered. When he walked back outside, he was surrounded by the neighborhood's senior citizens. They call him "Mr. Ali," the way they always did. He had forgotten that.
What he did not forget was the most prized artifact of his career-the heavy punching bag he worked on before whipping Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. Ali deployed his forces to get it in Los Angeles, and they brought it back with its seams stitched and its canvas rotting from sweat. Ali has proceeded to knock the stuffing out of it regularly but not without a trace of fondness.
The champion was pounding out four-four time on the bag Monday when Dundee received his message. "Ali's gonna knock Spinks out," he said. "It will be in the 11th or 12th round." Ali only grunted when he heard Dundee. 16 hours before, he had been more emphatic. He was offering a mute hello to a few reporters in the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton when an alcohol-soaked admirer came up to wish him luck against Spinks.
"Don't need no luck with the Duck," said Ali. He looked slyly at the reporters. "Whoops, I'm not supposed to be talking, am I?"
Not yet, anyway.
A Walk on the Quiet Side
Feb. 16, 1978
The fight was over. The press conference was over. Now Muhammad Ali, suddenly the former heavyweight champion of the world, had to walk through the crowd in the hotel lobby.
A platoon of security guards linked arms around him, but it wasn't necessary. The people milling about moved aside quietly, respectfully, the way they would if someone asked them to make way for pallbearers with a casket. "You're still the champ," a few of them murmured. Ali tried not to listen.
From the hotel's discotheque, a singer cut through the smoky air with off-key bleats. From the hotel's casino, there were the 24-hour-a-day sounds of whirring roulette wheels and ice tinkling in empty glasses. Ali paid no attention to any of it.
He kept on walking, his head down so no one could get a good look at his battered, lumpy face. Sugar Ray Robinson, who knows from experience how it feels to be a handsome man made ugly by fists, offered his condolences. Ali said thank you with his eyes and moved on.
The elevator door was open when he got to it. He looked around at the security guards. "You guys don't have to protect me from nothing," he said. "Nobody want to touch me."
The guards dropped their arms to their sides. Ali stepped through them into the elevator. The door closed behind him and he rode to his 29th-floor suite alone with his thoughts about Leon Spinks and the championship that got away.
In the past year, there had been harbingers of just such a fall from glory. The awkward waltz with Alfredo Evangelista showed how much Ali was aging. The 15th-round escape from Earnie Shavers' steel fists marked him as a man who could be overwhelmed by the right combination of slugging and savvy. But Spinks, the Olympic gold medalist who had only seven professional fights before he clambered into the ring Wednesday night, was supposed to be all punch and no planning.
Bookies refused to take bets on his battle with Ali. Writers snickered about his often unintelligible ghetto dialect and the false teeth the Marine Corps issued him. Even after his split-decision victory over Ali had been announced and his porcine trainer, Sam Solomon, was squeezing him like a child, the 5,298 eyewitnesses in the Hilton Pavilion had to pinch themselves to believe it.
True, they cheered wildly at the savage beauty with which Spinks wrested the crown from Ali's head. But afterward there was a long, numb silence.
"I was really surprised," someone told Ali later.
"You're sitting down there at ringside drinking beer and you think you're surprised?" Ali said. "I was up in the ring getting my ass hit. You know I was surprised."
Angelo Dundee, Ali's guiding light for 18 years, tried to warn him about Spinks. "This was no 24-year-old kid," Dundee said. "This guy's mature. He's been in the Marines. He's been around the block. Nothing was gonna awe him."
But Ali, as audacious as ever, didn't believe Dundee until it was too late. Then he became charmingly humble. He had no other choice.
He wrinkled his brow at the idea that one judge, Art Lurie, a Las Vegas liquor store owner, could have thought he won the fight. And when his brother Rachman started screaming that he had been robbed, Ali angrily told him to shut up.
"You can't die because you lose," said Ali.
He has lost before, of course. A decade ago, the government won a unanimous decision against him after he obeyed the dictates of the Muslim religion and refused to go to war against "them Viet Congs." That cost him the three best years of his career. When he could fight again, Joe Frazier beat him for the championship. He regained it in 1974 by lassoing George Foreman with the rope-a-dope, and it looked as if he might never lose it again. Until Wednesday night.
"I'm 36 years old now," he said as he sucked on an ice cube. "36 is getting in the age. I want to take a couple months off. Let Spinks fight somebody else. I don't care who it is—Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Jimmy Young—they're in trouble. Let him do that and then he can give me a rematch.
"Yeah, I think that's what I want. There's something tells me to leave. Then there's something telling me to try one more time. I used to get hungry when I lost fights. I don't know if I can be that way anymore."
He bit down on the last of his ice cube and stared out at the people interrogating him. The left side of his face was red from where Spinks had been pounding all night. His eyes were swollen and on the verge of closing. He looked defeated, but there was more to it than that.
He looked like the oldest man on earth.
Last Night to Rewrite the Legend
Sept. 15, 1978
It is as if Muhammad Ali has been planning for this night all his life, and how are we to know that he hasn't? He is boxing's consummate actor, the premier fistic sorcerer of the 20th century, one of those rare athletes gifted with both greatness and the ability to understand his place in history. And now he has 15 rounds—most likely the final 15 of his career—in which to dictate how brightly his legend shall glow.
"You can't write a movie no better than this," Ali says. He will come to the Superdome as an aging king without his crown, and in one last bold attempt to get it back, he will fight Leon Spinks, the young varlet who plucked it from his head in February. If he succeeds, he will be the first man ever to be heavyweight champion of the world three times. The mere prospect is so improbable, so impossible, that maybe nobody would dare write a movie like this.
Curiously, as Ali strives to prove that real life always outclasses fiction, it is fiction that helps keep the fire within him burning. He ignores the odds that make him a 12-to-5 favorite over the fast-living Spinks and concentrates instead on the mutterings about his age, his loss of speed, his occasional clumsiness. Says Jose Torres, the fighter who became a writer: "Ali's profound paranoia is at work."
