Gary Smith
Thursday September 24th, 2015

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 15, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

As a writer, I want it to go on and on. I‘m riding in the front passenger seat, watching the nose of Muhammad Ali‘s luxury car begin to drift back and forth across the center lane of a Los Angeles freeway, feeling the traffic slash by closer and closer, seeing the slit of eye between his lids grow smaller … and smaller … and smaller, thinking that in five more seconds I might really have something to write here.

As a human being. ...The fa-dump, fa-dump of the tires striking the little reflective lane dividers is up in my stomach, and I can feel on my skin the speed and nearness of the cars on our flanks.

It is 1984, Ali is 42. He skipped the medicine he is supposed to take for Parkinson‘s syndrome, then exhausted himself hitting the heavy bag and shadowboxing for an hour and a half in a gym. He is fading, fading. ...

I glance at him again without turning my head.

Holy---- … fa-dump, fa- dump. His eyes look shut, fa-dump, fa-dump, his breathing is slow and even, his hands barely touch the bottom of the wheel.

A white sports car lurches away from his right fender; my fingers choke my notepad. We drift again toward the left. Should I do it? Snatch the champion‘s steering wheel, snatch the champion‘s dignity? I can‘t, fa-dump, but I must, fa-dump, because now we are. …

I see two scrawny brown arms snake over Ali‘s shoulders. Ali‘s eyes open to a squint, barely enough to see his 12-year-old son reaching forward from the back seat and taking the wheel—then he lets his eyes droop again. I blow out a long breath and then feel sick inside—sick and sad about everything.

I was younger then, and I didn't understand.

What was this but metamorphosis? What was this but another face of that which made Muhammad Ali the most dominant figure in sports of the past 35 years, of any 35 years, of all time. All of his life was transformation: Ali‘s soul knew the butterfly‘s secret as well as his feet knew its dance. From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, from Christian to Muslim. From the man who told the government where to stick its draft to the one who endorsed Ronald Reagan. From the boxer women loved, the dancer who whirled and flitted so his pretty face was never touched—to the boxer men loved, who stood and took the thunder from the thunder throwers, from the Foremans and the Fraziers. From the king of the world—to the man on his knees with his forehead pressed to the prayer rug. From madman to poet to circus barker to preacher to clown to magician to. …

What other great athlete has done this? Willie Mays hit the ball a half mile and ran the bases like a gust of wind when he was 23—and when he was 33. Joe Namath played football and lived life with the same young bachelor‘s abandon when he was a teenager and when he was a man. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, who changed, who grew, who tried on all the shirts and slacks and shoes of human possibility as Ali did?

Who else elevated an audience, who else made it feel what Bundini Brown once felt as he moved with Ali from the locker room to the ring—that his feet were not touching the ground? When Joe Frazier beat Ali in 1971, the thousands of closed-circuit viewers around me applauded or jeered for a few moments and then the night fragmented, the people went their separate ways. But each time Ali won, people laughed and hugged, there was communion.

To give oneself over to Frazier‘s greatness—or to that of Mays or Namath or any of the other great ones—yes, that was a gratifying way to spend an evening or an afternoon. But it was a walk into a closed room, a drive into a cul-de-sac. Ali was a doorway, an opening into something beyond. He spoke of God before his fights, he spoke of man, he spoke of hungry children, he cared about the sick and the old; he raised the game to drama. And because he stood for something greater, the people who climbed upon their chairs for him felt it: They stood for something greater, too.

I think of that day when he walked into the Shriners hospital in Philadelphia and spotted a boy with no legs. He picked the child up, looked into his eyes and said, “Don‘t give up. They‘re sending men into space. You will walk some day and do this... .” And he began to do the Ali Shuffle with the boy in his arms—the boy spun and bounced and giggled as the doctors and nurses blinked back their tears. Didn‘t he do that for all of us—make us believe in metamorphosis, yearn for what was possible, make his whirling lightness ours?

Three victories turned him into a myth: three transformations. He was the raving adolescent against Sonny Liston; the sorcerer against George Foreman; the warrior, brutal and willful, in the third fight with Frazier. He trusted his instinct, followed the river of his life force, changed as it bade him change in order to win, in order to survive. All of Ali's changes—maybe even this last one that makes him seem so far away—don't they all have something to do with survival?

But this is not a celebration of the way Ali won—did not all the great ones win? This is a celebration of the way Ali lost, the way Ali today goes on losing. Man does not show greatness by touching one extremity or the other, Pascal once wrote, but rather by touching both at once. … A-li! A-li! A- li!

Who else could refuse to accept defeat as absolutely as Ali did in the terrible third war with Frazier? And yet accept it as absolutely as Ali did when he lost? Where was his resentment when, accused of draft evasion, he was banished from boxing for three years, when he had to bum money sometimes to get by? They‘re doing what they think is right, I‘m doing what I think is right, he would say. Think of all the men who have huffed after immortality in our arenas, on our playing fields. Who among them never pointed to the officials or the press or their coaches when they lost? What other man of such runaway pride never let it turn to bitterness or shame?

