It is one of my great half-hours. A hot summer’s day in 1969, walking down 7th Avenue at age 21, thinking about who knows what, and there he was: Muhammad Ali, standing right in front of me, bigger than any life anyone was entitled to, except maybe him. He was banned from boxing at the time, his title taken away because he wouldn’t fight in the Vietnam War, saying he had nothing against “no Viet Cong” who’d never called him that n-word. Exiled from the throne, he was on Broadway instead, in an Oscar Brown Jr. musical called Big Time Buck White, singing a couple of songs, one called “They Brought Us in Chains.”
“Hey Champ,” I called, because I knew by then that’s what you say when you see the King. He had some guys with him, maybe his cornerman Bundini, maybe Gene Kilroy, maybe some Fruit of Islam Muslims from Temple #7 on 116th Street. He looked busy, but he turned my way, beckoned me closer. “Help me out here, man,” he said in that voice I had heard so many times on the radio, on the TV, talking with Howard Cosell, proclaiming yet again, how great, how really, really great he was.
A little old lady was trying to cross the street, but there was too much traffic. Ali motioned me to take her left hand. He had the right. Taxis barreled toward us, but Ali held up his palm. The cars stopped, maybe the whole world stopped, while we walked to the other side of the road. “We got you across, ma’am,” Ali said.
The lady kissed him, he shook my hand and that was that, as I stumbled down toward 48th street where the music shops used to be. Still buzzed, I was standing outside of Manny’s when Dylan came out the door. He too had some guys with him, maybe Bobby Neuwirth, maybe the Band, who knows. I didn’t call him Champ, or anything else because with Dylan, you don’t. It was breaking the rules just to watch him disappear into the crowd towards 6th Avenue. Yet what a haul: My two great heroes, twin lodestars of my existence then and maybe even now, in a half an hour.
Ali’s dead now, just as well: Parkinson’s is a nightmare. My grandmother died from it. He’d done enough. In his primary function as a boxer, it had been over since that dreary night in 1980 when he fought Larry Holmes, his former pupil. We went to the Garden that night, to watch the closed-circuit on the big screen. There was some hope. Ali had gotten himself into shape, down to 217, a weight he hadn’t made in years, said he was ready “to dance all night.” But by the middle of the first round, with Holmes pumping that ramrod left jab into his mentor’s suddenly stationary face, the disaster was clear. “He’s got nothing. Nothing at all,” said the guy next to me.
It had been so glorious for so long. That first night against Liston in 1965, I listened to the fight under the covers in my Queens bedroom, on the radio. Ali was already my guy since the ’60 Olympics. The way everyone said he was behaving at the weigh-in, running around crazy, supposedly scared out of his mind, had me worried. But by the second round, you knew it had been a trick, a lure, part of a cosmic plan, because Ali (Cassius Marcellus Clay then, a “slave” name to be sure, a beautiful one nonetheless) wasn’t scared, or crazy: he was following a blueprint of his own as yet unglimpsed devise. The fight lifted me right out of bed, got me bouncing on the balls of my feet, ducking shots, throwing them until my parents screamed about what the hell was going on up there. It was a school night, after all.
So many times since then he’d come through, been the center of things, with Frazier and later in Africa, a whole continent screaming “Ali, Boom-a-ye.” There was also that one night in 1966, against Cleveland Williams. It was before the suspension robbed him of much of his foot speed, when he flew around the ring, the soles of white leather shoes seemingly never touching the ground. Williams, a big and dangerous guy, dropped to the floor out of the sheer dizzying wonder of it all. It was “the most amazing performance ever seen,” said the old trainer Ray Arcel, who’d seen everything.
But in 1980, he was catching, Holmes beating him up. For months Ali had been screaming “Hoooo-lmes! I want Hoooo-lmes!,” building up the fight the way he learned from watching Gorgeous George send crowds into a frenzy, using those show biz moves he got from Lloyd Price, Mr. Personality, one-time owner of the Tip-Top Club in Louisville. But now the fight was over, stopped in the tenth. If Ali had landed a decent shot, no one could remember it. Yet there he was, outside Holmes’ dressing room, screaming “Hoooo-lmes! I want Hooo-lmes.” Holmes, a decent man, knowing what he’d done and knowing that he would go to his grave with people hating him for it, understood Ali’s joke and tribute, and appropriately broke into tears.
In the years that followed, when us fight fans got together, the topic came up: could you choose the precise moment Ali got Parkinson’s? Was it that night against Holmes? Was it in the second round against Earnie Shavers, a massive hitter, at the Garden in 1977? (Man, Ali took some shots!) Or that stupid fight against the Japanese wrestler Inoki who kept kicking him in the leg? I remember that night. I was writing a piece on Richard Pryor and we went with Jim Brown to see the show at the Hollywood Palladium. “Don’t let him kick you in the fucking leg, Ali,” Pryor kept shouting. Or was it simply from being Ali, the stress of the nonpareil?
The unspoken virtue of Ali’s dancing style was that, for all the physical poetry of his attack, a fighter’s last line of defense is his chin. How much can he take? It is one of the million phrases around the fight game: “He’s got a lot of heart, too bad he’s got to show it.” This usually this applies to the Rocky-types, the “tomato-cans” who take a licking yet keep on ticking to the delight of the bloodthirsty crowd. Ali wasn’t that, but the basic idea applies. He took a lot to prove he was the Greatest.
For my particular generation, this is the dying season, icons dropping like flies. In this procession of doom, Ali is a Big Ticket, but he’d probably have been the first to tell you to look on the bright side. Last week, I was up on 125th Street, where a guy was selling T-shirts, the kind with the press-on photographs. He had one of with a shot of Ali standing next to Prince, who, as a younger man, looked properly impressed, even a bit giddy, to be in this company. Now, I’m a big Prince fan, but he’d never be my guy, that one you came up with. So I got the shirt for my daughter, who loves Prince in that way I always loved Ali. Now we can mourn, and celebrate, together.