He is old now, and his left hand flutters like a butterfly’s wings, and his head shakes too. It is 1996, Atlanta, the Olympic opening ceremonies, and in his right hand, Muhammad Ali holds a torch as high and still as he can while a hundred thousand people all around him shriek and cheer and cry.
Mostly, we cry.
No, stop, he is not old. Ali is a child now, 12 years old, Louisville, Ky., and someone has stolen his bicycle. The unfairness of this sears through him. His name is Cassius Marcellus Clay. He races toward a police officer and through hot tears Clay shouts that he’s going to whup whoever it is that took his bike. “Well, if you’re going to whup anybody,” the cop and boxing coach, Joe Martin, said, “you better learn how to box.”
He is a young boxer now, an Olympic gold medalist, and he’s “pretty as a girl,” as he likes to say. How do you describe his boxing style? It is unlike anyone else’s. He stands straight up even though trainers teach boxers to crouch. He keeps his hands down even though it is a hard rule that fighters must keep them up. He punches while dancing backward, which everyone knows is the wrong way to punch. But what does form matter when you are invincible? No one can lay a glove on him. No one can avoid his hands, a blur of jabs and crosses, hooks and uppercuts, left and right, faster and faster. He shuffles. He rumbles. He stings like a bee. He is the greatest, he is sure of that. “They must fall in the round I call!” he bellows as he predicts what round he will complete the knockout. And they fall.
He is on his stool now, and his eyes are stinging. He cannot see. Poison! Sonny Liston has poisoned his eyes! Ali (or Clay, as he is still called) screams, “Cut my gloves, cut my gloves, the fight is over, he’s blinded me!” He was a massive bettor underdog. Many thought Liston would literally kill him. Instead, Ali had dominated the early rounds with his speed and power. Then comes the poison — a liniment on the gloves? — and Ali’s eyes burn and he is ready to stop the fight and declare his opponent a cheater. But his man in the corner, Angelo Dundee, has been through fighting wars. Dundee fixed planes in World War II, and he was the cornerman the night Carmen Basilio beat Sugar Ray Robinson at old Yankee Stadium. Dundee grabs his fighter. “Cut the gloves?” he shouts. “What are you, crazy? Baby, this is for the title!” And he pushes his half-blind fighter back into the ring, sure that his man would find a way through the dark.
Ali is champion now, the unbeatable champion. He has beaten Liston twice, though both fights ended mysteriously. As champion, he flashes a bloodthirstiness that people had not known was in him. He bludgeons the beloved former champion Floyd Patterson. He destroys Cleveland Williams. He screams “What’s my name? What’s my name?” as he relentlessly pummels a half-blind Ernie Terrell, who dared call him Cassius Clay leading into the fight. When asked if he carried Terrell for 15 rounds just so he could inflict more pain, Ali does not shrink away from the obvious. “I’m out to be cruel,” he says. “That’s what the boxing game is about.”
He is shouting now, his face a mask of rage, as he stands on a college campus and stares down a student who is questioning his manhood and his courage and his patriotism. The Vietnam War rages on. Civil rights demonstrations rage on. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam rages on. Ali refuses to go into the army. “If I’m going to die,” Ali shouts, “I’ll die now, right here fighting you. If I’m going to die. You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not the Viet Cong, the Chinese, the Japanese. You’re my opposer when I want freedom, you’re my opposer when I want justice, you’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight. But you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
He is joking around now. Howard Cosell puts his arm around Ali’s shoulders. Cosell is a windbag, as everyone knows, but he is also America’s most fundamental sports broadcaster, the voice of his generation. Cosell stood with Ali when he changed his name and stood with Ali when he fought the draft board. Cosell also makes sure to remind everyone that he stood with Ali. He ties himself to Ali’s star. It works for both of them; they inundate pop culture. Cosell is in a Woody Allen movie and hosts his own variety show. Ali plays himself in “The Greatest,” and stars in a comic book where he fights Superman. Cosell hosts “Battle of the Network Stars.” Ali fights a Japanese professional wrestler. They are both inescapable in the 1970s. But in so many ways, they are at their most vibrant in their exchanges, with Cosell trying to teach the champ, and Ali coming back with the counterpunch, a bit of Abbott and Costello. “You are being extremely truculent,” Cosell says to Ali. “Whatever truculent means,” Ali says, “if that’s good, I’m that.”
