|ESPN.com: Ali & Me|
The first time ever I saw Ali, I was with the Beatles.
Now that stops conversation. People think: It doesn't get much better than that, a 26-year-old reporter hanging at the iconic center of the '60s, that defining decade of the 20th century. Like waking up with Rosetta Stone herself. Sometimes, reading myself write, I think so, too. Until I remember that on that February day I was clueless.
The New York Times had sent me down to cover Clay's first fight with Sonny Liston because the paper's boxing writer didn't think it was worth his time. Cassius Clay was a 7-1 underdog.
The Beatles, who were on their first American tour, wanted a photo op with Liston, but the champ didn't think they were worth his time. "Who are these little sissies?" asked Sonny, who trained on the stage of a bright blue community center in northern Miami Beach. So the limo dropped the Fab Four off at the dingy old Fifth Street Gym in what is now South Beach. The Beatles were cranky before they even got up the splintery steps.
Clay was late, and the Beatles tried to leave. But they had arrived -- a sign of those times -- with no hired muscle of their own, and the promotion's security guards pushed them into a locker room. Clay's press agent wanted that picture to boost sagging tickets sales. It was my first day on the story. I'd flown in the night before. My notebook and my mind were empty. Had I really known who these four little guys in matching white terrycloth jackets were, I might have been too shy to push my way into the locker room with them. The Beatles, I thought then, were just another bunch of pop-ups to make teenyboppers swoon. I was a cool scribe.
The Beatles were cursing the photographer who had brought them here, claiming they had been tricked. I introduced myself, a little grandly I think, invoking the majesty of the Times, and John gravely shook my hand, introducing himself as Ringo and Paul as John. I knew they were putting me on and was faintly amused. I asked for their predictions. We all agreed that Liston would destroy Clay, the silly little overhyped wanker. Then they ignored me to snarl among themselves, the silly little overhyped wankers.
Suddenly, the locker-room door burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles gasped, and so did I. He was so much bigger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He was laughing. He seemed to glow.
"Hello there, Beatles," he roared. "We ought to do some road shows together. We'll get rich."
The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they'd met before and choreographed their frolic. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray Clay would stop hitting them. He picked up Ringo, the bittiest Beatle. Then they lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes. That photo op is still a classic.
After the Beatles left, Clay worked out as his "spiritual advisor" Bundini Brown hollered, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Later, stretched out on a dressing-room table for his rubdown, he silenced a crabby old reporter from Boston who implied that the fight was a joke by saying, "I'm making all this money, the popcorn man making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it's warm."
I was thrilled. I thought: He's got our number, and he's not afraid of playing with us. Too bad he's going to get his head knocked off. He would have been so much fun to write about as champ.
After his rubdown, Cassius took me aside. I'd like to think he had picked me out of the pack -- years later, he would say, "I always knew you were smart, Bob, because you a Jew and never ate pork, your mind is clear." But I think he had merely spotted me in the locker room. He asked, "Who were those little sissies?"
STOCKHOLM, 1965: LOST IN TRANSLATION
So I hooked up with my Big Story, the one that would define and fuel my career, get me off the rewrite desk and eventually make me a columnist. But after 16 months, I was happy to get away from it. When the Times offered me a summer in Europe covering sports, I ran out to get my first passport, my first American Express card, my first Brooks Brothers suit: Today, I am The Man.
It was not that I wasn't grateful. I had been delighted by Clay's victory over Liston and his declaration the next morning that "I don't have to be what you want me to be, I'm free to be who I want," not the least because it presaged a regime change in sportswriting -- the old farts hated him, couldn't relate, didn't have the access and the chops to hang out with him in hotel rooms and mosques, to interview Malcolm X, to sit all day with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam who changed Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.'s name to Muhammad Ali ("Worthy of All Praise, Most High").
