I had this autographed picture in my room for so many years when I was a kid. It was of Muhammad Ali. When I was young, my father fought several times in Miami Beach and he would train at the world famous 5th Street Gym.
The gym was training headquarters for Ali, who at that time had returned from exile and was on a journey to reclaim the heavyweight title. One day while Ali was at the gym, he signed the photo:
To Robbie, Your Daddy is the Greatest. Muhammad Ali.
Like my baseball cards and the fight posters I collected in my youth, the picture has vanished. It was lost somewhere in the transition from child to teenager. But I’ll never forget the man in that picture. His body was strong. His eyes were focused and defiant.
I grew up rooting for Ali. I am still rooting for him today. I have covered Ali at various boxing functions in the past and when he was still signing autographs, I have watched people of all ages and colors wait hours for him to scribble his name in a book, on a glossy photo, or even on their forearm. I have witnessed Ali amongst other fighters and have seen famous world champions drown anonymously in the wake of fans trailing Ali.
But the voice that once shouted, “I am the greatest!” or “I shocked the world!” has been reduced to a whisper. The hands that stung Liston, Frazier, and Foreman now tremble.
I am rooting for Ali, who is trapped inside a trance-like state, to live out his life in happiness. His body is ravaged by Parkinson ’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder accompanied by tremors and a shuffling gait. It has muted the most charismatic voice sport has known. It has robbed the balance of the most nimble heavyweight in history. You don’t have to box to get Parkinson’s. It afflicts many, usually the elderly. It afflicts Ali at such a young age because he fought when he should have retired.
Parkinson’s Syndrome is generally found in people over the age of 60 or it can develop in younger people after acute encephalitis, carbon monoxide poisoning or repeated physical trauma. In the case of Ali, that physical trauma was repeated blows to the head that destroyed cells in the brain stem. Ali was first diagnosed with this illness in 1984.
It has added an uncomfortable chapter to his story, but it could never tarnish the man’s legacy.
It is rare that an athlete is judged on and off his chosen field of play. Ali is one those rare exceptions. As heavyweight champion of the world, he is unparalleled. Many experts rank Ali and Joe Louis as 1. and 1a. while compiling the list of all-time great heavyweights.
To me, here is why Ali wins that argument: Billy Conn. If Billy Conn were able to do that to Louis, imagine what a primed Ali would have done? And this is not to diminish Conn’s boxing ability. Conn, a hall-of-famer, is one of the all-time great boxers. But Ali was bigger, stronger, faster and hit harder. And while this may be a generational bias, I believe Ali beats Louis.
Perhaps more than any other athlete, the Ali mystique has extended to all corners of the globe. He can be recalled many different ways: as Olympic hero, heavyweight king, champion of the underprivileged, conscientious objector and goodwill ambassador. There may never be another athlete whose impact has crossed so many lines.
Like all heroes – all humans – Ali had flaws. Did he go too far in taunting Joe Frazier? Absolutely. His role as a leader during the turbulent 1960s is better left to be debated by those who came of age in that era. What shouldn't be debated, though, is that Ali was charismatic, generous to a fault and the most accessible superstar history has ever known. His presence generates an electricity that crosses racial, religious and social boundaries. He has made people of all colors smile.
Ultimately, the essence of Ali is his personality. Even in the few glimpses we get of the man now, he is smiling, reaching out to others and joking. It seems being around Ali is like a perpetual practical joke. He still appears most comfortable when he is around people and that is when his warmth radiates. Never in our history has there been an athlete who has meant so much to so many.
As often happens with legends, the line between fact and myth gets blurred with the passage of time. Perhaps Ali wasn't the all-righteous leader of a generation that many portray him to be, but Ali's impact is a matter of personal experience.
I penned a paperback biography of Ali in 1999 and in speaking with fighters, trainers and journalists who were active during Ali's career, very few had harsh words for the man. I spoke to a pair of World War II veterans who had even reconsidered their feelings about Ali's refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army.
In 1971, my father lost a very controversial split decision to Luis Rodriguez in Miami Beach. Rodriguez was Ali's stablemate and a future hall-of-famer. After the bout, Ali found his way into my father's dressing room and said, “Don't give up, kid, you won that fight.”
My father came home with a loss on his record and an autographed picture for me that I once cherished.