Commentary: Ali truly was The Greatest
It was 1980, and Muhammad Ali had no business being in the ring against a younger, stronger Larry Holmes, no matter how much his entourage kept telling him how good he looked in training.
At age 38, he had lost nearly 40 pounds to get his body to a reasonable replication of its magnificent prime.
“I'm Dark Gable,” Ali said, much to the delight of the writers who could barely conceal their glee in having Ali in front of them once again.
It was my first Ali fight, and like most of the 25,000 in the crowd outdoors at Caesars Palace that night, I hoped against hope I would see the Ali of old in the ring. He had convinced me, just as he convinced others, there was one more fight left in him.
When Ali talked, we listened, even when his greatness had obviously faded and the words that electrified a generation didn't flow as easily as they once did.
Surely he could beat Holmes, his former sparring partner. But the one opponent Ali couldn't beat was Father Time. He barely laid a glove on Holmes, taking such a beating that Holmes begged the referee several times to stop the fight. It finally was after 10 rounds.
There weren't many bad nights for Ali. Still, his willingness to take punches — he said at one point he had taken 29,000 blows to the head — soon doomed him to a life with Parkinson's.
It wasn't just the things he said about his opponents that were so memorable, though they were. Who else could come up with this line before meeting Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964 in the biggest fight of his young life?
“The crowd did not dream when they lay down their money that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny,” Ali said.
I first saw him in 1972, training at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas for a fight with Jerry Quarry.
I didn't get an autograph from Ali that day, though most everyone did. Ali signed everything for everyone, making sure he took plenty of time with any children who came to watch.
I later became friends with his business manager, Gene Kilroy. Kilroy told of the time Ali was in training camp in Deer Lake, for the Foreman fight, and a father brought a boy suffering from leukemia and bald from chemotherapy to visit. A few weeks later, the boy's father called Kilroy that the boy was dying, and Ali immediately left camp to go to Philadelphia to comfort him.
Ali told the boy that he would beat Foreman and the boy would beat leukemia. “No,” the boy said. “I'm going to meet God. And I will tell him that I know you.”
For many it was hard to reconcile that side of Ali.
I last saw Ali in 2012 in the MGM Grand lobby. He had been feted at a brain research dinner the night before, and now was the chance for the average fan to take a picture or see him in person.
A few of his daughters hovered, and grandbabies were put in his lap. Then, with Evander Holyfield holding him by one arm and his wife by the other, Ali made a slow, trembling walk around the ring.
He was still The Greatest.
Tim Dahlberg is a columnist for the Associated Press.