It has been with him from the beginning, taking root in his vanity. He didn't want to have his handsome face left scarred and lumpy, didn't want anyone to see him stretched unconscious on the canvas, so he danced and bobbed and weaved and roped one dope after another. He wanted enemies, adversaries, and foils. He needed a challenge like a flower needs water, and when he didn't think he had one seven months ago in Las Vegas, he let a kid 11 years his junior leave him in shambles. Now he wishes the bookies and the press would take up Spinks' cause, if only so he could do what he thinks he has always done best.
"When I beat Sonny Liston, I shocked the world," he says. "When I joined the Muslims, I shocked the world. When I beat George Foreman, I shocked the world. I am from the House of Shock."
You are sure Ali has used the line before, but you can't remember where or when. Meanwhile, he is up in the ring where he has been sparring, introducing his public to Gene Kilroy, the white interface of his entourage. "He's got the connection and the complexion to get the protection," Ali says. Someone behind you mutters, "Lewiston, Maine, 1963." You nod, bored, a trifle disappointed. Only later does it occur to you that, at 36, Ali has no time to let his imagination float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He has all he can do to prepare for his last stand against Spinks.
"Used to be," says Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer since 1960, "Muhammad would spend four weeks in training camp and two weeks in the place where he was fighting and that would be it. Now he can't do that no more. He's gotta pay a heavy price every time he goes to the mat. That's why it don't matter how much he makes for a fight. The pain of getting ready is too much. It'll be the finish of him."
Long before dawn's early light, when even the best accountants care not about the $3.25 million he will earn or the $3.75 million Spinks will earn, Ali has slogged around Lake Ponchartrain. Then he has given himself over to Luis Sarria, who is not so much a masseur as he is a drill sergeant. Sarria speaks no English, understands no yelps of pain, and Ali is better for it after all those 75-minute sessions in the ebony Cuban's torture chamber.
The belly is taut, the flab that once hid the top of his trunks is gone, the bounce is back in the legs. Everything is in order for getting revenge on Spinks, if only Ali won't give away the early rounds as he did in Las Vegas, if only he will poke his fists into the openings the champion leaves. "Spinks looks like a sucker for an uppercut," Dundee says, "but Muhammad didn't throw one last time." Ah, so much to be corrected and only 15 rounds for the correcting.
"I'm gonna wipe out Stinks—I mean Spinks," says the unfazed Ali. But he has trouble working up the old braggadocio, the old outrageousness. Again and again he tries, excoriating Spinks for putting "bad juice" in his water bottle in Vegas, complaining that Spinks "hit me in my privates 42 times." It is no good, though. His tongue won't flap the way it used to.
We are left to wonder if it matters, if the relative silence suggests a fading of the spirit and a sense of dread. In Spinks' camp, of course, there is not a man who doesn't want to believe that it does. "Ali might have needed a challenge before," says Georgie Benton, Spinks' chief strategist, "but now he can't stand a challenge." Benton says it over and over, trying to convince himself if no one else, but in the end, he can't even do that.
"You just can't guess on Ali," he says. "You tell yourself that he's had it and then he comes back, like there's some mystic force in his life."
How Ali would love to hear that. Someday someone will have to relay the message to him, for it conjures up so much of the magic he has achieved. But now is not the time. He has one more fight to be fought, one more conqueror to be conquered. Then his life as boxing's salvation will be over, and we will know how much Ali meant to us because there will be no one to take his place.
Somehow, someway, Muhammad Ali rediscovered his old magic Friday night and wrote the most unlikely chapter in a story that seemingly has no end.
In the gaudy blue ring of the steaming Louisiana Superdome, Ali took Leon Spinks, the upstart who dethroned him seven months ago, and gave him a lesson in the virtues of combination punching and the evils of training in discotheques. And when Ali was finished pounding out his unanimous decision, he was heavyweight champion of the world for the third time. He was what no other man has ever been.
He has always said that there was never a fighter like him, of course, but he had to be worried about Spinks, 11 years his junior and light years ahead of him in pure savagery. You could see it on his face when his handlers guided him through the howling crowd of 70,000 and into the glare of the ring lights. But with each round, the furrow in his brow lessened and it became clearer and clearer that Spinks was not going to send him to retirement in the disgrace of defeat.
Retirement was supposed to be Ali's destiny, win or lose. But he is a man of surprises, a man who does not tolerate the expected. So it was only natural that he would say afterward: "I will wait eight months and decide. If I retire, I'll have a party. If I don't, I will take somebody else on." As always, his destiny was squarely in his hands.
It had been the same way in the fight just ended. After the 12th round, all Ali had to do was stay upright until the final bell. All the referee and the two judges had to do was figure out whether they were going to give Ali the decision 11 rounds to four or 10 to four and one even. It was that unanimous.
What it was not was the classic that Ali must have prayed for, dreamed about. He had moments where he looked like a man trying to forget that he was 36, and Spinks could never mount the brutal attack everyone kept expecting. But what should Ali care now that he has the victory he wanted so desperately?
It is Spinks who should go into retreat wondering why the fight was not even a shadow of the battle he and Ali waged in Las Vegas. Perhaps it was his corner, his controversial corner, that contributed to his overthrow. For one thing, all the men squeezed into it could think to tell him was, "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle." For another, Sam Solomon, his trainer, and George Benton, the man he trusts the most, learned forevermore that there wasn't room for both of them.
"This is crazy," Benton said as he stalked away after the fifth round. "You can't have this many people here."
So Spinks was left looking helplessly at his corner, waiting for the words of wisdom that never came. The sense of abandonment was still with him afterwards. It was rapidly turning into surliness.
"I know I lost," he snapped. "You seen it. Don't ask a dumb question like that."
The real question, the question of how the 25-year-old Spinks could lose so badly after devastating Ali in February, will have to be answered later. Was it because of the chaos in his corner? Was it because of all those hours living the good life when he should have been learning his trade? Was it because, as he insisted, "My mind wasn't into it. I just didn't feel right"? Or was it because Ali really did take him on a magical mystery tour?
