Monday, September 7, 2009

Ali walks on the ugly end of life

Muhammad Ali used to cut a handsome figure, standing tall and proud and often defiantly in the face of opposition that crushed lesser men’s spirit and will.

Ali was "pretty," his body strong and sinewy and sleek. His charisma melted hearts -- or hardened them. He was all that people who chronicled the sport wanted to see in a great fighter: He drew an emotional response.

Not everybody loved Ali; not everybody loved Mother Teresa either. But whatever hatred people harbored for Ali softened as the champ aged.

His aging hasn’t been graceful, though. “The Greatest” is wobbling toward the final rounds of life.

People saw that when the 67-year-old Ali, unsmiling, inscrutable, a busted old pug, made a trip to his ancestral homeland last week in Ennis, Ireland, where his great grandfather Abe Grady immigrated. Ali’s visit became a public affair, and his motorcades drew thousands of Irish as if he were still a reigning champion.

But Ali’s days of being a champion are far into his yesteryears. His legendary fights with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Uncle Sam are fading memories from the '60s and '70s. Today, Ali is infirm. Parkinson’s disease has taken its toll on his body. Now, his opponent isn’t a man on the other end of his boxing gloves but the disease he fights publicly.

The disease is winning.

How do you tell a man who won publicly to lose privately? Hasn’t he earned the right to decide how best to enjoy the days he has left? Yet does Ali really want his legion of fans to see him like this?

The cocksure Ali never learned to duck the spotlight. He soaked it up like a glutton. So there he was on those TV videos, moving slowly, unsteadily -- his eyes vacate like a zombie’s -- as he walked among his Irish ancestors. There was nothing handsome in that sight, only sadness.

A man who was once so beautiful that people couldn’t stop staring is so broken, so fragile and so devoid of the personality he once drew on to charm people that he's hard to look at. The sight of Ali like this is not one his fight fans want to remember.

In their mind’s eye, Muhammad Ali is still strong and sinewy and sleek; he’s forever pretty; he’s forever the champ; he’s forever “The Greatest.”

He’s forever winning fights, not losing them.

But does Ali, one of fight fans’ last link to the halcyon days of this dying sport, have to lose his last fight so publicly? And why?

In his glory days, Muhammad Ali was an enigma to some, although never to the boxing crowds abroad who understood greatness when they saw it. The greatness is what they hold on to still, even as they shudder over having to witness Ali, the world’s consummate goodwill ambassador and humanitarian, going him down for the final count.


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