But ... I also felt worn down by the relentless hype of his promoters, the grim-faced dogma of the Black Muslims, the sly manipulations of the champ himself, who played every journalist like a different instrument in his orchestra. When the old guys who beat up on him -- like Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young and Red Smith and Arthur Daley -- came into the gym, he would pretend to be afraid of them until they swelled up like puffer fish. He treated young guys like me as if we were his stenographers. And he could be patronizing, too. Once, when I apologized for the Times' refusal to let me call him Muhammad Ali without first using Cassius Clay, he dropped an arm on my shoulder and said he understood that I was just a little brother of the power structure.
I tried to be tough and fair, but it seemed like cheerleading; whatever I wrote, I was eventually selling tickets to the next fight.
After all, here was this supposed racial hero who lectured on the righteousness of segregation ... and put down decent, brave Joe Frazier as an ugly gorilla.
Here was this sermonizer on family values ... who was bonking his brains out (but then, his leader, the Honorable Elijah, lived in a Chicago mansion attended by pregnant young "secretaries").
And worst, here was this man of peace ... who had turned his back on Malcolm, whom I came to know and respect, and Leon 4X Ameer, a former Muslim who had become my friend. Although Ali was clearly then in at least emotional thrall to the Nation of Islam, his disavowal of Malcolm, his mentor, and of Leon, Ali's bodyguard, was unconscionable and fatal for them. It seems unlikely that the Muslims would have dared murder them if Ali had not publicly made them unpersons.
So when Ali showed up in Sweden, the herring and aquavit came back up into my throat like acid. After a wonderful summer at Le Mans, at Wimbledon, fishing for salmon on the Laerdal River in Scotland, I had managed to file Ali in a corner of my mind, especially now that I was on the vacation phase of the trip, concentrating on getting my wife pregnant. And there he was in my hotel lobby. He was on an exhibition tour, which I could ignore, but he was hilariously controversial, which I could not.
It was about white women.
He said he didn't want to sleep with them.
The Swedish press was offended. Their blondes -- "flicka" was the slang word the newspapers used -- had been good enough for every other black athlete who ever showed up, including Floyd Patterson, whose face was all over Stockholm endorsing a candy bar. The Communist media was particularly incensed; it considered Ali a racist.
He tried to explain that it was about his religion, about his mission to show his brothers that black was beautiful, and his attempt to stay out of trouble. (His childhood memory of Emmett Till beaten and killed for allegedly eyeballing a white woman in Mississippi was never far from his consciousness in those days.)
But the Swedes wouldn't have it. I couldn't tell whether they were thick, whether it was part of the anti-Americanism in Europe (which was mostly focused, ironically, on the Vietnam War) or whether the Swedes really were just the biggest depressives. (There was a joke I loved at the time of a Swedish man coming home for dinner and saying, "Asparagus, sweetie? Again?" and blowing his brains out.)
When Ali spotted me in the hotel lobby, he dragged me up to his room. He seemed down. He always had recharged his psyche with the energy of crowds, but the Swedes had left his battery dead.
"Why do I catch all this hell?" he asked me, almost pleading. "I don't smoke or drink or chase bad women. I treat everybody nice."
I had no answers, but I was willing to listen, and somehow over the next couple of hours, he not only reopened the file in the back of my head but reminded me why I had been so delighted he had won the title. Once he got through his complaining and some Muslimizing (the 7-foot black men in space ships waiting to rescue believers on Judgment Day) he lapsed into the old Clay, re-enacting his mad act at the weigh-in for the Liston fight, reciting my favorite poems ("Me! Wheeeee!"), and explaining in detail about how he could play the fool but really be a wise man.
After a while, he lay back on his bed and his eyelids began to flutter, then close. "So tired, have to think of a new angle ... life is a dream, doody-boo-boo ..."
I tiptoed out, smiling. The Greatest was reeling me back in.
MIAMI, 1966: COGITATIN' 'BOUT THEM VIETCONG
We were sitting outside his little rented bungalow, ogling schoolgirls on their way home. On television -- although not on his television -- Senate hearings raged over the war in Vietnam. Sharp political lines were being drawn. A nation was pulling apart while I was writing down Ali's best pickup lines: "Hey, little girl in the high school sweater, you not gonna pass me by today."