Certainly the setting for such a tour was right. The fighters were being paid other-worldly sums. Every celebrity in captivity, from Miss Lillian Carter to John Travolta, found a way to ringside. The poor souls who bought the $200 seats pushed their chairs into the aisles and turned their high society frolic into a cattle stampede. Best of all, Lucian Joubert, an electrician from New Orleans, didn't know he was refereeing the fight until an hour before Spinks and Ali climbed into the ring.
In the fifth round, Joubert tried to prove that he wasn't numb from shock. "He continues to hold Spinks behind the head," he shouted to the judges at ringside. "I warned him 10 times." With that, Joubert gave the round to Spinks after Ali had won it with ease.
No matter. Ali was not going to be detoured. As if to prove it, he started the sixth by slamming a stiff left hand upside Spinks' head. No longer would he try to clinch with the 201-pound Spinks and use his 20-pound advantage to wrestle the sinking champion along the ropes. Ali was ready to punch, and as the bell rang to end the seventh, he and Spinks were slugging away in the middle of the ring. Ali danced back to his corner. He knew what was happening. The story was unfolding just as he had planned it. At the end of the eighth, he embraced Bundini Brown, the shaman of his entourage. In the 10th, he did the Ali Shuffle. In the 12th, with Spinks searching desperately for a knockout, he startled the kid from the St. Louis ghetto with a right to the chest and followed it up with a pair of left-right combinations that came straight from a textbook.
Now the final seconds were ticking off on the clock and the crowd was chanting, "Ali, Ali, Ali." Spinks was still stalking him, but the life was out of his movements. He knew what had happened. So did the mob in his corner and the mob in Ali's corner and everybody with any sense at all.
Muhammad Ali had become the greatest again.
Ali Dusts Off His Old "Con"
Sept. 17, 1978
The next eight months of Muhammad Ali commenced Saturday amid dire predictions that the saloons of the world will soon be swamped with requests for Cutty and watermelon. Ali didn't make the predictions, mind you, but he might just as well have. For he is chairman of the board of Champ Export, and Champ Export will distribute Champ Soda, and Champ Soda will come in seven natural flavors including you know what.
A toast, anyone?
Certainly a toast of some sort was in order. Leroy Johnson, a former Georgia state senator, wanted to raise a glass to his new Third World business venture with Ali, provided Ali didn't slip away from him while he was doing it. Jimmy Grippo, the nightclub magician who came to town specifically to coo Ali to sleep, was ready to salute the power of suggestion, which seemed to be putting his specialty on the line. And Ali, as usual, just wanted to say cheers to himself.
Not unexpectedly, Ali got his way, just as he had Friday night when he waltzed listless Leon Spinks around the Superdome's ring for 15 rounds and became the world's first three-time heavyweight champion. The significance of that little piece of history was something he couldn't stress enough. "People knew I was good, so-called great," he said, "but they didn't know the extent of it until now."
In a way, the whole thing was a set-up for Ali. He harked back to February in Las Vegas and his first fight with Spinks, the fight he wasn't supposed to lose. He lost it, of course, and with it went his crown. That seemed a tragedy then; now it looks like a blessing. "If I beat Spinks the first time, I get no credit," he said. "When I beat him this time, everybody thinks it's something special." Which is just fine with Ali.
The prevailing sentiment puts him back on top in every phase of his beloved con game. "President Carter called to congratulate me an hour after the fight," he said. And that wasn't all. The president reported that he watched Ali on TV with Menachem Begin, who fights out of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, who fights out of Egypt. Try telling Ali he doesn't control all the pieces on the chessboard after that.
Some of them he has already moved. Others he is holding in abeyance, letting us guess what his next move will be, satisfying his taste for letting the public dangle.
If he weren't such a devotee of the mysterious, he wouldn't be saying "You just saw the last of the Greatest" in one breath and, "There isn't a heavyweight who can stay with me" in the next. It is as if he wants to be begged to return to the ring and begged to stay out of it. One can picture him sitting back contentedly and measuring how much he is loved, not just in the United States but "in South Africa, Manila, Morocco, Russia—all those places where they stayed up 'til two in the morning to find out if I won."
Like any savvy politician, Ali will try to visit as many of those faraway admirers as possible in the next eight months. After that, he will either have to retire or start training for the annual title defense the World Boxing Association demands of him.
"You want me to fight Larry Holmes?" he asked. "Holmes is 28. If you make him 36 like me, I wouldn't have no trouble staying with him. If you make me 28 like him, no problem. If you make me 28, m-a-a-a-n…"
That is only a dream, though. Pugilistic reality is nowhere near as pleasant, so Ali is going to avoid it studiously. "I'm more than a fighter," he said. "I want to work for God and humanity." While he is at it, he will also make a television movie and worry about the way Champ Export is wheeling and dealing in oil, construction, heavy equipment, food products, concrete, and shipping. Earning $3.25 million that way will be slower than it was fighting Spinks, but it should be infinitely more pleasant.
And he will still be the champ, not the ex-champ. No one but Ali knows just how important that is to him, how much he relishes the power and the perks that the title brings. It is possible to guess, though, by examining the price he paid to prepare for Spinks.
"For six months, I killed myself in training," Ali said. "A lot of nights and days, I thought I was finished. " But he made himself get ready for the eight good rounds he needed to be sure of victory, he made himself do away with the rope-a-dope defense that betrayed him in Vegas. And as the fight drew near, he fell asleep each night with Jimmy Grippo sitting at the foot of his bed telling him there was nobody better, for he was the Greatest.
"Jimmy Grippo is a great man, too," said Ali, summoning the sleight-of-hand artist from the Vegas strip into the midst of his meeting with the press. The first thing everybody noticed about Grippo was his curly brown toupee. The second was that he was infallible at what he did. The third was that once he got center stage, he wasn't going to surrender it without a struggle.
What seemed like hours later, after he had pulled cards and coins from every pocket and ear in sight, Grippo took Ali by the arm. "It's about time I taught you some magic," he said.
That really wasn't necessary, for Ali already knew all the magic he needed to get through the day. He had made his press conference disappear.
