The sadness of seeing Ali like this

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- I went to see Muhammad Ali on Thursday night, and hours later I'm still struggling with the profound sadness of the evening. I'm not sure if other people felt it as strongly as I did, but I walked out of the 5th Street Gym in a daze.

Arriving at the party, I wasn't sure what I'd find. I'd heard he has good days and bad days. I know he loves children and still likes to laugh. Maybe he'd be feeling warm and nostalgic.

The occasion was a joyous one. Ali's old trainer, Angelo Dundee, was reopening his famous gym and Ali agreed to attend the celebration. I wanted to see him for lots of reasons. Part of it was a "bucket list" sort of deal. But I also wanted a glimpse of the old Ali. Does that person still exist? If you're in the room with him, can you still feel the spark?

Hundreds of people packed into the gym. We were all pouring sweat. Entire shirts, drenched. There was no air conditioning. Every so often, folks stepped out into the muggy Miami night to cool off. While they waited, people talked among themselves about wanting to see Ali. They talked about him like he was the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon. He's an attraction. Something to see, not to be moved by the experience, but to check it off. I saw my own motives reflected in the people around me, and it made me feel guilty.

A few old friends and lots of boxing people came, but much of the crowd was there to worship in the church of celebrity. The altar was set: velvet rope outside with a guest list and VIP badges, a deejay inside, party girls in tight dresses and trendy shoes. A man dressed as a gaucho served meat. The bartenders looked dressed for the midnight shift at the Tropicana. The only thing missing was bottle service. The whole event felt like a South Beach club opening.

I slid out the door to get a break. On the street, I saw Bert Sugar, the famous old boxing writer. He wore a seersucker jacket and smoked a thick cigar. He looked at the new gym, and at the Wachovia bank next door, where the original stood until they knocked it down.

I asked Sugar if it made him sad to see Ali.

"No," he says.

He said seeing Ali makes him think about him how fast the world moves. Everyone from that time is old or gone. Nothing reminds him more of his vanished youth than seeing Ali struggle. When they were kings, indeed.

"We were young with Ali," he says.

Once, Ali could knock out George Foreman. Now? Every morning, Dundee's right-hand man Mark Grismer told me, he has to make a decision. His Parkinson's medicine controls the shakes and allows him to be in public, but he can't talk when he takes it. So he has to choose: shake or talk?

A few years ago, Sugar tells me, he asked Ali if he regretted boxing. Ali told him that if he didn't box, he'd have been a sign painter in Louisville. The pleasure was worth the pain.

"To become the most famous man in the world?" Sugar says, trailing off.

Back inside the party, it was really, really hot. Every man in the place had a wringing wet shirt. The crowd grew restless, aggressive. They wanted their dose of celebrity and they wanted it 10 minutes ago.

"Put your cameras away," one organizer yelled. "This is no joke!"

"If you have a phone or a camera," another yelled, "it's gone."

Some movement in the corner got the crowd's attention, and everyone rushed to the back. Another velvet rope cordoned off a wide, round table. Partygoers pressed against the rope, bunched up close.

"Let me see Ali so I can leave," a man said.

"I'm about ready to throw in the towel," another said. "I've seen him before."

An organizer screamed at the crowd.

"Ali is not coming unless everybody takes two steps back," he yelled.

"Is he actually here?" a guy asked.

The event folks were red-faced.

"He's not coming if you don't back up!"

"We're about to lose our guest of the evening. We're not gonna have our guest. I'm serious!"

It became apparent that Ali was in the building, and he wasn't coming out until there was more room. This went on and on, with organizers standing on chairs, screaming into the crowd. People stared at the back door, as if to will him to walk through it. No one moved. A woman got on the microphone.

"I know it's hot. I know everybody's a little bit cranky. Mr. Ali doesn't want to feel claustrophobic."

"You knock over the ropes," an organizer yelled, "he's not gonna come out."

Then, after a half-hour of bouncers pushing back the crowd, Ali arrived. He shuffled to his seat. His sister-in-law, Marilyn, and his manager, Bernie, helped. He sat down and drank a glass of water while Marilyn held a napkin under his mouth. It felt like a zoo. This wasn't a cocktail party for Ali. It was a public viewing.

"I saw the top of his head!" a woman gushed.

The crowd chanted: "Ali! Ali! Ali!"

A woman aimed a camera and Marilyn and Bernie pointed frantically. A guy took a picture and a bouncer snatched his phone and then physically pushed him toward the door.

"You gotta go," he said.

The event folks wanted to make sure everyone else got the message.

"There's the first example," they crowed.

Ali sat at the table. Marilyn slipped a pair of sunglasses on his face. Someone put a photo book about him on the table and Ali opened it up. It was a circus around him, and, in the middle of the madness, he gently lifted each page and turned, his long fingers delicate on the glossy paper. Soon, after 20 minutes, he'd be whisked into a waiting SUV, where Marilyn would strap him into the front seat.

But in the moment, people crowded around him for official photos, dozens of people, moving in and out, grinning, putting their arms around him like he was a mascot. He didn't acknowledge them, or look at the camera. They smiled and posed. He looked down at the book. I wondered what he was thinking, if he felt like a freak show at the carnival. I wondered if he remembered the old building next door, remembered the Beatles coming to visit him there, remembered the promise of those days. He looked sick, and I thought about how much he must love Angelo to fly down here for this.

His lips were pursed. He looked absent and lost, like a wax statue, and I found myself 15 feet away from the most famous man in the world, overcome with sadness. I hoped this was just a bad day, hoped tomorrow would be different. The groups of people came and went for their picture, one woman giving a fist pump and hollering "Yeah!" after the shutter clicked.

Ali just sat there, sunglasses hiding his famous eyes. He flipped the pages, slowly looking at photographs of the man he used to be.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.