Fight, glory and death of the best boxer of all time

Ali at his training camp in Pennsylvania, circa 1974 (Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images) (PL Gould/IMAGES/)

His face had turned into a gaunt, twisted grimace in the final moment of agony. It was then that a doctor on Duty entered room 263 of the Intensive Care area of ​​the Honor-Healt Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center and disconnected him from the artificial respirator that was supporting him with a useless thread of life. It was 8:30 p.m. on June 3, 2016 and the Imam (Muslim preacher) Zaid Shakir took her inert hands and called for prayer. He did it in front of his wife Lonnie, his 9 children and all of his grandchildren. The last thing he heard was what Imam Shakir told him: “Paradise awaits you.” The doctor on duty immediately re-entered, verified that that immense heart had stopped beating and closed his eyes: Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, had died.

Evocation is an inevitable wind that stirs the senses. And by closing his pupils away from all his glories, the illustrious dead man became myth and legend.

The first flash of memory takes us back more than half a century: the Olympic title in Rome 1960, the gold medal thrown into the Ohio River after being discriminated against in a bar in his native Louisville, the statements with a tone of social complaint, the two knockouts the “invincible” mafia champion Sonny Liston, the heavyweight belt at 22, world fame, his magical boxing with prodigious legs to “float like a butterfly and sting like a wasp”, 30 defeated rivals in 7 years and that haughty face of a severe gladiator. It was in 1967 when his boxing license was withdrawn for not enlisting in the Army (Armed Forces) during the Vietnam War. I remember his public explanation the day the world crown was taken from him, as he also told me the first time I interviewed him:

-Shoot them, why? They never yelled at me “black”, they never lynched me, their dogs did not attack me, they did not steal my nationality, they did not rape or kill my parents. How could he shoot those poor people? Simply, take me to jail… -was his public statement.

Muhammad Ali
Floyd Patterson suffers the hand of the young man from Louisville, it was in Las Vegas in 1965. Aesthetics and strength in fair doses. (Bettmann/)

The memory flashes again like a terrifying and luminous lightning bolt. The three years of the sanction marked the time of the definitive overturning of religion. He believed he found the answers to all his youthful dilemmas there. Once he told me:

-When I was a child I did not understand what was happening. Jesus was white, angels were white, Tarzan the king of the jungle was white, Miss America was white. He wanted to have a shotgun and shoot into the sky to be heard. Until he was 18 years old, he didn’t really know what was happening. I was already a boxer and I think I went for that, so that someone would know that I was in the world. Later I met Wallace Muhammad, a preacher. He is my best friend today: he made me understand that God was in me like everyone else and that he would be someone in life if he improved what I liked and thought of others to share it. The old struggle between whites and blacks ended for me.-

That June 3, 2016, the expected death of the greatest boxer in history seemed to become a natural fact. Lonnie -his fourth wife- with whom he had shared the last 30 years of his life when Muhammad had already been fighting Parkinson’s disease for two years, left the room. She was going to meet Bob Gunnell from the Bunker Family Funeral Home whom she had summoned a few hours earlier. It was he who introduced him to Jeff Gardner, the embalmer of Muhammad Ali’s body, since it should be kept for at least a week before being buried in the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville (Kentucky), where his grave is located.

That wrinkled, mute and tiny body that they bathed in formaldehyde and covered with two white towels, had been that of an athlete with perfect aesthetics and privileged strength who, upon returning to boxing in ’70 After being absent from the rings for 3 years due to the sanction, he achieved an amazing feat: regaining his world title. And while he was leaving behind tough rivals like Jerry Quarry and our Oscar Bonavena –an epic of Ringo-; and once again surpassing the best such as Floyd Patterson, Bob Foster, Alvin Blue Lewis, Joe Bugner, Ken Norton and Joe Frazier (win and loss with each of them), came the great night of October 1974 in Kinsasha, Zaire, ( today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) versus george foreman.

It is unimaginable that that wasted and naked 74-year-old body was the same one who showered the ring with talent and intelligence in that epic fight against George Foreman or in that other -the third- against Frazier in Manila. They all fought him to the point of agony, but only he reached ecstasy.

They called it the fight of the century and Ali did not disappoint.  George Foreman watches helplessly from the canvas.  The champion had returned once more.
They called it the fight of the century and Ali did not disappoint. George Foreman watches helplessly from the canvas. The champion had returned once more.