A Painful Pilgrimage to Ali's Mountain
March 2, 1979
There was an unscheduled 10-rounder last fall on a subway train speeding back to civilization from the South Bronx, a scabrous colony that even the World Series couldn't cheer up. The combatants were a little guy and a big guy, and the little guy was winning. He wanted revenge for the teeth no longer in his mouth and the knife scar across his belly. And the big guy, the victor in their previous fight, wanted out. "You the best," he wailed. "You the best." But his voice didn't portray his helplessness as vividly as his one open eye did. It was wide with pain and terror and disbelief, as if he couldn't comprehend how steep the price of his squalid existence had suddenly become.
Simmie Black had the same pathetic look about him the other night, when all he really wanted to do was see Muhammad Ali up close. That was the catch. To have his wish come true, he had to agree to take four rounds of punishment from a blossoming lightweight named Denny Daniels. "There's worse deals," Simmie Black insisted. "Shoot, I work at one every day."
So he bid adieu to the real estate man for whom he cleans apartments in Memphis and caught a plane to Chicago the morning of the fight. He came late to save the cost of a night's lodging, and he came alone because that is the way preliminary boys travel. No problems. There would be somebody to act as his manager and somebody else to act as his trainer. There always is.
The trouble began where it usually does for Simmie Black—in the ring. He entered with a towel over his head and no robe to hide his faded, frayed purple trunks. When he went out to receive his instructions from the referee before the first round, he surveyed the taller, better-constructed Daniels and decided it would be all he could do to give the customers a show. "I knew I weren't gonna beat the dude," he said. So he threw punches over and around the ref during clinches. He tried to draw Daniels off guard by playing possum. He staggered theatrically. And he responded to the one time he was knocked down by popping back on his feet like a Joe Palooka punching bag. But none of it was enough to spare Simmie Black from a unanimous-decision loss. The best he could do was make most witnesses forget about the terrible, hurt look in his eye when Daniels was pounding his head lopsided.
"I never saw some of that stuff you done out there," said the stranger helping him remove his gloves.
"I always try to give the peoples a good show," Simmie Black said.
"How much you getting paid?"
"Let's see, it was six rounds, wasn't it?"
"No, it was four."
"Yeah, four. That's right. Four rounds, I get $150. You got to excuse me, I'm kinda shook up. I'm a little punch drunk."
And Simmie Black, who says he is 25 and looks like he is 45, hit himself in the head to knock away some of the cobwebs.
He was still trying to make his eyes focus when the commotion started down the corridor. First, there was noise. Then there was a swirl of humanity through a rear entrance to De Paul University's Alumni Hall. Finally, there was a tall man in a tan suit striding through the chaos with blissful, almost regal ease.
"Who that?" Simmie Black asked.
"I think it's Ali," the man at his side replied.
Simmie Black was gone in an instant, lured by the siren song Ali was crooning as he poked his head into the packed gymnasium: "I'm gonna wipe this sucker out tonight. You can tell everybody. I'm gonna wipe this joint out." It is always the same with Ali, whether the occasion is a championship fight or a simple four-round exhibition, like this one with Luke Capuano. The hallway was crowded with old friends, gladhanders, and indescribably delicious women. Ali mugged with them and hugged with them, and then he disappeared through a door bearing a sign that said "Muhammed Ali only." He didn't stop to correct the spelling.
Having witnessed greatness, Simmie Black smiled. "Foist time I ever seen Ali in person," he said, dabbing at the blood still trickling from his right nostril. "Makes me feel like a champion just bein' that close to him." Perhaps Simmie Black could have gotten closer if he had joined the line of people visiting Ali behind closed doors, but the suggestion evoked a shy, nervous giggle. "Nah," he said. "Why don't you tell me what's goin' on in there?"
In the dressing room, where the heat bordered on tropical, the predominant activity was sweating. Ali had the best deal of anybody because he could lounge around with his shirt off and not be accused of impropriety. While everybody gazed at his immense stomach, he toyed with the reporters, flirted with the women, and teased George Mostardini, the local heavyweight who calls himself the Italian Assassin. "Man, you don't wanna fight me," he said. "You'd be better off runnin' through hell with gasoline drawers."
The laughter resumed after Ali slapped Capuano around in the exhibition and was treated like delicate Dresden china in return. "Hello, foxes," Ali said to two sweet young things waiting for him in the dressing room. They occupied his attention while questions whizzed past his ears and photographers' flash bulbs snapped all around him. The room got hotter and hotter until a factotum pleaded for people without big business to leave. After they departed, the loudest voice remaining belonged to a dapper young man with a camera crew and a resolute sense of purpose.
"Now we're going to have a very sensitive moment here," he announced, "and we want you all to be quiet. Muhammad Ali is going to be filming a message to all of Montgomery Ward's store managers."
Ali did it, too, for five minutes without blowing a line. But, Simmie Black, you wouldn't have wanted to watch.
Ali Still Fast? Yes, Aging Fast
Sept. 12, 1980
An old man's dream ended. A young man's vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire. —Red Smith, writing in 1951 after Rocky Marciano knocked out Joe Louis.
Someone should show Muhammad Ali the pictures from that October night. They came out of Madison Square Garden bearing the awful truth about what happens to former heavyweight champions who forget that their best is behind them. In one frame, Joe Louis was on his knees. In the next, he was outside the ropes propped on one elbow. Finally, he lay on his back, giving the world a lasting portrait of the bald, the paunchy, and the hopeless. He was 37, one year younger than Ali is now.
It would behoove Ali to think of that as he approaches Oct. 2 and his first act of legal violence in two years. He should understand there is every chance that history will repeat itself in Las Vegas when he raises his fists against Larry Holmes, the king of the World Boxing Council. And maybe, God forbid, history will take a turn for the worse.
