Former SI senior writer Gary Smith reflects on Muhammad Ali's life through a series of photographs and encounters with both the champion and those he fought and influenced.
Gone, he is, but 34 pictures of him keep rifling through my head. One in Belgium. One in Buckeye. One in Karl Mildenberger’s sportcoat pocket. One on my stairwell wall. Thirty in Ali’s old barn.
The Picture in Belgium . . .
. . . is an oil painting of Jean-Pierre Coopman sprawled on the canvas with Muhammad Ali standing over him. There are icicles coming down over the top of Coopman. The floor’s cracking open beneath him.
Coopman painted it, his own annihilation, two decades after their 1976 fight. He’s thrilled with it. So thrilled he shows me another one he painted of Ali smashing him through the ropes. We’re in Ghent, his town, in 1997. His memories of Ali are an electric current he can’t wait to discharge. With backslaps and ooooofs and ear-to-ear grins, blue eyes twinkling around a bludgeoned nose.
“I was part of a great person’s life and that makes me a greater person,” he says. “Ooof, he was one of the most beautiful people I ever met. Everyone knows him as a big champion. For me he is triple that as a man. I felt his goodness three months before our fight at our press conference in New York. Oooof. He grabbed me and threw me on the floor, and when no one could see, he winked at me. I still dream of that fight. After it we talked for two hours in his hotel room.”
He remembered trying to kiss Ali when they met at that pre-fight press conference—three times, alternating cheeks, the Belgian custom—and feeling sheepish when Ali backed away in mock terror of a romantic advance. Years later, Ali was in a boxing ring in Antwerp for a ceremony, answering the Belgian media’s questions after receiving another award. Coopman was watching from the shadows, wounded that no one asked a single question about Ali’s fight with their native son . . . when Ali squinted and spotted him.
“Cooperman!” he shouted. He butchered names, but forgot nothing else. He waved Coopman into the ring, pulled him close and kissed him three times, alternating cheeks, the Belgian custom.
The Picture in Buckeye . . .
. . . is a glossy of Ali, the icon, gleaming in a black tux. What was it doing on the wall of this T-shirted, wooden-legged, Mexican-American cock-fighter in the middle of Arizona in 1996? This eighth-grade dropout who had half his left leg blown off and his right arm irreparably mangled when he stepped on a mine just outside of DeNang, Vietnam in the very war that Ali refused to fight?
“I should be mad at him,” Frank Celaya’s telling me. “I got blown up in Vietnam and he wouldn’t go fight there. But I admire him. I fought for this country. He fought for his beliefs.”
Maybe Ali’s version of freedom, when push came to shove, was bigger than America’s. Three years after stepping on the mine, Frank was digging irrigation ditches seven days a week, 12 hours a day, his fighting rooster tethered nearby . . . when a big fellow working with him started making fun of Ali. Somehow the thing that African-Americans felt for Ali had jumped like a red ember into his chest, too. He scrambled up to the lip of the ditch, pulled back his leg and kicked the man in the forehead.
The 30 Pictures in Ali’s Old Barn . . .
. . . are what Muhammad wants me to see. None have been hung. They’re on the floor, leaning against the four walls, pictures and paintings of Ali in glorious moments surrounded by kings and presidents, champions and celebrities—all looking up at him. A pair of pigeons flap up in a rafter as we enter. He pauses, peers closer and begins to notice, in picture after picture, the bird crap splattered across his image.
It’s 1988, seven years after his retirement, four years after he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. Ever so slowly, without a trace of irritation or impatience, without a single word, head shake or disapproving glance toward the rafters, he walks around the barn, turning his face and dung-streaked moments 30 times to the wall.
The Picture in Karl Mildenberger’s Sportcoat Pocket . . .
. . . was a postcard of Mildenberger tagging Ali with a straight right. “Look—I hit him!” cries the old German fighter. We’re in a bar in Kaiserslautern, Germany in 1997. Five thousand times in 10 years, he says, he has pulled this same postcard from his sports jacket pocket and given it to a gratified human being. “It’s always with me,” he says. “If I’m stopped for speeding, I just give the police one.”
He lasted 12 rounds in their 1966 fight, nine more rounds than most predicted, and became Ali’s 26th conquest. “I’m in boxing history because I stayed 12 rounds with Ali, but I was glad it was over,” he said. “My cuts were bad. But I worshipped him because he was so mannerly and charismatic and he made it fun. When I met him at the airport for the fight, he said, ‘Karl, you’re a nice boy. You’re just as handsome as I am.’ I could build no true anger against him. That would be headless.”
On Nov. 23, 1987—Karl’s 50th birthday—a shocking thing happened. His wife called him to the phone. He pressed his ear to the receiver to pick up the shaky, slow voice. “Karl . . . this is Muhammad.” Ridiculous. Was this a trick? “Happy birthday, Karl. How . . . are you? What . . . are you doing?” No, he knew that voice, it wasn’t a joke. Imagine that, he thought, Ali thinking to call him—one of half a hundred men he’d defeated—on his 50th birthday. And so five years later, on Muhammad’s 50th, Karl returned the favor.
But he winced when Ali stood trembling, trying to light the Olympic torch as the whole world held its breath at the beginning of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. “I was so scared that I could barely watch,” says Karl. “I was shaken. I cried. Why did they have Ali do that? Why show him that way? Fifteen years before he was still entertaining millions. They just destroyed the picture.”
No, Karl, I began to disagree. They just completed the picture. But already he was clasping his hands together, calling, "Cheers!" and in shiny, hard shoes, sport coat and tie, leaping over a chain-link fence and hurrying off into the darkness.
The Picture in My Stairwell . . .
. . . is the only one of any athlete that has gone on my wall since I was a boy. It’s Ali on his farm in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1988. A month earlier he had taken me to an abandoned boxing gym, handed me a stopwatch and shadow-boxed three rounds with a heavy bag, having me call out “Time!” at the end of each round. “How’s that for a sick man?” he’d cried as he jabbed, feinted and whirled in the first round. But by the third he was finished, slumped, and I had to take half-steps to follow him to his car.
In the few weeks between that moment and this photo, that last little bit of need to prove something, anything, seemed to have drained from him. He’s gazing straight into photographer Gregory Heisler’s camera, hands linked overhead, without a flicker of the old flirtation, mischief or desire—with the stone, stoic stare of a man who has tasted, touched, felt and smelled everything the world has to offer, and now cares only to see it dead clearly.
It’s gone now, after 25 years on my stairwell wall. My son took it when he moved out two years ago, and I’ve yet to call him on it.