In the month since I met Ali at his mother’s and he gave me his phone numbers, I haven’t called, not wanting to bother him, and feeling intrusive simply for having this access to his life. After all, it’s not like I’m a close friend: Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people (this isn’t an overstatement) have known Ali better than I. And as he himself admits, his kindness has been abused in hundreds of ways by untold legions.
On Wednesday, which is my day off from the store, when I’m through writing for the day, I tromp down to the basement and find two big boxes of newspapers and magazines I’ve carried with me as I’ve moved from place to place over the past two decades. I lug the boxes upstairs and sort through every yellowed, musty item: hundreds of articles that date from January 1964 to the present. Going through these stories and looking at old photos, I can’t help but consider how the young Ali’s seemingly endless energy had promised that he would never get old, and how in many ways he is now older than just about everyone his age.
Yet I don’t feel bad for him. Ali’s life remains huge. He seems less than fulfilled only when we see him in the smallest of ways, when we don’t recognize that his Parkinson’s and its aura of silence enlarges his legend and his life, that it completes his mythology. Most of the writing (and the talk) about Ali, not only now (about his health) but over the decades, has served to inaccurately limit him, to minimize him and his existence.
I don’t have to be what you want me to be. One of the major themes of Ali’s life is that he doesn’t fall into our notions of who he is; he can’t be capsulized, cannot be accurately defined. His life and spirit ooze out of the sides of the containers we try to stuff him in.
Sifting through these boxes of decay, I put aside a few items I care about — the program and ticket stubs from when Lyn and I tried to get married at the Shavers fight; a few posters and magazines; a copy of the classic 1970 Ken Regan head shot in which jeweled planets of sweat ride Ali’s countenance like cold water poured on a hot copper frying-pan sky.
I carefully lay the bundle in my bottom desk drawer, reseal the boxes and call Rahaman [Muhammad Ali’s brother] to ask if I can stop by for a few minutes.
At Mrs. Clay’s, Rock comes out to the car and helps carry the 100-pound boxes up to the house. Sitting on the sofa, I show him a few items: newspaper and magazine pieces about the Liston fights; Ali’s conversion to Islam; the arrest for refusing military induction; the epic first battle with Frazier; the Supreme Court overturning the draft conviction; Foreman being voodooed by Ali; the Thrilla in Manila; the boxing lesson he gave Spinks in their second contest; a recent article about Ali buying buses for Chicago-area public schools (immediately after seeing a TV news story about how Dade County had no money for new buses, Ali sat down, wrote a check and mailed it, not using the gift as a tax deduction); and one about helping a young man wearing a hooded dark sweatshirt and jeans who crawled out on a high window ledge of a Wilshire Boulevard skyscraper in Los Angeles to kill himself. Police arrived, and, as this man began yelling that Viet-Cong guerillas were coming to get him, a large crowd gathered in front of the building. Police officers asked him his name, he told them that it was Joe and that he was twenty-one years old; they tried to talk him in but quickly came to understand that they needed help from more appropriately trained professionals. They brought in an experienced psychologist. No help. A police chaplain talked to Joe at length. No luck. “Jump! Jump!” the crowd chanted as Ali slowly drove past, saw what was going on, got out of his car and ran into the building. Ali leaned out of the ninth-floor window, promised to help Joe and took his hand to bring him in. He bought Joe clothes, gave him money, got him counseling. “Joe knows my address,” Ali later said. “I’ve told people to bring him to me. I’ll help him. He knows he’s got a home, my home.”
Rahaman asks if an enlargement can be made of a Newsweek photo of Ali, himself and their father with Gerald Ford at the White House. “Never seen a collection like this,” Rock says. “Nothin this big.”
He gets up from the sofa and walks to a closet, coming back with a long cardboard tube. “These are my paintings,” he says, popping a metal seal from the end of the tube. “Pictures of my brother.”
He unrolls canvas after canvas, most crumbling with age and abuse, some water-damaged, a few in top condition. He has a strong sense of color and form, and I tell him so.