Remember, we are not going to see the Muhammad Ali who vanquished Leon Spinks in 1978 and walked away with an unprecedented third heavyweight title. The Ali now preparing to appear before us will be older and slower, and if he is not fat, he is odds-on to have stretch marks as a reminder of the blubber he has shed. But mere physical deterioration is not the greatest thing we have to fear. It would be wisest for us—and for Ali—to heed the warnings that his mind no longer sends messages to his muscles as fast as it used to, that the words that tumble out of his mouth ceaselessly are beginning to trip over one another.
Alas, we have no say in the matter and Ali has no apparent interest. He will not let himself be talked into retreat, even by those dearest to him. He has made a career of crusades, and now he gets a crusade that means far more than fighting tank-town exhibitions or even rewriting foreign diplomacy for the Carter administration. The only question that remains is whether his inspiration stems from simple vanity or the $8 million promoter Don King is paying him to fight Holmes in the parking lot at Caesars Palace.
"The parking lot," King proclaims, "is symbolic of the humble beginnings of these two gladiators."
If there is anything symbolic about the arena that has been erected where Cadillacs and Continentals usually dwell, it is that such places are usually the sites of the meanest, grimmest brawls imaginable. Just think of how many middle-aged men have forgotten themselves, yelled at young thugs in flashy cars, and wound up getting stomped bloody for their lack of diplomacy.
The fear in these quarters is that the loquacious Ali has become irreparably middle-aged himself and that Holmes, eight years his junior, couldn't care less about it. "I ain't gonna let Porky beat me," the champion says. Porky? It is Ali who is supposed to bequeath the demeaning nicknames on his opponents, not vice versa. But there you have the unfortunate truth: Holmes has thrown down the gauntlet and Ali is a poor choice to do anything about it.
Perhaps his chances would be better if he had not shot for the moon in his first fight out of retirement. Indeed, when he announced his intention to return to the ring last March, the sentiment here was wholeheartedly positive because he was making noises about meeting Big John Tate before he tried Holmes on for size. Unfortunately, Tate lost his World Boxing Association championship to Mike Weaver and Ali lost his taste for adventure. If he fought Weaver and fared poorly, he might be denied his shot at Holmes. Ergo no $8 million. Ergo no test flights against lesser competition.
What awaits us then may be a mismatch on the order of cockroach versus heel. In one corner will be Holmes, undefeated after 35 fights and still close enough to the peak of his powers to be the most dangerous heavyweight in captivity. In the other corner will be Ali, two years away from throwing his last punch in anger and five years away from his last decent fight, the Manila Thrilla against Joe Frazier. The longer you look at the two of them, the better Marciano-Louis seems, and Marciano-Louis was hardly the Hundred Years War.
At bottom, the fight really had been a stepping stone toward a championship for the relentless young punching machine from Brockton, Mass., the one everybody called the Rock. But surely Louis couldn't believe that. He had lost his title to Ezzard Charles just a year before, and in the months since, he had fought eight times, each time facing a little tougher foe, each time telling himself he was regaining the sharpness of his youth.
Marciano needed just eight rounds to convince Louis otherwise, to point the old man toward his dreaming place beside the fire. "I'm glad for myself," the Rock said when the deed was done, "but I'm real sorry for him." Louis had been knocked down by one left hook, knocked out by another, and knocked out of the ring by a right to the neck. For those long seconds that he lay on the ring apron, he was as sad and pitiful a sight as the fight racket has ever seen. But he did get up eventually and he did walk back to his dressing room, however slowly.
Pray that Muhammad Ali does so well.
Holmes TKOs Ali in the Eleventh
Oct. 3, 1980
The fire that made Muhammad Ali great was gone now. For the last three rounds, he had been wobbling from one corner of the ring to another, bouncing off the ropes and waiting helplessly for Larry Holmes to hit him with another punch. The 38-year-old Ali did not fight back, for he could barely lift his gloves. In a city that knows all about show business and broken dreams, he was just another star who had wound up as a pathetic lounge act.
When the bell rang to end the 10th round and Holmes was forced to end his brutal, pitiless assault Thursday night, Ali staggered back to his corner on legs made heavy by exhaustion. Through his glazed eyes, it must have been difficult to see the blue wooden stool that was waiting for him. But he made it, and when he did, Angelo Dundee, his trainer through 21 of the most memorable years boxing will ever see, told him not to get up again.
There was a sad, bewildered shriek from Bundini Brown, the obstreperous jester of the Ali camp. "But he's the champ!" Bundini squealed. "He's the champ!"
No, he wasn't.
Ali gave up the heavyweight title almost two years ago, opening the door to greatness for Larry Holmes and inaugurating a retirement he never should have surrendered. Holmes understood that; you could tell it by the savage, fearless way he fought in the parking lot arena behind Caesars Palace. And Dundee understood, too. That was why he fought off Brown, ignored the hands clutching at the sleeve of his jacket, and told referee Richard Green what had been apparent from the opening bell: Muhammad Ali, who called himself the Greatest and may well have been, was finished.
It will go in the record books as perhaps the best-paying 11th-round technical knockout in the history of the Sweet Science. For what promoter Don King billed as "The Last Hurrah," Ali will receive $8 million. Yet no doubt he will feel short-changed. He didn't win his fourth championship; he didn't even come close. And his failure must hurt him even more than the boos that stung his ears from the sixth round on.
Nearly 25,000 gawkers and high-rollers sardined their way into the open-air stadium that Caesars Palace erected for just this night, and clearly they didn't think they got what a record $6 million live gate deserved. The reason for that, however, was not that Ali was involved in a daring robbery. It was that he had no business ever trying to trade punches with a man eight years his junior and light years his superior.
What Larry Holmes proved Thursday night was that he is the class of the World Boxing Council's heavyweights and every other organization's as well. He ran his professional record to 36-0 and won his eighth straight title defense the only way he ever has—by knockout.
For that and for refusing to let Ali win so much as a round, Holmes earned $3.5 million and the respect of the people who didn't know what to make of him when he first stepped under the canopied ring. Even with all his experience, he was still an unknown commodity—just the opposite of Ali, who entered the ring to an eerie, unfamiliar silence.