I was there to do a feature story on his training for a fight with Ernie Terrell. It was February again, warm there, cold where I lived, and he was big again. In his fight the previous November in Vegas, he had torn the wings off poor Patterson, mocking him for criticizing Islam and for refusing to call him Ali. I was disgusted, but he had gotten me back on the front page.
The phone rang inside the house, and his cook came out. It was a reporter. When Ali came back, he was upset. His draft board in Louisville -- which originally had classified him unfit for service, perhaps as a gift to his white former patrons, the pillars of Louisville -- had just reclassified him 1A, ready for combat. His first response was, "Why me?"
He began to rant. After embarrassing him with a classification that implied he was too dumb or nutty for the Army, how could they suddenly reclassify him without another test? Friends and bodyguards from the Nation of Islam showed up to stoke his mounting fear and fury. He would be called up right away, they said, sent to the front lines, cracker sergeants would drop live grenades down his pants. Ali got wilder. He was heavyweight champ. Why didn't the draft board call up some poor boys? Think of how many guns and bombs his taxes paid for. It was hardly the response of a principled pacifist, I thought, but it was real. How much of the anti-war movement was principle and how much was fear of getting hurt or killed, or even of merely having your life interrupted?
Television news trucks pulled up. Interviewers sensed his anger and provoked him further.
"Do you know where Vietnam is?"
"Sure," he mumbled, but he didn't sound sure.
Ali shrugged. I would have shrugged, too. This went on for hours; it was dusk when a newcomer with a mike asked the same question for the hundredth time: "Well, what do you think about the Vietcong?"
Tired, exasperated, Ali blurted the sound bite that would help define the '60s, a headline sentence that made him simultaneously hated and beloved. He said, "I ain't got nothing against them Vietcong."
Everybody in the world except me led with that as if it were a statement. I heard it as a provoked response, the mindless reaction of an ignorant child who didn't yet have a grasp on his symbolic role. I didn't file a story that day. I still think about that. Was I a wise man or a fool?
CHICAGO, 1967: WYATT EARP REFUSES TO DRAW
"All a man has got to show for his time here on earth is what kind of name he had. Jesus. Columbus. Daniel Boone." He left a space for me to fill in his name.
I didn't laugh, it was good copy after all, but I was also thinking about Ali as a narcissist with the emotional well of a 12-year-old, plus a touch of megalomania.
Then again, he was scheduled to be drafted in two days. It was clear that he would refuse and that he was ready to go to jail.
Meanwhile, the mood of the country over the Vietnam War was shifting. More people realized we were stuck in a terrible mistake. Also, more people were coming to believe that Ali was sincere, that he was standing up for principles.
Could you be a wise man and fool at the same time? As we sat in a coffee shop watching Lake Michigan roil beneath an April storm, he said, "Now take Wyatt Earp." It took me a moment to dial into the legendary Western lawman who had cleaned up Wichita and Tombstone a century earlier. He'd recently been reborn in a TV series. "Who would have told him when he was fighting crooks and standing up for principles that there'd be a television show about him? That kids on the street would say, 'I'm Wyatt Earp. Reach!'"
SAN FRANCISCO, 1968: ANOTHER CONTACT HIGH
I'd been up all night with a stomachache after interviewing Bozo Miller, the world's champion speed eater, and now I was foraging on Van Ness Street for toast and tea. I heard a car screech to the curb behind me, and someone shouted, "Get him. Don't let him get away."
I turned in time to see two big men jump out of a blue Oldsmobile. I started to run, but all those club sandwiches weighed me down. The car lurched forward and a third man, bigger than the others, leaped out and grabbed me.
"You fast and you pretty," Ali said, "but if you thought you could get away from me, you would apologize."
He tucked me into the back of the car, and it took off. I was writing the Sports of the Times column three times a week by then, and I had assigned myself to lend punditry to the fight between Jimmy Ellis, Ali's old sparring partner, and Jerry Quarry, with whom he would have a date with destiny in two years. It was all part of the desperate scramble to breathe life back into boxing, post-Ali.
