The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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No matter that his best years were gone; the fighter was back working at his craft. His championship had been a bully pulpit, and he eagerly sought it once more. The Muslims had softened their separatist hard line, and with that there was less raw, reverse-racism talk from Ali. Finally Ali reclaimed his crown in Kinshasa, Zaïre. George Foreman, the hardest puncher since Sonny Listen, spent himself pounding Muhammad Ali ceaselessly—and uselessly—on the ropes one early African morning. Ali again was the underdog, but it was his galvanic personality that drew the attention of the world.

In his long odyssey, Muhammad Ali became a global celebrity on a scale known by only a handful of men. He called upon heads of state, and it is they who were thrilled by the meeting. As one of the world's most recognizable faces, he drew appreciative, knowing crowds from African village to Asian hamlet to European capital. If he walked a single block, he trailed a mob in his wake. Now an aged, dethroned champion, he can no longer light the ring with his skills. But the path he burned across his time remains.

A few days before the fight, Muhammad Ali sprawled on the couch of his 29th-floor Las Vegas hotel suite. His eyes were closed, the great, graceful body quiet under a maroon-and-white bathrobe. His 18-month-old daughter's doll lay near by, and from the next room came the laughter of his third wife, Veronica, and another daughter. The room filled gradually with relatives, gym figures, musicians, sycophants, friends. His dietician entered, carrying a bushel bag of carrots. The champ suddenly clucked. Everyone jumped. This sound of a popping champagne cork is Ali's command signal. It was a summons for his infant daughter, Laila, dutifully brought in by her nanny and admired by the claque.

With the time to the fight measured now in hours, Ali had no presentiment that this was the bout when the overarching years would finally catch him: "I've never felt better. I've never been in better shape." He spoke to TIME Correspondent James Wilde in a sleepy whisper: "Because people know athletes are superior physically, when they see these men go downhill, they see themselves. Everything gets old. The pyramids of Egypt are now crumbling. Buildings crumble, and so do monuments of all kinds. When we look at our bodies, we see how its shape is changing. We see our children and we see ourselves in them. It don't take the fall of an athlete to show people they can fall too."

He looked back on his life and times: "My life has been a lot of fun, a lot of suffering and a lot of pain. It has also been a lot of testing: being black in America and saying the things you want to say and exercise real freedom. My life has made me controversial; it has made me different. My title was taken away because of my religious beliefs and for not going to war. The decision to deprive me of my title was reversed, but first I was tested."

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