Muhammad Ali just turned 70. How the heck did that happen? How did so much time go by so quickly? How did Ali – all of us – get so old?
Aging heroes always make a somewhat tragic figure, whether it’s Willie Mays limping to the plate wearing a Mets uniform or Johnny Unitas limping from the huddle wearing a Chargers uniform or Harrison Ford limping after bad guys in an Indiana Jones uniform.
Most people prefer memory to reality and to see the greatest sports figure of all time hit 70, crippled by Parkinson’s disease and the effects of countless shots to the head, is sad. Nobody can outbox Father Time, but we do wish Ali could go out a little more gracefully, for our sake if not for his.
Young people today can’t imagine what a galvanizing figure Ali was back in the day. You either loved him or loathed him, but you could never ignore him. He talked big and backed it up time and time again. His influence reached far outside the boxing ring and there was a time when Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable person on earth.
A big reason for that is he acted like a world champion by fighting all over the world. Ali had 61 fights in his career (winning 56 of them) and he fought in the United States (10 different states), England, Germany, Canada, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Ireland, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and the Bahamas.
I remember, as a high school senior in 1971, going to the Warner Theater in Wilmington to see the closed-circuit broadcast of Ali’s first fight with Joe Frazier. That bout at Madison Square Garden in New York was billed as The Fight of the Century and it lived up to it. I was rooting for Frazier because he was a Philly guy and we root for Philly guys around here. Plus he was the underdog and it seemed as if everybody loved Ali and nobody loved poor Joe. To see that fight on the big screen, to see Frazier’s crushing left hook floor Ali in the 15th round – and to see the tassels on Ali’s shoes go flying in every direction – was one of the most memorable sporting events in my life. The popcorn was good, too.
I also remember, four years later, being in college and sitting in my apartment in Austin, Texas, with a few friends, sipping Old Milwaukee beer (99 cents a six pack) and listening to the radio, waiting for the end-of-round summaries of the Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire. The bout wasn’t televised and even if it was available on closed circuit or pay-per-view, we couldn’t afford it (we weren’t drinking that 99-cent beer because we liked the taste).
The blow-by-by blow account of that historic fight wasn’t even available on radio, just the post-round summaries. And the announcer kept talking about how listless Ali was, how he was taking such a pounding on the ropes, how those crushing punches by Foreman had to be taking their toll on Ali. Little did we know at the time that it was just Ali’s now-famous rope-a-dope strategy that eventually drained Foreman of his strength and led to Ali’s stunning victory, which gave the heavyweight crown back to its rightful owner.
They don’t make champions like that anymore, fighters whose out-of-the-ring persona is even greater than the legend they build inside of it. Mike Tyson came close, but for all of the wrong reasons. He never wore the belt with the style and grace that marked Ali’s remarkable reign as heavyweight champion of the world.
That used to be the greatest title in sports, back in the day when there was a direct lineage to the champions, when a fighter won the title in the ring by defeating the reigning champ. Now the champion is crowned by whatever alphabet group is handing out the title at that particular moment. And nobody cares.
But everybody cared when Muhammad Ali was the champion, even the people who didn’t like his politics or his theatrics. And now he’s 70 and we all wonder where the time went.