Ali was in the Bay Area to drum up business for local mosques. He was on his way to speak at an anti-war rally at Civic Center Plaza.
With him were two unusually jolly Muslim officials and a Chicago booking agent who seemed morose over a free appearance before a crowd of more than 12,000. At the Plaza, we sat in the car for a long time, sniffing the marijuana smoke drifting in. Ali pretended to get high. The booking agent said, "I'll get you on right away, so you don't have to wait."
"No," Ali said, "I'll wait for my time."
One of the Muslims laughed harshly. "Muhammad Ali, you'll wait for your time? The Man is going to see you get time, time in jail."
Ali shrugged and watched several white balloons float up into a heartbreakingly blue sky. "You think they stay up there forever, just hanging up there in the sky till a plane hits them, or you think they got to come down again?"
"What do you mean?" I said, fishing for that profound metaphor from the holy child, pen poised like a fishing rod.
"Air pressure," one of the Muslims said. "Gets thinner on the outside, the balloon pops out."
"Oh, yeah," said Ali, satisfied. So much for metaphor. By the time Ali mounted the stage, the thousands sprawled on the warm concrete below had heard from draft-card burners, radical divas and a rock band, and cheered for a few naked strollers. They were in too good a mood to let Ali's 25-minute lecture bring them down. They just smiled at the sun in that sweetly dopey '60s way as he read from his giant index cards, mostly parables from the Koran as interpreted by the Honorable Elijah. When he told the crowd that if black is to be truly beautiful, it can't be diluted by white blood, several interracial couples stood up, booed and walked away. It had been only a year since Ali refused to be drafted, and he was still feeling his way on the speaking circuit. Later on, he would entertainingly integrate boxing tales, Muslim dogma and racial rhetoric, but now he was simply boring. It was amazing how he improved during the three years of his exile from the ring. He lost millions of dollars in purses and millions more in endorsements, but he never lost his enthusiasm for whatever he was doing at the moment.
Back in the car, Ali played back his speech on a tape recorder, pausing it to make changes on the index cards. He was bringing the same methodical discipline and craft to speechmaking that he had to boxing.
"You have to modify the speech for a radical audience," the booking agent said.
"I was too strong for them," Ali said. "They couldn't take it."
Later, back at his hotel, I had what was my first and last real conversation with him. Almost all of our 40-odd years of interaction have consisted of Q-and-A or monologues (his) or permitted eavesdropping (mine). But these were just two guys whose wives were in the eighth month of pregnancy with their first child. We talked about living with swollen, expectant women, with wondering about what the kid would be like, with the wonder of it all.
Ali had a complaint. "Takes so long," he said.
DAYTONA, 1975: KING OF ALL KINGS
My road trip began in Miami Beach, where a federal officer marched into the Fifth Street Gym while Ali was getting a rubdown and handed him a subpoena in a libel suit he eventually won. Without looking at the subpoena, Ali handed it to me and said, "See how I take care of you, Bob? When you're with me, you always got something to write about."
The road trip ended a week later on a high school football field near Daytona Beach. He had just finished a joke-a-poke exhibition match for charity and now he was back in the motor home he used as a dressing room, changing clothes while his bodyguard shooed everybody out, Jake LaMotta, Angelo Dundee, me, everybody except three foxes he had picked out of the crowd. Then two of the foxes left, and Ali grinned at us as he closed the door behind them.
I watched for a while, until the motor home began to jiggle on its springs. The champ was floating and stinging. "Don't write about this," said Angelo, and one of the press agents added, "Not if you ever want to interview him again."