It was as if the crowd knew the sad fate awaiting Ali, as if the crowd could see that the skin around his middle still jiggled after the diet that sent his weight crashing down to 217 ½ pounds. He smirked and winked; he tried to get the crowd to chant "Ali! Ali! Ali!"; he tried all the old tricks. But they did him no more good than his fists would in the ring.
Perhaps Ali realized what he was up against when he looked across the ring and saw Holmes' fierce countenance. All of the challenger's pre-fight barbs seemed to have had the wrong effect on Holmes. They were supposed to psyche him out, but instead they turned him into a study in ferocity that couldn't be cooled by even Gladys Knight and the Pips' mellow rendition of the national anthem.
So Ali reverted to low humor, biting his lower lip menacingly and faking sneak attacks on Holmes. All his hijinks got him was a slap from the 211-pound champion when their paths crossed. Holmes was not going to be intimidated. He wanted Ali's blood.
He would have it soon enough. From the opening round on, he beat down one of Ali's defenses after another. He squelched the peekaboo first, then the rope-a-dope, then all the useless variations Ali tried out of desperation. Time and again, Holmes' jab mashed the challenger's nose. Time and again, his right hand dug into the challenger's ribs. By the third round, Ali had a cruel red welt under his left eye and he must have been thinking he was crazy to ever get in the ring again.
Though mercy must have been on his mind, Holmes couldn't let it get the best of him. He had to stay on the attack, had to stay tough. Lord, how hard that must have been when the man who once was his idol, who once deigned to let him be his sparring partner, now was so helpless. When Ali tried dancing, Holmes danced with him. When Ali threw one of his rare punches—there couldn't have been more than ten of them all night—Holmes countered mercilessly, banging the challenger upside the head. The total effect was as ugly as the blood that began bubbling from Ali's nose in the fourth.
By then it was over. Ali lacked the energy to badger Holmes the way he had earlier. All he wanted, it seemed, was to stay upright through 15 rounds no matter how much blood he lost or how many bruises he picked up. He has always been a fighter of heart, and now he seemed determined to prove it at any cost.
He endured through the 10th, endured until it was too painful to watch Holmes hit him anymore. And then Dundee, a kind soul in a brutal business, said Ali was finished, God willing forever. There was chaos in the ring—tears in the loser's corner, cheers in the winner's—but through it, you could see Ali slumped on the stool, silent and still except for his heaving chest. At last, after all these years, he knew the truth: He had run out of tomorrows.
A Has-Been Who Has Had Enough
Oct. 5, 1980
When he began his improbable journey, when the only thing faster than his fists was his mouth, Muhammad Ali possessed powers that seemingly could heal the sick, raise the dead, and make the little girls talk out of their heads. Now boxing's grand illusionist has but one trick left in his repertoire, and even it reveals him for what he really is. At the very sight of Ali—his steps slow and tentative, his eyes beaten into slits by Larry Holmes—you automatically long for the sweet used-to-be.
Your mind drifts back to 1964 and the February day when the doctors speculated that his thumping heart might jump out of his chest for fear of Sonny Liston, the mob skull-cracker who had savaged his way to the world's heavyweight championship. It's strange because Angelo Dundee is thinking of the same thing—thinking of Miami Beach and the skittish, precocious kid he was training, the one who then called himself Cassius Clay when he wasn't trying to call a bully's bluff.
No one gave him a chance against Liston, and when he came howling back to his corner after the fifth round, Dundee wondered if the skeptics were right. "Muhammad was screaming, 'Cut the gloves off me! I can't see! I'm blind! There's dirty work going on! I want to show the world what a dirty fighter Liston is!' " To tell the truth, he had a point.
Liston had indeed been slathered with some sort of caustic goo. "I stuck my pinky in the corner of Muhammad's eye real gentle-like," Dundee recalls, "and then I put it in my eye and the stuff stung. I'm tellin' you, it stung." But the referee wasn't interested in that; he cared about nothing except the challenger's yelps of surrender. "I seen the guy comin'," Dundee says, "so real quick I grabbed Muhammad up off the stool—you know, to show the referee he was still going to fight." Never has the clean-and-jerk paid such dividends. One round later, Liston was all through, a disconcerted myth who refused to answer the bell and suffer the ignominy of a knockout.
"Hey," Dundee says to the reporters gathered around him, "look what all you guys would have missed if Muhammad lost that fight."
There would have been no phantom punch in Ali's rematch with Liston, for there probably would have been no rematch at all. And who knows what would have been denied the world after that?
The nutty poems and the nuttier datelines? The pride and power he infused into the burgeoning black movement? The unprecedented, probably never-to-be-paralleled third heavyweight championship? The great fights with Foreman, Frazier, and Norton and the even greater, surely more historically important fight with the draft board?
You can sift through all the programs and the newspaper clippings, the books and the TV news tapes and the movies, too, and the only sight you will want to be spared is the one that was thrust upon the world Thursday night. At 38, after two years of retirement, hypnotized by the prospect of a fourth title, Ali got the stuffing kicked out of him in the parking lot at Caesars Palace. He was just another old gaffer who had forgotten his age and tangled with a young squirt he should have given the right-of-way. When Larry Holmes was done defending his World Boxing Council championship, Ali slumped in his corner, judged incapable of answering the bell for the 11th round and looking every bit like Sonny Liston 16 years before. History had come full circle and trapped him.
Ali struggled to escape at first; some say he even threatened to punch Dundee in the nose when his trainer opted for surrender. Had Ali done that, it would have been the first blow he landed all night. He was a helpless, pitiable creature from the opening bell, and now he admits it. "I'm glad Angelo stopped the fight," he says. "I wouldn't want the newspapers to have those pictures of me on the floor, of the referee havin' to pull Holmes offa me."
Though the same pictures flashed through Dundee's mind, he didn't want to prevent Ali from going 15 rounds for the first time in his many-splendored career. "Sure, I stopped it," Dundee says, "but it was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my whole life." He tries to go on and fails. The words won't come out of a throat choked with emotion, and tears fill his eyes. 35 years in the fight racket and Angelo Dundee is crying like a baby, crying for what he is afraid he might see in the future.