He is a bit heavy around the waist now, certainly not chubby, but also not the sculpted Adonis he had once been. Ali is in Zaire, and he covers his face, and he leans back into the ropes, and he lets an assassin named George Foreman pummel his body, over and over. Sledgehammers to the solar plexus. All around him, the African fans shout “Ali Bomaye!” — “Ali Kill Him!” — only Ali does not fight to kill. Instead, he leans back and endures the blows because along the way he has learned a surprising secret. He has learned that the assassin will wilt before he can finish the job.
No, wait, now he is on his stool in Manilla, beaten to the brink of death, and he stares across the ring at his executioner, at Joe Frazier, and he sees that Frazier too is beaten to the brink of death. Their fight, the Thrilla at Manilla, is perhaps the the bloodiest of modern times. Ali then feels the strangest emotion a fighter can feel for his adversary, something approaching love. “This,” Ali tells reporters who insist he won the fight, “is the closest thing to dying that I know.”
And now he’s on his stool again, only it is in the Bahamas, and a cowbell rings to signify the end of the fight. Someone found that cowbell just in time. The shameful fight is over. Ali’s opponent, Trevor Berbick, looked to land a punch on the chin early to “take him out of his misery.” But Berbick was not skilled enough to knock out even the shadow of Muhammad Ali, so he simply clubbed the champ for 10 long, painful, unnecessary rounds. “Nothing but Father Time,” Ali says when it is over and promises to stop.
And now, he is old again, back in Atlanta again, and he’s lighting the Olympic torch. His left hand shakes. His voice is a rasp, his rasp is a whisper. Parkinson’s has Ali under its spell. To see Ali again, in this moment, it is overwhelming. All around him, people shriek and cheer and cry because we remember.
Mostly, we cry.
Muhammad Ali died Friday night. He was surrounded by family. There is no way to sum up his life because it was so big and contentious and fun and thrilling and, ultimately, silent. He was the most hated athlete of his time and the most beloved of all time. He was the loudmouth kid who couldn’t be touched, and the bruised warrior who would not go down, and the aging man who, though trapped by silence, talked about love. He was my father’s favorite athlete. I was raised on Ali.
No, there is no way to sum up Muhammad Ali at the end, there is simply a flood of images, Sports Illustrated covers and countless books. There are all those epic fights and special guest appearances and awards. There are all those punches and feints and Ali poems — including his shortest and most essential poem: “Me! Whee!” Brilliant writers like George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Kram and Joyce Carol Oates and Gary Smith never tired of trying to unravel his magnificence. The brilliant actor Will Smith tried to recapture him on screen. Musicians across the last 50 years have tried to replay his rhythm.
But there was no one like Ali. He defined his time. Once, the writer Bob Greene asked to interview Ali for a special Esquire issue featuring the most influential people of their time. Here’s what followed in Greene’s classic story:
“I’m the most famous man in the world,” the voice said.
I said that there would be other famous people in the issue; people, perhaps, as famous as he.
“Who?” Ali said.
I said that some of the others were John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King.
“They’re all dead,” Ali said.
There is no way to sum up Ali, but there are images to cling to. I think of one now. Ali is in his 50s, and the Parkinson’s has him, or at least part of him. He is at the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, a museum dedicated to his life. There’s a bicycle here. There’s a boxing ring here with loose ropes. There’s a photograph of him refusing to be inducted into the Army. There’s a heavyweight championship belt.
And there’s a little girl running around, the daughter of someone or another. She is maybe 6 or 7 years old. Ali watches her for a little while and then walks over to her. She does not seem to know who he is.
He does not say a word, cannot say a word, but he puts his hand on her shoulder. “Here,” his eyes say, “I want to show you something.” And Ali pulls out a red handkerchief. He gives it to her, lets her inspect it, she hands it back, and then in an instant, the handkerchief is gone. As she squeals with delight, he watches her with a sweet look on his face. He is happy.
Then, just as she is about to run off, he gently grabs her hand and shows her one more thing: He is wearing a fake thumb and has simply tucked the handkerchief into it. She does not understand, so he shows her again exactly how he made the handkerchief disappear. Magicians do not reveal their secrets, of course. But, then this is the point. Muhammad Ali did not see himself as a magician. He wanted that little girl to understand that anyone can make magic.