At that moment, I didn't much care. Soon after Joe Frazier defeated Ali in The Fight in 1971, I quit the Sports of the Times column to write novels and movies. While I missed out on going to The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila, there wasn't much else I missed about the grind of daily journalism. I could keep up with Ali with occasional freelance pieces, like this one for the Times Sunday Magazine. During the week, there had been a number of mysterious women in hotel rooms and foxes pulled out of crowds that I was supposed to forget about. If I had been a boxing beat writer for a paper or magazine that really cared, I probably would have forgotten about them. But it's easier to remember when you don't have to go back every day, and when losing access just meant you'd have to find something else.
So I could stand there, thinking freely about how I would write it. I thought about the scene in "Madame Bovary" when Emma and Leon did it in a carriage that jiggled on its springs. Could I steal from Flaubert? Ultimately, I didn't, but I wrote enough so I would never be able to interview him again. Too bad. Whenever I was with him, I had something to write about, usually in a warm city.
The Times titled the piece, "King of All Kings."
MIAMI, 1976: HANNIBAL THE HETEROSEXUAL
The first thing Ali said when he saw me again was, "King of all Kings, right!" Then he invited me to come listen some more.
"Nat Turner and Wyatt Earp," he said dreamily, "they was dead a hundred years before their pictures was made. And, of course, they didn't get to play themselves."
He was lounging on a couch in the stern of another motor home, dressed for a morning run in black sweat suit and black Army boots. But he was also wearing makeup for his title role in his auto-flick, "The Greatest." I was writing about this for the Times' Arts & Leisure section.
"After this picture, I'm going to play Hannibal, hundreds of elephants," he said. "I got to have roles equivalent to my life. This face" -- he sat up and touched it reverentially -- "is worth billions. My roles have always got to be No. 1. I can't be the boy in the kitchen. Some big football star plays the waiter in the movie, while some homosexual gets the lead role."
I probably should have known better, but it was such a great line and so often true. Ali always made homosexual jokes ... wasn't this a way of portraying his character? And I really didn't care about protecting him. Now I was really tired of Ali, his easy quotes, his instant mythologies, his on-again, off-again religiosity. This quasi-accurate movie was based on his quasi-accurate autobiography. The Oscar-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. told me, "What made the script difficult to write was the facts. We decided not to be inhibited by the facts, to change them if necessary, to adhere to the truth."
Spare me, o revered blacklisted truth-teller. I wanted to tell him how the Commies couldn't get over Ali's not chasing blonde Swedish tail, but I was in this warm city while it was cold where I lived to make some money and get my name back in the public prints, not to lecture guys who had sacrificed for their principles and were now able to make a bundle on other guys who had sacrificed for their principles. Later, alone in my hotel room, I decided that I was a fool, envious and petty, not a wise man.
If I really were such a hotshot, I would have found a way to write Lardner's explanation of Ali's prodigious sexual appetites. He said that Ali had told him he refrained from climaxing so he wouldn't disappoint all those who showed up for an audience. I decided that since Ali never boasted about his women, and seemed not to discriminate in favor of youth or beauty, he wasn't scoring so much as he was being generous. Think of it as very special autograph sessions. So, maybe I am a wise man, too. Or just a wise guy?
What I did get into the paper got me into hot water, that quote about homosexuals in leading roles. Not only did the National Gay Task Force write to the Times and demand an apology, which it got, but it removed my name from its list of nominees for its board. Because of my liberal politics and my help in the past, I was to be the token straight board member. The official explanation of my removal was that the group had decided it should be all gay.
You sacrifice when you stand up for your principles.
ATLANTA, 1986: KING'S DREAM
"Hello, stranger," Ali murmured. He was sitting on a couch in the original Marriott, headquarters of King's Dream, a heavyweight fight between Tony "TNT" Tubbs and "Terrible" Tim Witherspoon for which the new King, Don, had paid the old King of All Kings walking-around money to drum up some press.
But Ali was not walking around. His bare feet were in a plastic pan of water that also contained electric massagers. He was trying to jolt his numbed feet back to life. It might have been a symptom of Parkinson's disease. In those days, they were calling it Parkinson's syndrome because no one wanted to deal with the possibility that he could be really ill or even mildly punch-drunk. He slurred words when he was tired.
