SALT LAKE CITY — The champ was slipping behind the mask, his voice like the rustle of leaves, his lips barely moving.
It was an afternoon in the late 1980s when I went to Primary Children’s Hospital to interview Muhammad Ali. I knew all about the Parkinson’s disease that eventually took his life on Friday. Even back then, it had begun robbing his personality. I had been hoping it would be the same Ali I had seen in person a few years earlier, the one that mugged and clowned before his fight with Larry Holmes.
But this time it was different. A radio reporter and I had been told Ali would be at the hospital and we could interview him there. When we arrived, a public relations man was shepherding him from room to room, so we followed along. Ali went quietly through his magic tricks, speaking sparingly if at all. He made a rubber ball disappear and pulled coins from behind the children’s ears. They seemed to enjoy it, though it’s hard to say if they knew who this gentle and slightly trembling man was.
This was my second encounter with the fighter New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte called “the Once and Forever Champ.” In October 1980, Ali fought Holmes in Las Vegas, and I had been assigned to cover it. The title bout was behind Caesars Palace, in a stadium erected just for the occasion.
Realistically, the former champ had no chance. Holmes was eight years younger, and could snap off blurring jabs with hellish frequency. But Ali had presence. As he stood in the press conferences leading up to the fight, he theatrically called out like a revival preacher.
“I’m gonna whup Larry Holmes!” he would say.
“Say it, Champ!” his entourage shouted back.
By the time the fight arrived, the odds that favored Holmes had steeply dropped. Nothing had changed to make that happen, except that Ali had begun his pre-fight posturing. Even for skeptical reporters, it was hard not to believe he had one more fight in him.
That night, the crowd hushed in anticipation of the national anthem, just as Ali and his handlers began entering the stadium from a distant corner. From my ringside seat I could see a commotion.
“Ali!” the chant began. “Ali! Ali!”
By the time he reached the ring, it had become a roar. I wasn’t surprised when the fight began that Holmes was winning; but I expected Ali to respond. He woodenly backtracked, unable to fend off the jabs that shook him like an arctic wind. Holmes easily swatted away any attempt Ali made at countering.
A gallant Holmes later said he pleaded with Ali to stop. He didn’t want to hurt the man he had sparred with for three years; the man he later said had taught him to hold his head high.
“Don’t take it, Champ!” Holmes had implored. “You don’t need to do this!”
At last, after the 10th round, Ali’s corner threw in the towel and the great one was taken from the ring, battered and pulpy. That was the last time I saw Ali in person until that afternoon in Salt Lake. It wasn’t the Ali I had hoped to see, persuasive and funny and mocking. I only saw the side the disease had taken.
His p.r. man tried to hustle Ali out of the hospital without talking to media, but we reminded him of his promise.
“Two questions each,” the flack said, holding the elevator door.
When I asked the champ who in boxing was now his favorite, the answer was slurred and soft. He merely said he didn’t follow the sport anymore. None of the old Ali bravado remained.
For a long time after that, I felt cheated. The fight had been a mismatch of sad proportions. Then when Ali came to Salt Lake, the interview was limited to a few mumbled words. But since then, I’ve changed my mind. I got to follow him room to room as he entertained at the hospital. His eyes had shone when the children smiled.
In that sense, I did get to see the Forever Champ. Not the rope-a-dope pitchman who made us laugh. Not the lion who only once failed to finish a fight.
For an hour, I saw the Ali within.
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