Ali still resonates

George Chuvalo, seen here with Muhammad Ali at a 1994 dinner in Chuvalo's honour, said Ali, who...

George Chuvalo, seen here with Muhammad Ali at a 1994 dinner in Chuvalo's honour, said Ali, who celebrates his 70th birthday Tuesday, is a man "with a very big heart.” (QMI Agency file photo)

MURRAY GREIG, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:00 PM ET

EDMONTON - The first time I spoke with Muhammad Ali was on Sept. 13, 1978.

It was at the New Orleans Hilton, two days before he defeated Leon Spinks to win the world heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time.

Ali was his usual effervescent self during most of the pre-fight media circus, but in a reflective mood shared with a handful of reporters after the final press conference, he outlined an ominous vision of his future.

“Because people know athletes are superior physically, when they see us go downhill they see themselves,” he said.

“But everything gets old. The pyramids in Egypt are crumbling. Buildings crumble, monuments turn to dust. When we look at our bodies, we see how they’re changing. We look at our children and we see ourselves in them. It don’t take the fall of an athlete to show people they will fall one day, too.”

UPBEAT

Attempting to steer the conversation in a more upbeat direction, I asked Ali about knocking out Superman in what earlier that year had become the most talked about showdown in the history of comic books. Indeed, the oversized 72-page special from DC Comics was an instant classic, with a stunning cover portraying dozens of ’70s celebrities at ringside.

The champ didn’t skip a beat.

“Who else they gonna pick to save the Earth?” he boomed. “Who else got kryptonite fists? Not George Foreman! Not Joe Frazier! No, man; to save the Earth, they picked … The Greatest!”

Then he told us a joke — the kind that would never pass muster in today’s suffocating atmosphere of political correctness: “What did Lincoln say after a three day drunk?” He paused, then gleefully delivered the punch line: “I freed whooooo?”

The session wrapped up on a philosophical note when somebody asked Ali if he would continue fighting if he managed to beat Spinks.

“Haven’t decided,” he answered. “My life has been a lot of fun. A lot of suffering and a lot of pain, too. Boxing’s just the first half.

“My life has made me different … controversial. I been tested, but being world champion is only a small test. The real test will come in tryin’ to make the world a better place after I quit.”

He’s done that, of course. And today, as the world celebrates his 70th birthday, I’m sure Ali would be the first to say, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I charted my own course and I accept the consequences.”

Despite Parkinson’s disease that has severely limited his speech and motor skills, there remains a palpable child-like joy that bubbles out of Ali, almost like he’s playing a trick on the rest of us. The man who strode like a Pied Piper across the world stage all those years ago is still giving.

George Chuvalo, the only opponent to go the distance with Ali before and after his forced exile from boxing for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War, sees it first hand.

CURSORY

“I fought 93 guys, but most of them are just a fleeting memory, nothing more than a cursory glance or a handshake before or after the fight,” says Chuvalo, a boxing icon in his own right.

“It wasn’t that way with Muhammad, though. Every time our paths have crossed over the years, it’s been special.

“People love him because he’s genuine. He’s a man with a very big heart.”

While Ali’s accomplishments in the ring long ago entrenched his standing as the king of heavyweight champions (Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano and Mike Tyson combined didn’t beat three fighters as good as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman), his legacy as a historical figure has little to do with his mercurial ability in the ring.

Ali defied the most powerful government on the planet — and won. Singlehandedly, he changed the way an entire society looked at itself.

Above all, he proved — is still proving — that pride, courage and integrity will always be the stuff of champions.

He was, as he told us all along, The Greatest.

Even Superman would have to agree.

Top five greatest performances by The Greatest

5 – TKO3 Jerry Quarry, Oct. 26, 1970 in Atlanta

In his first fight after a 38-month banishment from the ring for refusing to go to war in Vietnam, Ali took on dangerous Jerry Quarry, who was rated No. 4 in the world. The long layoff robbed Ali of speed, but he put on a virtuoso exhibition in slicing Quarry to ribbons.

4 – L15 Joe Frazier, March 8, 1971 in New York

In dropping a unanimous decision in boxing’s first meeting of undefeated heavyweight champions, Ali showed something we’d never seen before: an almost inhuman ability to absorb punishment. Frazier hit him with everything in his arsenal, finally flooring him with a monstrous left hook in the 15th and final round.

3 – RTD6 Sonny Liston, Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami

A 7-1 underdog, Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) jabbed and hooked his way to one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, finally forcing Liston to quit after Round 6. At the time of the stoppage, the fight was officially a draw: one judge had it even, one had Liston ahead by two points and the third had Ali ahead by two.

2 – TKO14 Joe Frazier, Oct. 1, 1975 in Manila, Philippines

The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ was, quite simply, the most brutal slugfest in heavyweight championship history. Ali, who later called it the closest thing to dying he ever experienced, somehow found the energy to mount a late rally that forced Frazier’s corner to throw in the towel.

1 – KO8 George Foreman, Oct. 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire

The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was Ali’s masterpiece — and gave birth to the expression ‘rope-a-dope.’ We’ll never see the likes of it again.


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