“Ain’t nothin compared to my daddy,” he says.
I say I’ve heard that his father is a real painter.
“Aw, man, he paints be-yuuuu-tiful,” Rahaman says, stretching the “U” sound like a giant rubber band. “Be-yuuuu-tiful,” he repeats, leaning his head skyward as if speaking to an audience in the clouds. “I’ll never be nothin compared to Cash.”
I tell Rock I need to head home. “Let me help with your boxes,” he says.
“They’re yours now,” I say. “I wanted to give them to someone who’d take care of them. Too bad there’s no museum to donate them to.”
“Maybe there’s gonna be,” Rahaman says. “A fella’s tryin to start a boxin museum in Louisville. Ali’ll be in town this weekend to help out. We’re all gonna meet at a gym downtown. Why don’t you come?”
Saturday afternoon around 1:30, armed only with a street number and a general idea of the building’s whereabouts, I drive past twice, first overlooking it then saying, “Nah, that can’t be it,” but, maybe, that tiny little box over there, over near the river and nothing else except some abandoned warehouses with shattered windows and a few wind-whipped scrub pines, that rundown shack over there with the rutted dirt parking area and the fish market behind it, maybe that’s the gym. Yes, it is! The third time by a black Cadillac limo pulls into the parking lot and Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Senior, steps from the right rear door.
There’s only one sign on the crumbling concrete block building: a swinging, creaking, rusted metal Royal Crown Cola advertisement that at one time had been red, white and blue. The windows have been covered with sheets of plywood. Neon-green spray paint to the left of the door reads, “Boo! Scary Spook Place.” If Ali saw this upon entering, surely he had some fun with it. I imagine him putting on an open-mouthed grimace. “Spook? I’ll show ya’ a scary spook!” he shouts.
The first thing I notice upon opening the door is that the bowling-alley-long, garishly lighted room smells ripe, slick and sweet with worn leather, old sweat and oft-used liniments. In the right corner stands a small, abused, blue-roped ring, its large-pored, once-bleached canvas stained by body salts, blood and Atomic Balm. Near the rear of the room is a heavy bag, its thick black leather cover split open at the seams and nearly ripped from its body. Sinners have certainly left this bag enlightened.
Today, though, this building is not a temple for the body, not the abode of mad warrior monks at communion with the gods of violence; the mood today is festive, up-front celebratory: Red, yellow, blue, and orange balloons hang from the ring’s corner posts; rolls of red and white crepe paper have been strung throughout the gym; three sliced watermelons and a punch bowl filled with a thick pink fruit drink occupy a long card table near the center of the floor. About seventy-five noisy people are present — men, women, children — some dressed in Sunday best, others in T-shirts and jeans. An eight-millimeter movie projector to the left of the ring is clacking and spinning, throwing sepia-tinted images onto a blank area of the crumbling plaster wall: films of the roughly sixteen-year-old Cassius Clay jumping rope and blistering a heavy bag and a speed bag.
A couple of ancient boxing trainers are sitting on straw-backed wood chairs beside the projector, one at each corner, as rooted, gnarled and self-contained as Bonsai trees. Ali’s boyhood gym mate, opponent, friend, and former world’s heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis is standing to the right of the ring and beside one of the trainers, his big hand tender on the old man’s shoulder. Ellis wears dark glasses these days, having been blinded in the left eye in a final fight.
Ali’s father has taken a spot next to Ellis. At five-foot-nine or so, Cassius Clay looks like a miniature, much less benign, version of Rahaman. In his youth, Cash had a darkly handsome rascality about him; in his middle years, he was a brooding and troubled hard mahogany knot of a man; in his seventies, he is bent, razor-thin, and his eyes are deeply yellowed and clouded. Cash is crooning “For the Good Times” in a Vegas-fakewise voice that sounds of dusk and spent charcoal, performing for anyone who’ll listen; at this moment, it’s for a tall grinning white man who looks like a game show host or politician and who is being led around the room by a camcorder.