I was feeling sad and nostalgic. I hadn't seen much of him since the late '70s, and while friends had commented on his physical deterioration, it was new to me. I was in another world -- television. I was a correspondent for CBS' "Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt." I had come to this warm city while my own was cold for a proposed 12-minute segment on Ali. With me was a talented young producer, Brett Alexander, a 6-foot-4 African-American I often worked with.
After the usual chitchat to cover the interminable setting of lights and camera angles, I conducted what turned out to be the shortest and worst interview Ali and I have ever had. I started it by referring back 10 years to when Ali was talking about being on a divine mission and ...
"I have nothing to say," said the man who never had nothing to say. His words were slurred. "Not talking about that."
"What are you talking about?"
It went on like that for a few minutes. I was hurt and embarrassed. I was supposed to be the Ali-ologist, and it's expensive to send bodies and equipment out of town for a TV story. So I pressed on.
"You are a tricky man, a wise man," he ranted, "and you been sent by the power structure to make me look bad. And they sent along the biggest, darkest nigger they could find."
Now I was angry. We shouted at each other for a few minutes, but it was not even good television, at least not for an artistic, mild-mannered program. After a while, Alexander signaled the crew to pack it in and we left. I was fuming, but they were nonchalant, concerned about where we would go for lunch. Brett was sympathetic; he figured the poor guy was down on his luck, hurting and probably a little paranoid. I asked about being called "nigger," and he shrugged: Black men are allowed.
But I decided to give it one more try. The hell with the "I don't have to be what you want me to be" stuff. One thing he had to be was a decent interview for me. It had been part of our social contract for 22 years.
I was fuming. If he didn't come through, I was going to write about this, really make him look bad, rip him up and down, expose him for what he was, a version of the mindless gardener in the novel and movie, "Being There," available to be interpreted into a symbol of anything you needed, a blank slate on which to write in your own dogmas and dreams. Ultimately, Ali signified nothing.
Hell has no fury like a cool scribe scorned.
I stormed back into the hotel room. Two young women were giggling as Ali pulled them into the curtained-off area that was his bedroom. Just before he pulled the curtain, he grinned at me and said, "Just like old times, huh, Bob?"
NEW YORK, 1991: THE ELEPHANT BABY AND THE BLEEDER
Ali and I were in the backyard of Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official digs. It was the year my generation of copyboys solidified their takeover of the Times, and I was suddenly a sports columnist again, tracking my Big Story. The debacle in Atlanta seemed never to have happened, but I was ready for another unpleasant incident. Ali was on a book tour, and an 11-week-old boy named Assad was traveling with Ali and his wife, Lonnie. The Official Friend and Photographer, Howard Bingham, specifically had ordained the baby "off the record." I didn't accept that, especially since little Off the Record was being toted all over the city to public appearances that included TV shows in which Ali afterward bemoaned how bad he looked and sounded, which was true. What would finally be diagnosed as Parkinson's disease had begun to turn his step into a lurch, his face into a stiffening mask. His words were not always intelligible. It was heartbreaking, yet also part of a Faustian bargain. Who else had ever been as lithe, beautiful, verbal?
But still, the baby was becoming the elephant in the room for me, as big as the fox in the motor home. Forget about wise man, wise guy, cool scribe -- this was about professional pride. Were we run by our sources?
I was wondering what I would do when Chuck Wepner slipped into the proceedings. He looked uncertain. The Bayonne Bleeder had reasons; he had a tendency to mess up. He was the acknowledged inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" movies, but he never got paid. He was a successful liquor salesman who had recently spent two years in prison for cocaine trafficking. His greatest feat in the ring was stepping on Ali's foot to knock him down. He still lost the fight.
Wepner lurked at the fringes of the party. He seemed worried that Ali would snub him because of his conviction or because he had stepped on his foot or, worst of all, simply would not recognize him. Wepner was having an attack of low self-esteem, and I wasn't much help. I told him he didn't need to lurk, that he should just walk right over and say, "Hello, Champ." But Wepner decided to leave and began walking away. Ali seemed to purposely look elsewhere as Chuck crossed his line of vision.