I think of him walking away from the ring, head high, tears welling, after he lost the world championship by decision to Leon Spinks. “Robbery!” someone in his locker room shouts.

“Shut up,” says Ali. “Nobody got robbed. He won. I lost the fight. Can't you understand that?”

I see him murmuring through his pain and his wired jaw to his cornermen in the hospital after losing to Ken Norton. “Now what are you looking so down about?” he is asking them. “It‘s just a little broken bone. I put men in the hospital before. Now it‘s my turn to go to the hospital. It‘s just another test Allah puts before us. Accept it as that.”

A test. Think of that when you listen to him speak now and you wince. We are watching a man take a test, a man who understands that the questions on the test as he nears 50 are not the same as those when he was 23.

I watch him carefully pack his training gear into his gym bag. It is three years after the frightening car ride—he wants me to watch him work out again. He is 45. His short-term memory fails him sometimes now. We drive to an abandoned gym. He walks inside, starts to unbutton his shirt and stops.

“What do you know?” he says. “I forgot my bag.” That is all.

No sheepishness. No excuses. No need to go back home. He simply begins to pound the heavy bag in his hard shoes and street clothes. 

Forty minutes later, we walk out. He is exhausted again; he is fading. … Now his key will not open his car door. Sometimes he misses the keyhole. Sometimes he gets the key in but cannot quite make it turn. For three minutes he works at it ... four minutes … five. He never mutters. He never scowls or shakes his head. He never gets angry at his shaking hands. He never apologizes to me for the delay. He never shows the slightest trace of self-consciousness.

He starts over, again and again.

No, this is not sad, it occurs to me. This is a man whose hands once worked as quickly and efficiently as human hands have ever worked. A man who will make do with this trembling flesh and bone that now hang from his wrists. A man of dignity and strength. To be vulnerable, and yet never embarrassed—this is the gift of the child. How has he preserved that after all he has seen and experienced, after decades of watching every person—every person—who walks by him freeze and mouth the word Ali, after decades of watching people try to seduce or exploit him? How is it that Muhammad Ali can still giggle?

I see myself in his bathroom. It‘s 1987. I‘m trying to get out, pushing and pulling at the door, turning the knob left and right, thinking I have somehow locked myself in, sweating and self-conscious … when suddenly the door opens, my momentum carries me flying into his living room, and Ali steps out from behind the door, grinning.

“Just teasin',” he says.

Oh, yes, he knows the butterfly‘s secret. Knows it and doesn‘t even know he knows it. In order to transform himself, a man must first be able to lose, able to keep letting his old self die. Part of such a man will never grow old.

I think of him sitting in a Manila hotel room in 1975 with Peter Bonventre, then a writer with Newsweek, and a second man, a Filipino whom Ali has just met. The stranger speaks in flowery words with a British lilt, then unrolls a parchment full of gaudy colors and script and extends a pen for Ali to sign it with. Ali, who was once bilked out of $2.4 million by one man, who paid for another man to bury his mother twice—who would shrug and say, “He must have really needed it,” when he learned of the deceit—takes the Filipino‘s pen without hesitation, signs and looks up. “It‘s beautiful writing,” Ali says. “What did I just sign?”

The man bows slowly. “You are now,” he says, “the godfather of my three children.”

And Ali, his smile wide, his eyes wide, says what my little girl might say, what I wish I would say: “Really?”

He had the vision of a child—and, yes, the blindness, too. The short attention span—you had 15 seconds to say or do something of interest to Ali before his eyes moved elsewhere, his bodyguard Pat Patterson once said. The need for two scoops of vanilla ice cream on his apple pie every day. The cruel streak that permitted him to introduce Veronica as his wife in Manila when the title was still Belinda‘s. We came to overlook those things. In a country where children are no longer children, could a beautiful child like Ali fail to be a god?

But now I see other eyes. Weary eyes, life-beaten. A child who saw and did too much. It is 10 minutes after he leaned on the door and trapped me in the bathroom. It is winter in Michigan. He steps out onto his farm and stares across the barren earth. I lean to make out each word he speaks: “I can sit here all day and the phone don'tring … no knock on the door … no visitors. Can take a walk … a jog … a swim … and see no one. Peace … total peace. … Nothin' excite me no more. Big-city lights … big cars … big houses … pretty women. … Used to be I couldn't go two hours without people. Now I can sit all day alone. I like it just like this.”

I follow his look, try to see what he sees. “Right now,” I say, “if you could do or have anything in the world you wanted, what would it be? What‘s your dream right now?”

