Muhammad Ali turns 70 on Tuesday, and for many of those 70 years, he has had us all on the ropes.
To say he is merely a famous boxer is to say the sky is always blue. There are so many sides to him his nickname should be Octagon.
Now, he is revered. Passage of time softens and endears. He is ill, and has been since 1984, when he first received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. That was just three years after his final fight, when he made one last, mostly pathetic, effort to convince the world he was still “the Greatest.”
Today, we see an aging man, ravaged by a disease, and we add sympathy and empathy to our reverence. We have long since chosen to forget how an inflated ego inflicted 61 fights on a brain. We have stopped wondering if the Parkinson’s is just a convenient medical label, in Ali’s case, for a condition better characterized as hit-in-the-head-too-much syndrome. In boxing, of course, that is an epidemic.
It would be easiest to simply say happy birthday and follow with a recitation of his heavyweight titles, his stunning success against the feared Sonny Liston that put him on the map, and his legendary trilogy with Joe Frazier.
But Ali did not become one of the more famous people in the world simply by winning lots of fights.
He was a daily headline, the bigger ones outside the ring. He was complicated and unpredictable, refreshing and controversial. Millions cheered his name and a like number jeered it. He was impossible to figure, the Rubik’s Cube of sports.
He won a gold medal for the United States in the 1960 Rome Olympics and proudly stood on the victory stand. Later, he reportedly threw the medal into the Ohio River after not being allowed to eat in a whites-only restaurant.
Once Cassius Clay, he joined the Nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali. He was drafted for the Vietnam War to fight for the country whose national anthem once honored him on an Olympic victory stand. He refused to go, telling the world, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”
The uproar that created also became a rallying cry for many white war protesters who had been seeking a statement logical and fitting for all.
In his three fights with Frazier, encompassing 41 rounds of brutal boxing that certainly contributed to his current illness, Ali treated Frazier with disdain and disrespect. He characterized him as an “Uncle Tom” and created a racially insulting rhyme before their third fight in the Philippines: “It will be a killa … and a chilla … and a thrilla … when I get the gorilla in Manila.”
Frazier took his anger about Ali to his grave last year. When a shaking, shell-of-his-former-self Ali lighted the torch in the Olympic opening ceremony for the 1996 Atlanta Games, Frazier said he watched and hoped Ali would fall and be burned.
Ali’s treatment of Frazier was the Bad Ali. There is also the Good Ali.
Bob Arum, chief executive of Top Rank Boxing and Ali’s lawyer and promoter for many of his fights, tells of the time they were in London, training for a fight, and Ali’s handlers got a call that a wealthy Pakistani dignitary had invited Ali to his home.
“It seemed like a command appearance, so Ali went and I went along,” Arum says. “The closer we got to the place, the worse the neighborhood got — not a neighborhood of a rich person. We arrived at a row house, and when we went in, we had to take turns eating because the kitchen was so small.
“We knew we had been had. It turned out the man had a pretty young daughter he wanted to introduce to Ali.
“Most big athletes would have stomped out. Not Ali. He didn’t miss a beat. He sat right down with all of them, played the piano, did magic tricks and treated the family like they truly were royalty. We stayed for two or three hours.”
Next to the Frazier trilogy, Ali’s most famous boxing moment was his fight with George Foreman in October 1974, in Zaire, the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Foreman, a delightful storyteller who has escaped the usual result of being hit in the head a lot, loves to tell how he pounded Ali for seven rounds in Zaire. Then, tiring late in the seventh, he leaned on Ali, who whispered in his ear: “George, is that all you got?” To which Foreman responded to himself, “Yup, that’s all I got.”
In the next round, Ali knocked him out.
Foreman has deep affection for Ali and calls occasionally to check on his health. Foreman says that Ali can speak and be understood if you call in the morning, before fatigue sets in. On one recent call, Ali asked Foreman how many grandchildren he had. Foreman told him five.
“I got seven,” Ali said. “Beat you again, George.”
The water that has poured over the dam in Ali’s life sits mostly still now. His appearances bring millions of dollars to charities. With Ali in the room, check-writing comes easier.
He won’t just have one 70th birthday party, but several, including one in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand on Feb. 18.
He is a man who has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, who traveled to Iraq to negotiate directly with Saddam Hussein for the release of American hostages, who was involved in calling for the eventual release of the three American hikers in Iran.
He has lived a life of everything and anything. He has been liked and disliked and is now mostly beloved. He is an enigma and a treasure.
Happy birthday, Muhammad Ali, whoever you are.
Note: This column was originally published on Jan. 17, 2012.