And who really was that man? That wonderful athlete who rwon his world title three times. He answered it to me after beating Foreman and while waiting for the fight against the Uruguayan Alfredo Evangelista. So he told me:

– “The true Ali is a spiritual man, a religious man; I am going to make a comparison that looks better to me: I am the hook that is attached to the bait that the fish eats. Let me explain it better: the real Ali is a spiritual man, a religious man; I will make a comparison that looks better to me: the fish is the people, the bait is the boxer Ali and the hook is the true Ali, the spiritual one. When people believe that they are eating the jester, they are eating the preacher, they are receiving the word of God, while I am a simple vehicle of God. While the idiots of journalists are dedicated to taking my word for a joke, millions of people around the world are receiving it as a sincere and profound message. People believe in myths and like them. People like Tarzan, Dracula, Superman. We have spent two billion dollars to bring back stones from the moon. Now we will spend four billion to go to Mars; when we get to Mars we will say Jupiter. And people go crazy because they like these mysteries. Well then: I am the Tarzan of boxing, the Superman of boxing, the Dracula of boxing, the great myth of boxing. People come looking for that mythical boxer and they find a philosopher, a professor. . .”-

Parkinson’s disease attacked him in 1984, two years after having carried out his last and sad fights. They went against a former sparring partner –Larry Holmes- who became world champion and the last against the Jamaican Trevor Berbick, a very elementary fighter. By the way, they both won Muhammad had ceased to be him, without ruling out the suspicion that some neurodegenerative disease affected him since he had lost much of the control of his posture and his classic movements around the ring.

Perhaps the first regret in the world was when he went up with so much effort to light the Cauldron of the Atlanta 96 Olympic Games. It was like seeing the decrepit Maradona on the Gymnastics and Fencing field on October 30, 2020, months before his death; but this universal idol, equally famous, was cared for to prolong his necessary life for another 30 years…

The boxer met with Muslim references in London, in 1966. His name was still Cassius Clay, later he would adopt the one he took to the grave.
The boxer met with Muslim references in London, in 1966. His name was still Cassius Clay, later he would adopt the one he took to the grave. (Reuters /)

Muhammad’s wishes for his own funeral could not be fulfilled. Ten years before his death, he had told his wife Lonnie and some of his children that he wanted to be fired at New York Yankee Stadium – where the Yankees of Major League Baseball play – in the Bronx, so that his Latino brothers and blacks will pass by to say their last goodbye without anyone disturbing them in line to enter. But then, late in the disease, he agreed to reconcile with his hometown and for seven days he was held a vigil at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville where some 500,000 people from all over the country paraded. The most emblematic figures from all areas of the United States were there, and it was former President Bill Clinton – an unprecedented event for a President of the United States to fire an athlete – who, among other things, stated in his elegy: “I think that Muhammad Ali decided very young what he wanted to do with his life and wrote his own story without taking away that power. Neither his race, nor his place nor his dreams would stop being his fight and for that reason he died the way he wanted… ”.

Ali in the last years of his life, affected by Parkinson's disease.  His family always with him.  (EFE)
Ali in the last years of his life, affected by Parkinson’s disease. His family always with him. (EFE) (EFE/)

I remembered that we had spoken with Muhammad about death in an interview that I had done with him in 1975. And then he answered me:

I do not fear death. But I am afraid of not being ready when the time comes. We are all imperfect and that is why we will not go to heaven. The thought of going to hell, even though I’m doing my best to improve my soul, terrifies me. Life is just a test to know where we will be assigned: if up or down. But I prefer hell to nothing. It makes me very bad to think about nothing.-

He left books by great authors like Norman Mailer, documentaries, videos of 50 fights, immortal phrases (“Wisdom is knowing when one cannot be wise.”, university lectures, visits to great state dignitaries such as Mandela and many talks on religion and religious integration. The best I heard from him about it was this:

-Listen to this religious quote: “Rivers, lakes, and streams all have different names, but they all contain water.” So too religions have different names, but they all contain truth expressed in different ways. Each religion has its prophet, but what they teach and preach they learned from the same God who is above all of them. God is not limited to Jesus, Moses or Mohammed, he encompasses them all.-

Seven years have passed since the beginning of its eternalization. It will be a legend suspended in some galaxy of celestial and luminous bodies reserved for whoever was the best boxer of all time, the one who enlightened everyone.

The Muslim preacher was right: “Paradise awaits you”.

That is your place Muhammad Ali, the greatest…

The author of the note with Ali, in an interview in 1975.

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