Ali is sitting on a folding metal chair beside Cash, appearing to ignore his father and looking as distracted as a ninth grader in algebra class on the day before spring break. Rahaman is to Ali’s right, holding a clear plastic cup of punch and sporting a grin as big and goofy as the guy’s with the camcorder — Rahaman’s face intrinsically different in that it harbors none of that cracker’s gleaming, old/new Southern “Can-you-believe-what-these-crazy-niggers-are-doin?” half-submerged malice about it.
“This is borin,” Ali suddenly yells and stands, immediately commanding the attention of almost everyone in the room. He’s dressed as some sort of emissary, in a manner beyond fashion, with quiet, near-timeless elegance: custom-tailored blue-pinstriped suit, lightly starched white shirt, royal-red patterned silk tie, polished black leather uppers. For almost his entire public life, even Ali’s haircut has transcended fashion: It’s seldom been either short or long; today, it perfectly halos his features.
Ali steps up to the person nearest him, a burly, red-bearded, tough-acting country gent in a Hawaiian shirt. “Did you call me niggah?” Ali yells.
The recipient of the accusation jumps back, startled and scared, instinctively putting his hands up and out to protect himself, then embarrassedly laughing. “Just joshin,” Ali says, looking sheepish and very young. He offers the man his hand, then whirls away, searching for the next soul to incite and cajole.
Within seconds, he’s playfully winging clownish punches at several people near him. Although he’s in play mode, his moves come fairly loose and reasonably fast.
“Did you used to box?” he whispers respectfully to a middle-aged midget who’s wearing big sunglasses and a black baseball cap with red stitching that reads ELVIS FOREVER.
He sneaks up behind several people, startling them with his cricket-in-your-ear trick, he blows on the tops of heads, tickles the insides of palms as he shakes hands. He pretends to get knocked down by a blond eighty-pound girl who’s wearing a pair of gold, queen-bed-pillow-sized boxing gloves that Ali has just finished autographing for her. As he rises from the floor, he turns and recognizes me and walks over and gives me his hand. “Didn’t know you’d be here,” he says, his tone determinedly innocent. “You surprise me.” It’s me who’s surprised. With Ellis, his dad, Rahaman, the old trainers, and so many people in the room with whom he seems to share history, I’m stunned he knows who I am, much less that he pays any attention to me.
Like in his yard the day we met, he motions to me with his eyes and puts his hands up beside his head. I dance to my left in exactly the style I learned from him twenty-five years before.
“You found a live one,” somebody yells to Ali.
“I could be your daddy,” Ali says to me, “if I was white.”
Ali and I slip and move around the old wood floor for probably forty-five seconds. Like before, he seems a little surprised by my speed and style. As he tries to fire at me, I beat him to the punch. “You don’t like black folks, do you?” he shouts. I find myself smiling. I feel good.
He points at a big blond late adolescent, a heavyweight, who’s wearing a green polo shirt and who looks like a fraternity kid. The boy comes over and asks advice: “What’s the best way to find a manager?” he says. “What do I do to go pro?”
Ali’s answer is to pump a jab toward the kid’s chin. The boy is put off for only a moment. Ali throws a second punch then waves the kid in with both hands. The boy hesitates a moment, then launches slow, careful punches and slips mechanically but nicely as Ali throws back.
“Do the shuffle, Champ,” I shout. For two seconds, he is once again hidden rhythm’s dancer: His shiny street dogs blur into his own private dance step.
After thirty seconds of moving around with the college kid, Ali motions toward the ring and removes his jacket. I’m sure he must be joking, but he picks up a pair of licorice-colored Everlasts and walks to the ring apron.
As he steps between the ropes, he pulls his tie from his neck and the sixteen-ounce sheaths of leather are strapped onto his wrists. “Gowna do five rounds,” he yells to people gathering ringside. The volume level in his voice has greatly increased. And the sound no longer issues from high in his throat; there’s roundness to his words.