There is every possibility that Ali may refuse to return quietly to retirement. The speculation began when he said he wanted a piece of Mike Weaver, the World Boxing Association's heavyweight king, the morning after Holmes had humiliated him. Once that was out, it hardly mattered that the intelligentsia in the Weaver camp announced their lack of interest in taking candy from Ali. Somebody else will like the idea, and Ali will be ready for them.
Already you can hear the gears meshing. He has convinced himself that he was dehydrated after losing 36 pounds in preparation for Holmes. His loyal followers nod their heads obediently and tell him that while he's rearranging his diet, he ought to get some better sparring partners, too. And beyond all that is the fact that he no longer splits the money he makes 50-50 with his manager, Herbert Muhammad; Ali gets more of the pie now, so why should he let the bakery close down?
It is frighteningly easy to imagine him as a latter day Jack Johnson, forlornly wandering around the country until he is in his 50's and putting on exhibitions wherever they will have him. Everybody will have him, of course, because he is Muhammad Ali, the man who calls himself the Greatest. But that is precisely the reason he should have nothing to do with them. To fight again anywhere, under any circumstances, would be to demean his legend and his name. If Ali doesn't realize that, Angelo Dundee does, and he cries along with the rest of us.
Ali Hated Being Lost In the Shuffle
Sept. 6, 1981
He loved the telephone. Everybody in the fight racket is supposed to. All they have to do is dial the right numbers and they can learn who got whacked out in Altoona last night, what kind of crystal such-and-such a heavyweight's jaw is made of, and where in Indianapolis to get a cup of coffee that doesn't taste like the inside of Rocky Marciano's shoes. Get enough good poop like that and you think the touchtone is your best friend, the way Angelo Dundee did.
He acted like he was just a busy signal away from asking Ma Bell to be his Valentine. And then he started getting messages from the area code that makes him wonder if the telephone isn't really a fool's horn of plenty.
The area code is 717, which will get you Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, and, provided your information is correct, the hideaway Muhammad Ali built on a mountain. The messages were from Drew "Bundini" Brown, and once the word on him was that when Ali got punched, Bundini felt it. The two of them were that close—a king and his jester, a soothsayer and his shaman, a preacher and his one-man congregation. It had been almost a year since Ali and Bundini shared the same corner of the ring, almost a year since Larry Holmes reduced the greatest champion of our time to helplessness, and yet some things never change. Angelo Dundee realized that as soon as he found out Bundini wanted him to call.
"I know the scene too well, you know?" Dundee says.
"Drew Brown don't phone from Deer Lake unless he's got some news I don't want to hear." Ali was back in training.
He was surrounded by Bundini and the rest of the obedient servants who didn't care that he turned 39 in January or that the 240 pounds he was packing made him look like a dirigible. They were telling him that he was still invincible, still the champ, still the greatest, and the devil with those state boxing commissions that wouldn't license him to fight again.
For a while, it was a joke. Even Ali seemed to be winking at his public as he bit his lower lip in mock anger and railed about winning the heavyweight title for the fourth time just to spite the Martians, the Ku Klux Klansmen, and all the other unnatural forces in his path. But the laughter turned to fears the other day when Ali announced that he will have his way after all. Come December in the Bahamas, he will return to the Sweet Science, and it won't be against Joe Frazier or Ken Norton or any of the other museum pieces who mistakenly think they won't break if they get hit. It will be against Trevor Berbick, the Canadian champ who last year delivered a message about the evils of violence that Ali would be wise to remember.
With a flurry of punches, Berbick sent a forlorn garbage collector named Big John Tate reeling pitifully across a Montreal ring. When Tate finally collapsed, his left leg twitched as if he were one breath from death.
While death likely is something Ali seldom bothers to worry about, there is no getting it off the minds of the people who care about him. It makes his increasingly slurred speech an afterthought and goes straight to the heart of Ali's problem—his ego. "You know the pride he has in his ability to take a punch," says Dr. Edwin Campbell, medical director of the New York State Athletic Commission. "He'll accept punches just to prove he still has that skill. That's what frightens me."
It frightens Campbell because too many punches lead to bleeding inside the skull, and bleeding inside the skull can lead to the unthinkable. "What could happen to Ali," he says, "is the same thing that happened to Willie Classen." Willie Classen, prizefighter, suffered fatal head injuries practicing his trade.
Still, Ali gives the impression that he never noticed. "He misses you guys, that's why," Angelo Dundee says. Gone is the faithful audience of reporters who served as his straight men, laughed at his "Me I Whee!" poetry, and found that he hit on more basic truths by mistake than most of us do on purpose. But the dearth of publicity accounts for only part of the hole in Ali's life. The rest of it must be attributed to the absence of something best understood by champions. "He misses the crowds, the roar," says Ferdie Pacheco, the physician who long ago was sent packing by Ali for suggesting retirement. "The bell rings and it's just him. There can't be anything like it."
Ali always claimed that he would be different, that he could find life after boxing by making movies or hobnobbing with heads of state. He learned otherwise when he flopped both in Hollywood and as one of Jimmy Carter's puppets. Suddenly, there was nothing for him but his money and his Los Angeles mansion—nothing, in reality, but the emptiness that was compounded after Larry Holmes left him looking old and feeble.
Six months later, when Dundee checked into a Beverly Hills hotel and picked up one of those ever-loving telephones, he found Ali eager to see him, eager to relive old times, eager to be what he had been. While Dundee and his wife waited for him in the lobby, Ali signed autographs ravenously. Then he packed his visitors into one of his three Rolls Royces and made a U-turn in the heaviest traffic he could find. No doubt it was what he thought a once and future champion should do, and yet he wanted to be sure.
"So what do you think about me fighting again, huh, Angelo?" he asked.
"You can't do it no more," Dundee replied evenly. "There isn't any water left in the well."
The hum of the engine filled the car and Muhammad Ali stepped on the gas a little harder.