Roughly 12 seconds have passed since he told me that he is tired of movement and people and noise and lights. “Do anything? … I‘d get me a big special-built mobile home, sleep about six people comfortable, me and five more. … Get two good drivers and a cook. … Get my own tractor trailer riding behind it. Fill it with 300,000 books on Islam, and 300,000 pamphlets, and tapes of lectures. ... Pull into city after city, open the doors. …  See the people come running, yelling ‘Champ!‘… Slapping my hands … and I sign for them … and give them all books.”

In Los Angeles, at the end of his career, Ali lived in a mansion. There was a guard in uniform who telephoned the house before opening the gate to visitors. There were antique chairs inside with ropes from one armrest to the other so no one could sit in them. There were vases half as high as a man, flowing draperies, gilded furniture, a gleaming Steinway piano, Renaissance-style paintings and Oriental rugs. There were fabulous gifts from presidents and kings that I was afraid to touch. A woman came downstairs, an ice sculpture. Veronica nodded to me, said nothing and left. So this is how a god lives, I thought. Ali seemed depressed.

How do other gods live out their twilight years, after their mirrors show them wrinkles? I think of Joe Louis, a greeter at Caesars Palace before he died. “Get your arm around him, Joe. Smile now, Joe, just one more shot... .” Of Greta Garbo, speaking to almost no one, hiding her face from cameras. Of Mickey Mantle, appearing at conventions where men sell his baseball cards, at one time plummeting into depression. Of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, overdosed, dead. People running to the past or running from it. 

People desperate for some new cliff edge to walk along in place of their old one.

Ali lives in an old farmhouse today. There are trees outside, cows, a pond. A big sofa you can sink into, a coffee table you can take your shoes off and prop your feet on, an end table with chewing gum stuck under it that Ali was too lazy to take to the trash can. Now there is a wife named Lonnie who grew up on the same street in Louisville where Ali‘s parents lived when young Cassius Clay was still in his 20‘s. Today, all his decisions—when to travel and see people, when to stay home and rest—she shares in. She smiles and looks you in the eye and offers you lunch. “You got something to nibble on that ain‘t fattenin‘, darling?” Ali asks her. Now Ali lives in a home.

Since that night in the Bahamas in 1981 when he stopped fighting, that night he stopped standing in front of men whose punches could kill, he has only approached the edge once. That was in 1987, when he considered undergoing a new form of brain surgery that a Mexican doctor was using on patients with Parkinson‘s. The surgery was dangerous—two of 18 patients reportedly had died shortly thereafter. Others had shown marked improvement. Ali flew to Mexico, neared the precipice, the all-or-nothing. Then he backed off. He accepted who and what he is. He went on bending over the keyhole. What if he had had the surgery? What if his stride was swift again, his eyes danced, the words romped once more off his tongue?

Could he deny, all on his own, the side of himself that was never quite so self-assured as people thought? The side that always needed to give people what he thought they expected of him; the side that always led him, unasked, to work out for me after he had retired, to perform magic tricks, to show me all his fan mail? Could he resist, all on his own, without the illness, the impulse to be what the world still wanted him to be?

He visited a home for the aged once when he was still boxing. An old man‘s eyes lit up as Ali approached him. “Do you know who this is?” Gene Kilroy, Ali‘s companion, asked the old man.

“Sure do,” said the old man. “That‘s Joe Louie.”

Kilroy started to correct him. Ali shook his finger no. “That‘s right,” Ali said, putting his arm around the old man and hugging him. “Joe Louie came to see you.”

“People think I‘m sufferin',” says Muhammad Ali. He shakes his head. “People thought I was suffering when they wouldn‘t let me box during the Vietnam War too. ... I want my health back, but ... I ain‘t sufferin‘.”

What current set him down here, in the 48th year of his life? Could it be the same one that whipped him into the madness against Liston? That whispered to him to try the unthinkable against Foreman, to stand still on the ropes? The one that made him a survivor, the most dominant athlete of his time?

He looks around the old farmhouse. Then into the kitchen, where Lonnie is making two big bowls of salad. “What if I was still superhuman?” he says. “What if I had finished undefeated? What if I‘d won my last two fights … if I didn't have this health problem? I‘d still be talkin' like I used to. … Be tryin' to keep up with my image, still doin' all those interviews and commercials and speeches. … I‘d probably have a miserable life. … I wouldn‘t be human.”

Human. All the other transformations of his life had satisfied other people‘s needs. This one had fulfilled only his own.

Before the big fights these days, when he is introduced in the ring, I see all the pity and pain on people‘s faces when he gives that little wave, that glazed look across the audience, and makes that exit through the ring ropes that seems to last forever. I see all the people who wanted him to be a symbol of something wonderful and liberating for all of his life, for all of their lives.

Look once more, look harder, I want to nudge them and say.

He is.

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