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Champ forever



By BRET HART -- For SLAM! Wrestling

  You know, I have my dad's big, meaty hands -- but just look at those sledgehammers on Muhammad Ali.

When I was a kid, I had numerous sports heroes who I admired and emulated every chance I could. Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to meet some of them -- Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Joe DiMaggio, Mario Andretti, George Chuvalo.

But none of my boyhood heroes had a bigger impact on me than Ali.

I can remember being riveted to the TV when Ali smooth-talked sportscaster Howard Cosell. It was as fascinating for me as when Sweet Daddy Siki chatted up with Ed Whalen.

Not many people realize when Ali was growing up, he was a big pro wrestling fan who later patterned most of his fancy, fast-talking ring persona after none other than Gorgeous George.

When I was 13, Ali stopped in Calgary on a sparring tour and that's when he met my dad. They knew and respected each other through such mutual friends as Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.

Stu even had Jersey Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano come up to referee some big matches in Calgary, with great success.

These two bulls soon took to jostling for a photo op and, to this day, it's one of my dad's fondest memories.

So, back in December, I attended a special invitational dinner honouring the Miami Hurricanes football team and you can only imagine my delight upon seeing Ali walk in.

Suddenly, I felt like every little kid who's come up to me and asked if I'd pose for a picture with them.

I was amused at myself when I wasn't sure how to even approach Ali ... even though he took time with anybody and everybody, smiling and shaking hands as he made his way through the restaurant. I could tell this was a man who loved people. Loved his fans. And loved being a hero.

As he drew closer, my heart beat a little faster and then it happened.

Suddenly, when he was about 10 ft. away from me, Ali stopped and stared at me.

His rock-hard gaze penetrated right through me.

I took a deep breath as he slowly and purposefully raised his right arm and pointed directly at me without so much as blinking.

People at my table gasped, going: "He's calling you out!"

Next thing you know, Ali is shaking his dumbbell-sized fists at me.

If I hadn't had a stroke, I would have thumped him right then and there (yeah, right). If I didn't know Ali for being such a prankster, his more-than-serious face would have made me more than a little apprehensive.

I stood up and slowly made my way towards him and I could see that light in his eyes.

These days, I sometimes limp and this caused Ali's challenging stare to wash away, replaced by a confused, maybe even concerned look.

When we stood together, the whole place broke into cheers. I leaned into him and explained I suffered a stroke back in June.

Being a victim of Parkinson's disease, Ali doesn't chat much but he firmly squeezed my hand and smiled as he looked deep into my eyes with the unique understanding of a fellow fighter battling a challenger greater than any he ever faced in the ring.

I was once again inspired by my childhood hero.

He endures without complaint, still carrying himself with pride and dignity and kept his sense of humour in spite of it all.

I hope I can be as great a champion as he.

I will carry the lesson of his exemplary demeanour in my heart forever.

I've found it unfortunate with some of the stars I've met, the closer you get to them, the more their glow fades.

With Ali, it was just the opposite. The light in his eyes still burns -- triumphant, strong and true.

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