Wepner was almost out of the backyard when Ali, laughing madly, jumped up, ran across the lawn and mimed stamping on Chuck's foot. Everybody was very happy, especially me. It would be the perfect feel-good finish for my-week-with-Ali story, taking the edge off my mentioning the presence of the mysterious little Assad.
LOUISVILLE, 1999: MY DINNER WITH ALI
At dinner in our hotel's dining room, Ali feigned boredom with me. Or maybe it was real. He slipped off his shoes under the table and said, "If I had a lower IQ, I might enjoy your interview.'' It was a line from the old days. Then he pretended to take a nap. Or maybe he really was sleeping. I felt good. It was warm here; I had something to write about.
Every so often, he woke up happy to greet the reverent visitors who apologized for disturbing his meal but just had to tell him how much he had meant in their lives. He had had great effect, especially on those who questioned their own principles, fears and patriotism during the Vietnam War. How much better they had to feel about their decisions not to serve when the heavyweight champion of the world -- back when that was perceived as a true emblem of manhood, not a Don King/HBO/Showtime/Vegas reality program -- said he refused to "let the white man send a black man to kill a brown man."
By then, I had come to believe that Ali was best appreciated at face value. As a racial, religious, sexual or political model, he could be confusing, if not hypocritical. The word "flawed" was often used, but that connoted someone otherwise perfect. That he "betrayed expectations" was another concept that made no sense; examine your expectations, not his betrayals, I thought. Obviously, I was speaking for myself.
But I thought it was worth considering that once we were past the '60s and early '70s, when the Establishment still considered Ali a threatening force, he tended to get a bye on anything he said or did. He was associated with dozens of shady schemes, some for which people went to jail, while he was sentenced only to the label "too trusting" or "naive." He had been absolved of responsibility, a holy child. He joyfully accepted madcap diplomatic missions to free hostages or persuade African countries to shape up, but he never accomplished anything. After he became a shambling secular saint, the trembling fire-starter at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he was excused for refusing to get tough on al-Qaida. After all, he explained, he had business interests to protect.
But it was several years before 9/11 that I went to his hometown to watch him raise money for the Muhammad Ali Center, dedicated to respect, hope and understanding. It actually opened in 2005, although six years earlier that seemed impossible, especially when he would snap awake at a fundraising meeting, as he did throughout our hotel dinner, to ask: ''What did Abraham Lincoln say when he woke up from a two-day drunk?'' While his audience blinked and his wife winced, he would answer, ''I freed who?'' and reward himself with laughter.
MIAMI BEACH, 2003: BACK IN THE WARM
The last time I saw Ali, I was sitting next to him at ringside in the Miami Beach Convention Center, maybe in the same seat I was in 40 years earlier for the first Clay-Liston fight. Next to Ali was Will Smith, who had played Ali in a movie I hated because the character called Lipsyte was, although much better looking than the original, even dumber than same. The movie Ali was less fun than the original and more principled earlier.
A re-examination of Ali had begun by that time, led by Mark Kram, who, before he died, attacked viciously but not always without justification, and Tom Hauser, his thoughtful biographer who had been squeezed out of the inner circle when he began to question the soft-pedaling of Ali's early religious and social stands as well as the commercialization of his name.
Ali finally was cashing in. The Miami Beach Convention Center party was for a book called "G.O.A.T." (Greatest of All Time, his corporate name), a gorgeous gallery of photos that weighed 75 pounds and sold for $3,000 (the "champ" edition, with a Jeff Koons plastic sculpture attached, was $10,000). I had contributed an essay and was thus a guest of the publisher, Taschen, which had decided to launch the book during Art Basel, an international show of the hot, the hip, the hustling, about which I was clueless.
Ali was new again and so was I, thinking on that warm December night: It's cold where I came from and the popcorn man is making money and I have something to write about but don't have to file tonight. Can it get any better than this?