Ali spread the feeling of greatness around

Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:06 p.m.

As marginalized a sport as boxing is, at least one king of the ring had an enormous wallop on American history: Muhammad Ali. The champ turned 65 on Wednesday. Deeply ravaged by the hurricane blows that he absorbed in almost two decades of prize fighting, the once-silver-tongued Adonis now shuffles through his days and sentences.

I chatted with his former trainer and friend Angelo Dundee recently, asking the octogenarian how he felt about "the kid," as he used to call him, turning 65.

Dundee talked a little about the birthday parties that he used to throw for his young charge when he began working with the then-20-year-old Cassius Clay. Dundee recalled, "He loved the cake, the fun, the people," and then the Hall-of-Fame trainer lowered his voice and sighed, "But it is hard to see him today. Very hard. I always thought that if anyone could beat Parkinson's, it would be Muhammad. But he can't beat it."

I questioned Dundee as to what he thought Ali would have done after boxing if his health had stayed intact. Said Dundee, "He would have just been Muhammad. He would have been involved in everything — politics, boxing." Dundee emphasized, "Anything to do with people. The important thing about Muhammad is that he just loves being with people."

If there were a museum for strange psyches, Muhammad Ali's soul would be front and center on the main exhibit floor. In him, immiscible attributes seem to work in perfect harmony. For superficial example, talk used to be regarded as cheap and almost effeminate in the fight world, but Ali, unlike any other boxer before him, would chatter away and often about how pretty he was.

When Ali was coming up the ranks, his prattle and self-promotion jangled nerves, and many a detractor huffed, "Just wait until he gets nailed once." For better and for worse, the Foreman and Frazier fights, to name just two, made it plain that the man called the Louisville Lip had a quiet and solid place inside that enabled him to tolerate punishment that put much harder-looking pugilists to sleep.

And yet, Muhammad Ali has a paradoxical quality that transcends just being a sensitive tough guy. On the one hand, he talked and fell over himself so much that it was legitimate to wonder: Is this fellow a pathological narcissist or what? On the other, he has always had an almost Olympian ability to get outside himself and become deeply involved in the lives of others.

In 2005, I attended the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center for Peace and Justice in Louisville. The iconoclast who became an icon has, of course, always been concerned with world peace, but on this day his love of humanity was evident on a smaller scale.

As I ambled around the halls of the center, I encountered one person after another whom Ali had bumped into, taken interest in, and lifted up. He helped one man get a toehold as a writer, another to open a cookie factory, and another to start on a career that would make him a world famous photographer. The cynical among us might call these people hangers on — part of an entourage — but to Ali, they were all beloved friends.

Celebs are usually so caught up in the high drama of their own lives that the person standing in front of them and begging for an autograph may as well be the invisible man. Unlike most of those who people the pages of People magazine, Ali's love of humanity is not for the love that we might be able to shower upon him.

In a book that is highly critical of Ali, "Ghosts of Manila," the late Mark Kram begins with a vignette about an impecunious lad who makes his way from Louisiana to Los Angeles with the fantastic hope of enlisting Ali as his boxing trainer. While another champ might have ducked the knock at the door, Ali invited the young man in and began sizing him up.

After he became convinced that there was no pot of gold at the end of this guy's boxing rainbow, Ali took up the cruel task of trying to convince the young man to seek out another more forgiving profession. Then he gave the guy money for the return trip home.

In a gloss on the New Testament, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard argued that while it is our supreme duty to love our neighbor, that love of others could only be based on a proper self-love. Though he often used the charms of his self-love to lure fans to the arena, Muhammad Ali enjoys the relation to himself that is at the end of Kierkegaard's pointer.

Bright and quick on his intellectual feet as he could be, Ali has never been known as a virtuoso of introspection. Still, he has often been heard to say that he reads his disease as a reminder from God that, for all of his accomplishments, he is still only a mortal.

At the final bell, Ali was really not in any need of this reminder, as he has always had a profound understanding of the fact that we are all human beings, all special, all blessed. The Greatest has always had the remarkable ability to spread that feeling of greatness and self-respect to others. That is a divine gift. Thanks and happy birthday, champ.

Gordon Marion, a former boxer, is a new faculty member in the College of Human Health and Performance at the University of Florida. His essays have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. He also covers the sport of boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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