“Gowna teach you what it’s all about,” he says to his smiling opponent, then turns his back and can’t suppress a smile himself.
In his corner, the big grinning cracker with the camcorder pulls Ali’s shirt tail from his trousers; the top button remains fastened. No one anywhere produces a mouthpiece; someone somewhere shouts “Ding,” and then it’s actually happening — for conceivably the last time ever, sick old Muhammad Ali is really boxing.
A slow-moving cockroach of sweat crawls fat down the small of my back. Although in some ways I don’t want to watch and feel almost ashamed to be a witness, I have to admit to myself that I ache to know if he can still really do it.
For the first thirty seconds, I want to wince with each blow thrown. Ali doesn’t seem able to get up on his toes; his balance doesn’t look good. He regularly slings quick-seeming jabs, but every punch misses. I believe the frat kid may be holding back in order to avoid hurting our ailing legend.
Suddenly, one minute into the round, The Champ drops his gloves to his sides, exposing his chin, and when his opponent tries to reach him with punches, he pulls his head back and away, just like the Ali we remember, causing the kid to miss by less than an inch. I hear myself say, “Ooh,” and find I almost immediately relax some.
At the beginning of Round Two, Ali’s face is animated, centered, serious. “No excuses,” he says to himself, looking toward the canvas. “No excuses,” he repeats.
The kid comes out hard, apparently wanting to make it a real fight. He thumps Ali with stiff punches to the chin and to the chest. Ali covers up. “Keep movin,” he says, “keep punchin.”
The college kid steps in to throw another shot and Ali stabs him with a perfectly timed, teeth-rattling counter jab that’s as sweet as a bite from the last tangy apple of autumn. The kid’s head is turned ninety degrees by the force of the blow. It’s a quick, very subtle shot, not thrown for audience reaction; almost no one in the room recognizes that the kid has been stunned. Fifteen seconds later, Ali shivers the kid’s legs with a straight right lead. “Don’t hurt him, Champ,” Rahaman yells, but there’s no need: Ali has backed off.
The kid gets on his bicycle; for a few moments he wears the expression of someone who has just been given a bright first taste of his own mortality. Ali boxes the rest of the round at a level slightly above the boy’s abilities (although the boy himself may not recognize it). With twenty seconds left, he zings in a series of eight jabs and a razor of a right, all designed to make only surface contact, but to confirm that, at least in this moment, he remains Ali.
The old master does three more rounds with less capable students than the frat kid (chasing a hugely rotund guy who’s wearing glasses around the ring, spanking him on the seat of his workout pants instead of punching his face or his jiggling body; cartoonishly winding up and lampoonishly telegraphing all of his punches while letting a 140-pound pointed-nose novice push him around all-four square), then he steps awkwardly from the ring and immediately begins to walk his great-granddaddy walk.
I take a seat with him on the apron. “H-h-how did I look?” he asks. He has to repeat the question twice before I understand. Both of his arms are shaking, as is his head. “D-d-did I surprise you?” He chuckles and nods, satisfied to have kept the world in orbit.
He trudges over to the refreshment table, looking for something to drink. The punch is gone. He pulls a chunk of watermelon from the rind, juice dripping between his fingers, stuffs it in his mouth, turns the entire half-melon sideways and lets juice slowly drip into a cup, which he expeditiously drains.
He tugs on his jacket and, in front of a big mirror that’s used for shadowboxing, takes probably five minutes to convince his fingers to knot his tie, showing no impatience. We walk from the gym into a thin mist. The sidewalk is empty. A wet and shining blue Chevy pickup with a camper attached to the bed is at the curb. A short, thin, older black gentleman wearing a straw hat and holding an umbrella is leaning against the truck. Ali walks to the Chevy stiffly, silently, and with great dignity. He has trouble getting into his seat on the passenger’s side. I close his door. He waves to me.
“Be cool,” he says. And then he surprises me once again. “Remain wise,” he says. With a trail of blue smoke shining in the air, the pickup pulls from the curb.