• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Here's Johnny - Goodbye, Champ

I'd planned on writing about Donald Trump's war on journalists, then a good man died. Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest in the city he helped make famous. It is where the three-time heavyweight boxing champion wanted to be buried. In January of 2015, after Ali spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, I wrote about the champ's boxing career, his struggle with Parkinson's disease, and his legacy. Allow me now to paraphrase some words from the Louisville Lip in this slightly condensed version of that column: "You even dream about writing something better, you better wake up and apologize!" (Thanks, champ.) ------- Thirty years ago, three years after he fought his last bout and six or seven after he should have retired, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome (and later, Parkinson's disease). Doctors said it was almost certainly caused by the thousands of heavy punches he absorbed in fights and during training, though Ali and family members have disagreed with their reasoning. Regardless, it is a grim irony that the man once known as the Louisville Lip has difficulty speaking; that the most expressive of faces is stilled to a mask; that the fastest heavyweight of all time can barely walk. There are other ironies, too. When Ali refused to step forward and be drafted in 1967, boxing organizations stripped him of his heavyweight belts and state commissions refused to grant him a license. By the time his case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court (a case he won by unanimous decision) he had lost three-and-a-half prime years of his career with little or no due process. He came back a different fighter. His blinding combinations from all angles came far less frequently; the legs that carried him about the ring like a lightweight were slower; and the willingness to train to the peak of physical condition came and went from fight to fight. Ali learned that he could take a punch like perhaps no fighter before him. Even those who thought his refusal to be drafted a sign of cowardice had to admit, as he met and overcame powerful punchers from Frazier to Foreman, that the butterfly was plenty brave. It was a double-edged sword, of course. The iron chin and his still-considerable speed and ring smarts carried him, at age 32, back to the top against the seemingly indestructible George Foreman. He and Joe Frazier nearly killed each other the following year in Manila. Still he fought on, until losing the title to the mediocre Leon Spinks in February of 1978. In a rematch, Ali won the belt an unprecedented third time that September. No one could knock him out, but who could say how many punches he took along the way? When Ali finally retired the following year, there were already signs of the toll boxing had taken. In a satellite split-screen interview with Howard Cosell then, his voice is whispery, some of his words slurred. The 1980 comeback against champion Larry Holmes, once an Ali sparring partner, should not have been allowed, nor his final fight the following year. Three years later, Ali was given the Parkinson's diagnosis. In 1996, he defied his deteriorating condition by climbing what seemed innumerable steps, torch held high with quivering arm, to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta. Since then, Ali has made many public appearances, often for charity or peace, usually without comment. His wife and children say he is a happy, devout Muslim, and that neither he nor they want people to feel sorry for him. He is, like most all of us, both sinner and saint. Some of the things he said to and about Joe Frazier ("It'll be a killer and a thriller and a chiller when I get the gorilla in Manila") make one cringe today. And today's showboat athletes, who celebrate after every routine play, are certainly less-charming descendants of the man who dubbed himself "The Greatest." Of course, so much of what Ali did and said was with a wink, such as during a seemingly hostile exchange with Howard Cosell in 1967. "You're being extremely truculent," Cosell said, to which Ali shot back, "Whatever truculent means, if it's good, I'm that." Or when he told Wilt Chamberlain, during a semi-serious debate about a proposed fight between the two, to "cut that beard off, because I'm not fighting billy goats." I believe one can be inspired by others without stooping to hero worship. Here is what I admire about the man born Cassius Clay in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942: He has battled Parkinson's with the same indomitable will he displayed in the ring, never seeking pity or second-guessing the decisions he made that put him at higher risk for the disease. Even after the Supreme Court's decision in his favor, Ali refused to condemn the men who kept him from boxing, saying he believed both he and they did what they thought was right. When his skills declined due to that layoff, he found others. -------- Muhammad Ali died surrounded by his wife and eight children. He was 74 years old. He was a great fighter and a good man. It is often said of talented people, and often short-sightedly, "There'll never be another one like him (or her)." In the case of Ali, I'd agree. In fact, sometimes it's hard for this writer to believe there was even one. Goodbye, champ.

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