Sunday, October 30, 2005

It Was Ali's World, And We Just Lived In It

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

He used to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." Now, he sits quietly and draws, or clips things from magazines. He does magic tricks, too, his daughter says.

But there is no magic that can return Muhammad Ali to what he once was: the most recognizable, most dynamic person in the entire world. That’s right -- not just athlete. Muhammad Ali transcended sports and cut across the many fabrics of life like a sharp pair of scissors through strands of hair. He was, in his prime, indeed The Greatest -- in his sport and on his planet.

But now he is The Quietest. His daughter, Layla, 27 and also a boxer, and also a dominant one like her dad, recently told the Los Angeles Times that her father is showing such rapid advancement of Parkinson’s Disease that some days it takes too much out of him to merely speak.

"It takes him too much energy to talk," Layla Ali, who lives in L.A., told the Times. She said her father feels "like he's trapped inside his body. He can think. He has things he wants to say, but his lips sometimes just don't move to get it out," she said.

Ali, as I wish to remember him

I’ve always felt that Ali’s decline in health has been one of the saddest spectacles in my lifetime. Close to home, we’ve seen the difference between Vladimir Konstantinov, pre-car accident and after, and that wasn’t pleasant. But that was the result of a singular, horrific event. Ali’s slide has been gradual and slow, painfully so. ESPN Classic shows a lot of his fights, and while the performance inside the ring is impressive enough, it was the performances after, between and before the bouts that are also emblazoned into our collective psyche.

"The Mouth That Roared," some called him, and hearing Ali pontificate and work prose about how he was going to take care of his next opponent, or watching him kibitz with Howard Cosell, and seeing how he could get under the skin of Joe Frazier, was, to me, a significant part of American pop cultural history. Ali was one of those rarities: an athlete who could boast better than anyone, and then actually back it up with his actions inside the "squared circle." We could shake our heads at his verbal outrageousness, but when the final bell sounded, or when the referee ended the fight, we knew we had seen a man live up to and exceed his own expectations. Ali put the pressure on himself with his words, and released it with his actions. He was his own hydraulic system.

So when he retired, and his body began to betray him, not moving through the calendar with his mind, it was there for all of us to see. You don’t be Muhammad Ali and go gently into the night, even if that’s how you would prefer it. Icons don’t vanish, like those magic tricks Ali likes to do nowadays.

"See? That’s what boxing can do to you! Serves him right -- getting knocked around like that!"

You’ve heard that, right, about Muhammad Ali? It was the next stage of his sad transformation from Showman to Slowman. Blame the victim -- the American way. Problem was, do you really remember Ali ever getting his ass kicked? Do you ever recall any fight in which his head got beaten like a drum? Of course you don’t, because you can’t hit what you can’t catch. And the poor saps who got into the ring with Ali, even the talented ones, couldn’t figure out how to get him to stand still long enough to get some really good shots in. He only went down once, that I know of -- in the first Frazier fight, one of his few losses. Of course, that was avenged -- twice.

Ali put the pressure on himself with his words, and released it with his actions. He was his own hydraulic system.

Layla Ali, herself 21-0 with 18 knockouts, told the Times that she and her father "don't talk about boxing. He might come to a fight and say, 'You're bad.' But he was never one to talk much about boxing with us. That was not him." No, he saved that for the rest of the world.

Layla and dad

The more I saw Ali degenerate, the more I found myself wishing he was like he used to be when I was growing up. I don’t really feel like that about athletes, as a rule. I let them age gracefully, and think fondly of their past lives as performing masters. You can’t stop time, I theorize. But with Muhammad Ali, perhaps because his condition robbed him of his very being with all the rapidness of the rate of lean of that tower in Pisa, I longed to put the toothpaste back into the tube. But it just wasn’t to be, of course. Parkinson’s Disease is cruel, crueler than an Ali jab or uppercut, unfortunately. It doesn’t care if you are Uncle Joe or Aunt Millie or The Greatest. It will beat you into submission, slowly but surely.

Layla Ali gave us an update on her father when she told the Times, "He has his good days and his bad days. He's taking a lot of different medications. Sometimes, his speech is so slurred, you can't hardly understand him. But he definitely knows what's going on. That's for sure. He sees everything."

That’s what has got to be so horrifying for Layla and her father. His mind is willing, but his motor skills abandon him at times, so Muhammad Ali is trapped. And the man who once packed such a powerful punch can’t punch his way out of a paper bag, much less the encasement in which Parkinson’s has placed him.

"He's just taking life easy," Layla Ali told the Times. "He likes doing simple things. He loves to draw, he likes to color, he likes to clip pictures out of magazines. And he likes to do magic tricks. It doesn't take a whole lot to keep him entertained. But his attention span is very short when the subject is something more than that."

Layla Ali fears her father’s Parkinson’s is getting worse. It is one reason she sought out the newspapers, to tell the world that The Greatest is dwindling faster than normal. I used to think that, when it was going so slow, when the disease was taking its sweet time destroying Muhammad Ali, it would be preferable to see it just do its thing already. Now that it’s happening faster, now that it might finally be overcoming him, I don’t know what to think.

I feel stung. Like from a bee.

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