The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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Ali twisted on the couch and considered the future: "I'd like to keep the title for 15 years, the longest any man, white or black. Not even Presidents ruled that long. I'd like that." He grinned wolfishly. "But one must face reality. We all go down eventually. And this makes you sad, but you always have, for the rest of your life, the knowledge that you were a winner to the last. I want to go out a winner. I really do."

Many ghosts shadow the comet-man Ali. Old opponents, ancient grievances, roiling issues stilled by forgetfulness and, perhaps, forgiveness. Yet he can be bitter. Someone last week remarked that the U.S. was the greatest country in the world. "Yes," said Ali dryly, "I have access to it sometimes."

But he also has the gentle memories of children. For however much his ego has needed the reinforcement of the crowd, he has been a most accessible public figure, striding into schoolyards and across sidewalks, a plainly gleeful Pied Piper who always, always signs autographs for kids. The touch of a heavyweight champion is a big moment to a child, and in some ineffable manner those titled men seemed drawn to children. It is remarkable how many ex-fighters work with children after retirement. Perhaps it is a means of staying close to the incandescence of their youth. Or perhaps it is an impulse to pass on that special strength forged in fighting, man's first competition. Ali tells how his daughter tried to thread a needle for several minutes, then gave up in frustration. "I spanked her and made her try again. It wasn't important for her to thread the needle, but it was important to wash away the taste of defeat. She had to learn she could not fail."

Defeat came to Muhammad Ali, and with it the ghosts of a Miami night. Sonny Liston had been a tired man, worn by poverty and prison. At 35, he was old for a fighter—even for a slugger who stayed put and blasted. He got into the ring with a strong, fast, young Cassius Clay, who had nothing to lose and a crown to gain. Last week Muhammad Ali was a tired man too, pummeled in the ring for 24 years—amateur and professional. At 36, he was old for a fighter—especially for a boxer who must move and whittle. And, like Liston, Ali had looked across the ring and seen a lean, eager, young fighter. In the words of Promoter Bob Arum: "Ali was beaten by his own shadow."

After a remarkable reign, Muhammad Ali stands whole—old and young, winner and loser—for assessment. Was he really, as he proclaimed from the earliest days, the greatest? Comparing fighters of different eras is a risky enterprise, flawed by changes in boxing rules, training methods, improved diet and medical care. Then there are those shifting subjectives: the accuracy of recollection and loyalty to generations. One expert favors Joe Louis, another Jack Dempsey, voting for the knockout punch that Ali admittedly never had. Rocky Marciano was inelegant, but he could hit and he never lost a fight.

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