The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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Ring Announcer Don Dunphy, who has called the blow-by-blow in over 2,000 fights during a 37-year career, insists: "Certainly Ali's the fastest heavyweight champion of all time. Joe Louis had fast hands, but not fast feet. Rocky was a bit of a plodder." Joe Frazier, who ought to know, credits Ali's savvy: "He knows how to psych most of his men out." Veteran Manager Gil Clancy pays homage to the post-exile Ali's distinguishing characteristic: "He can absorb a punch better than any fighter who ever lived." Still, there is a tendency among the experts to say the best fighter probably was Louis, the man with the fast and powerful hands. But Ali had something else that put him in a class apart, a personal flair that, coupled with his athletic skills did indeed make him "the greatest." No less an authority than Dempsey praises Ali for his accomplishments: "He brought back boxing. It was dying, and he brought it back."

Will Ali come back? He insists that he shall, pinning everything on one last benchmark: becoming the first man to regain the title a third time. "I ain't through yet," he claims. "I want that boy, and I want him bad." The new champion is also eager for a rematch.

Ali does not need to fight Spinks for the money. He made nearly $60 million in purses—$3.5 million against Spinks, who got $320,000—and even Ali could not spend all that. Two divorces, bad investments, taxes, profligate generosity and a large, leeching entourage have made tens of millions vanish, but he has an estimated $2 million in cash and real estate. He has no need to stagger through humiliating defeats, as did Joe Louis, trading on memory and affection in order to survive.

What drives Ali to think of returning to the ring is pride. If he could somehow beat Spinks and win back his title, he would round out his career and make time stand still—for a little while. The rhyming ex-champion is much like Shakespeare's deposed poet-king Richard, who wrestled with himself and the gathering forces that beat against his life. Muhammad Ali careened across his stage, by turns as hopeful and despairing as his times. He is unlikely to go quietly into the past.

Of that I were as great

As is my grief, or lesser than my name,

Or that I could forget what I have been,

Or not remember what I must be now.

—King Richard II

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