Maybe it would've been best if our last image of him had been in 1996, when he appeared out of nowhere and -- already shaking terribly from Parkinson's disease -- still managed to
But might we be too tender with our memories? The athlete dying young has always seemed so shocking, so unfair, but I suspect that it upsets us even more to actually see our heroes, those physical marvels, grown old and infirm, as vulnerable to age and disease as we ordinary folk are. We want to remember the paragon, not the mere human.
Ah, but in contradict ion, Ali's wife,
The busted old pug was long a stereotype in our athletic cavalcade. That Ali is broken, but not broke is a certain revenge. And he, who was once so reviled by many Americans, has become quite a beloved figure in his dotage. Complicated as he has been, he won the fight for our affection, too.
I can so vividly remember, a few years ago, when a photographer posed him before the Vietnam monument in Washington. I thought that was insane. Who, after all, was more identified with opposition to that war? But when the people there, searching for the names of their loved ones who had died for what Ali opposed -- when they spotted him, they rushed to him, even handed me their little cameras to take snapshots with him. They embraced him. It was dear.
Even as boxing fades to the fringes, Muhammad Ali still retains some kind of hold on us. If he yet wants to present his present, lesser self to us, it is not for us to feel pity for him.