There never was an Ali fight I wanted to miss until the last one. It took place in an appropriately dreary old ballpark in the Bahamas. The promoter was a late entry who suffered the financial shorts almost until the bell rang and didn't have enough sense to realize that the combatants needed gloves. Trevor Berbick won a unanimous decision and Ali grabbed the stage afterward to boast that no other 40-year-old man could have survived 10 rounds. But since when did Ali—the Greatest, if you will—become content with surviving? I'm glad I wasn't there to have my illusions destroyed.
Ali: The Man For All Continents
May 17, 1985
"Sign this," someone said, thrusting the official program for the night's festivities over my right shoulder. A dark hand reached up for the program and the stranger spoke again: "Make it out to Mattie. She's my housekeeper. She's Jamaican. M-a-t-t-i-e."
Carefully, one at a time, the letters appeared on the page. They were written with a felt-tip pen from ESPN, and I assumed they would be treasured. For the man who scrawled his own name beneath them, the man who would keep signing autographs until his hosts at the 60 th annual dinner of the Boxing Writers Association begged his public to let him eat, was Muhammad Ali.
We were side by side on the dais, a champion for all time and a writer who never has found a more intriguing subject. And yet, with all the words I have written about Ali, I was sure he had no idea of my name. I was just another face from the cluster of notebooks, cameras and tape recorders that always rose up to surround him when he was fighting.
Indeed, I had been this close to him only once before. He was getting ready for his sad, slow heavyweight waltz with Larry Holmes then, and as he mesmerized the media in his hotel suite, fate seated me next to him on the sofa. I scribbled my daily quota of notes, but I didn't move when I was done and Ali was starting to repeat himself. I stayed to look at things from his perspective, to study the ebb and flow of questions and questioners, to watch the faces of the friends and flunkies who seldom left his presence. I stayed, I studied, I watched. And soon enough I was in a world all my own.
Suddenly there was a chirping sound in my left ear. A cricket? I jerked around and saw Ali rubbing his thumb and index finger together and teasing me with a smile.
"Better pay attention, white boy," he said.
So now, years later, in the Delegates Room at the United Nations, with him a 24-hour-a-day man of peace and me still fascinated by the shadow he has cast across all of us, I would dry to do better.
The beginning of my self-imposed assignment was not promising. Not only was Ali mumbling, the curse of Parkinson's syndrome, but there was a rumor he might walk out because the promoters of the affair refused to come up with air fare for his right-hand man.
By evening's end, when he had picked up an award for long and meritorious service, he caused a stir the best way he knew how. He talked about Jesus and the angels, about how they're always white and never black, Hispanic or Asian. "What does this do to non-whites?" Ali asked in that deceptively soft voice of his. There was a stir in the audience, but no answers for the defense.
Even though the question was part of Ali's arsenal a dozen or more years ago, even though his delivery had been blunted by a force that has little or nothing to do with stopping too many punches, the scene was a wonder to behold. Once again I was reminded how far Ali has traveled beyond boxing, how he can stir the imagination with his unbridled cheek and how it was possible for him to stand as a beacon of black pride. Never—and I believe this with all my heart—will I find a more magical, magnificent figure to write about.
And the autograph seekers who rushed toward Ali as soon as he appeared on the dais obviously were on the same wavelength. They cared not that he was the only man on the dais in a business suit instead of a tuxedo, and they didn't want to hear how an old friend trying to say hello had tapped Ali on the left shoulder and he had turned to the right. All that mattered was that they could reach out and touch him.
So they came—fathers with sons and fast operators wearing pinky rings, fight guys who have seen them all and waitresses who put their trays aside to partake of this golden moment—and they showered him with the love that no other public figure in this tainted age will ever know. Maybe Ali is used to it, maybe he has lived with being a legend for so long that anything less would be devastating, but I was staggered.
This was as close to being Ali as I would ever get, so I was all eyes and ears when a striking middle-aged woman popped up in front of him and, with her biggest smile, asked, "Do you remember me?" Ali's face twisted into a question mark; apparently he had forgotten the role he played in the most memorable night of the woman's life.
He struck the same pose when a magician materialized in front of him on two separate occasions and did the same trick twice. "How do you do that, man?" Ali asked. But when the magician had departed for the second time, Ali nudged me and whispered, "He thinks I don't know." In Ali's hand was the rubber thumb that was the key to the trick.
Part of the man's charm, however, is an ability to play the innocent, to avoid ridiculing everybody except those who beg for ridicule. Another star, for example, might not have known how to deal with the boyish off-Broadway actor who gushed, "Oh, my God. My God, this is the greatest moment of my life. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, I worshipped you. Really. You don't know how bad I felt when Ken Norton broke your jaw. And when you fought Earnie Shavers, you called him 'The Acorn.' Here, this is the way you sounded…" Ali listened, his face aglow, and when the actor finished, the champion wrote his phone number under his autograph and said, "You call me sometime."
I wondered what made Ali do that, but his reason was not for me to know. It was as personal and private as the thoughts that must have raced through is head when someone handed him a Boxing Annual from 1965 and invited him to read it.
He flipped past a cover line that asked, "Can Ali Beat Liston a Second Time?" and turned to a page in the middle of a story about him. It had a picture of him and his first wife, Sonji, and Ali stared at it, transfixed. He didn't even realize he had spread the magazine in his shrimp salad. Finally, former light-heavyweight King Jose Torres, sitting on the other side of him, gently moved the salad to a safer place. Ali never took his eyes off that page.
Was he thinking of fights won or loves lost? I didn't know. I can only tell you that after he finished his dinner and before he prepared to receive his award by taking a 10-minute nap on the dais, he took pen in hand again. He used it to trace a circle around the base of his water glass, and then he put the glass aside and started drawing in the continents. "Pretty good picture, huh?" he asked me.
I mumbled my agreement, but deep inside I had doubts—not about the quality of the art, but about what the art represented. And I nurtured those doubts until I picked up a newspaper a few days later and saw a picture that proved how wrong I had been. There, kissing a baby in China, was Ali. The world is still his.
John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America. He is the editor of the Library of America's forthcoming anthology, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.
The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at email@example.com.
Photos via Associated Press