The voice on the other end of the phone was as unmistakable as, say, Howard Cosell's. Only Greater. It belonged to Muhammad Ali, who was calling to say that the rumors were true, that he'd indeed be here in Salt Lake this weekend, stumping for his favorite politician, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who faces re-election in a couple of months.
Of course The Champ had a poem."This Brian Moss, he's no match,
For a great statesman like Orrin Hatch."
Just like old times - only different.
Instead of getting himself ready for Foreman or Ken Norton or George Chuvalo, instead of gearing up for Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla, these days Muhammad Ali is getting the politician of his choice ready for the big bout in November - in this case, Hatch vs. the challenger, Brian Moss.
Gaseous Cassius always did enjoy a good fight - and the show that precedes it.
His passion now is for politics, not boxing. He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat but says he looks for leaders who he sees as good people with principles he believes in. Hatch isn't his only champ. He's also behind ex-Virginia Gov. Charles Robb's senatorial race, and is a keen supporter of statesmen like Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who has become a fast friend.
"I want to improve the situation of all brothers and sisters," said Ali on the phone, explaining his interest in government. "Orrin Hatch didn't ask me to come to Utah (to help kick off his campaign this weekend at a variety of fund-raisers and appearances); I asked him if I could come."
At 46, the champ has shifted gears. Boxing belongs to yesterday. He says, "Tyson may be the latest, but I'm still The Greatest," but then he quickly switches the subject. He is convinced that God gave him the talent to win the heavyweight title three separate times, to generate $72 million worth of ticket sales (his share alone), and to become the most recognized athlete in the world, so he could use his notoriety for good later on - which happens to be now.
"God made me a boxer, which made me the most famous man in the world," he says. "Now I'll spend the rest of my days trying to repay the goodness with which God blessed me."
For starters, he has rented out (for $1 a year) his old training camp facility in Deer Lake, Pa., to a child-abuse treatment center, and he has adopted that cause as his most consuming crusade.
He does not spend his time feeling sorry for himself, or striking out at his well-publicized problems with Parkinson's Syndrome - a nervous disorder that causes muscles to be unresponsive and brings about slurred speech and slowness of movement.
"God gave me this problem to show me that I'm not The Greatest, He is," says Ali.
He takes medication to keep the Parkinson's Syndrome in check, but he can't take it all the time - and when he doesn't he knows he can appear mentally unbalanced. That's his biggest problem - knowing that his mental capacity is just fine, but to have it, as he says, "trapped in this big body and can't get out."
When he called on the phone, he said he had just taken his medicaton, and he was fine. But he warned he might not always be at his best in public this weekend in Salt Lake - at least not all the time. But, still, he had made a commitment, and he would keep it.
Besides, once a showman, always a showman.
"When I was boxing," said Ali, "I always felt that I was an entertainer first, that people came to watch me put on a show. I tried not to let them down."
In his opinion, there isn't much of that these days in the ring - with the notable exception of Sugar Ray Leonard. "Sugar Ray is a lot like me," he says. "He could be my son."
He then added, quickly, "I'm only kidding."
A politician can't be too careful.
Ali's Parkinson Syndrome condition - which doctors theorize was brought on by all those punches he didn't manage to duck in the ring - is not projected to worsen, or otherwise debilitate his qualify of life. On the optimistic outside, there's the chance that techniques will be developed to curb the symptoms.
Meanwhile, he'll continue to go the rounds wherever and whenever and however he can. And if you're his man, he'll try to get you the title - his way.
He talks of Hatch like he used to talk of himself. "You know, he's pretty," he said. "Not as pretty as I am, but he's still pretty. We can't all be so pretty."
Still floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee; and still in there fighting.