Goodbye to ‘The Greatest’ - Muhammad Ali dead at 74
It was 1980 and Muhammad Ali had no business being in the ring against a younger and stronger Larry Holmes, no matter how much his entourage kept telling him how good he looked in training.
And he did look good. He had lost nearly 40 pounds to get his body to a reasonable replication of its magnificent prime. At the age of 38 he had also grown a moustache to show off during the prefight press tour.
"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, that there was one more fight left in him, one more heavyweight belt to wrap around his waist.
When Ali talked, we all listened. We couldn't bear not to listen, even when his greatness had obviously faded and the words that electrified a generation didn't flow quite as easily as they once did.
Surely he could beat Holmes, his former sparring partner. This, after all, was a man who whipped the scowling Sonny Liston, stopped the fearsome George Foreman in Africa and won a battle nearly to the death with Joe Frazier in the Philippines.
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 so he wouldn't permanently damage his idol. The fight was finally stopped after 10 rounds, with Ali sitting on a stool, offering no resistance.
There weren't many bad nights like that for Ali in a pro career that spanned the better part of two decades. Still, his willingness to take punches in the ring he estimated at one point he had taken 29,000 blows to the head would soon doom him to a life of living with the debilitating effects of Parkinson's.
It hardly seemed possible then that this exquisitely sculptured man would spend his later years stooped over and trembling, unable to do the basic human tasks like tie his shoes or brush his teeth. Even more impossible was that the voice that roared so loud and so often would be nearly mute for the last few decades of his life.
It wasn't just the things he said about his opponents that were so memorable, though they were. I mean, who else could possibly 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," said Ali.
Or this before he upset Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
"Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I'm so mean, I make medicine sick."
It wasn't the poems that stood out, though they were fun. It was the simple way Ali talked to the world, even when a lot of the world didn't want to hear what he had to say.
"I don't have to be what you want me to be," Ali said after revealing he was a follower of the Nation of Islam.
"I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said in 1966 after citing religious objections and refusing to be drafted.
That decision cost Ali three and a half years of a career that was in his prime. He came back a different fighter and, though he was still plenty good, there was something taken from him in the layoff that he never got back.
I was in the stadium in 1996 in Atlanta when Ali appeared out of nowhere to light the Olympic cauldron. His left arm trembling badly, it seemed like it took forever to get in position with the torch before the cauldron was lit.
Looking around me I saw people crying. It was hard to keep from crying myself.
Over the years, Ali would make appearances at various games or events. He was always the A-list celebrity everyone wanted, with his presence filling the room wherever he went even though he couldn't speak.
At home in Scottsdale, he led a quiet life. Ali would fiddle with the magic tricks he enjoyed so much, often listening to Elvis on the stereo. Most of all, though, he loved to watch tapes of his fights, his eyes following closely the fighter he once was.