Even at 70, The Greatest is still fighting the good fight
Every one of the 350 people who gathered at the Muhammad Ali Center for the great man’s 70th birthday dinner party had a personal story to tell.
We exchanged recollections as we wished him well. He nodded as he rummaged through his memories, the mind apparently as bright as ever even though that lyrical Louisville Lip has been silenced by Parkinson’s.
The Greatest has done with talking. We all do it for him.
The Greatest: Muhammad Ali welcomes guests to his 70th birthday party
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His legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, now 90, bustled up in his wheel-chair, recollected how the last time they spoke Ali had said how much he missed the gym, the training, the fighting.
Dundee told him: ‘If you’re thinking of a come-back I’ll have to ask them to put in elevators at ringside so I can get up to your corner.’
They produced a limited edition t-shirt on Saturday night which proclaims: 1942 – The Greatest Year Of All Time.
No argument from the rest of us who, like Ali, were born that year.
None of us are getting any younger but we are linked in time and coincidence.
Can it really be 39 years ago this week that I first got to know him quite well
He spent the evening before his 33rd birthday at the Royal Albert Hall, having flown to London to watch the British champion he was to fight a month later in Las Vegas.
Joe Bugner duly warmed up by beating one Rudi Lubbers and as Ali hurried out I chased after him to seek his opinion of the performance.
‘I’m in a hurry,’ he said. ‘But jump in my limousine and I’ll tell you how Mr Bugner will be defeated by The Greatest.’
That he did, as we drove to his hotel. Ever hungry for an audience, he invited me up to his suite where he held court for hours, only pausing in his brilliant monologue as we toasted his birthday at midnight.
Masterclass: Ali, as promised, comfortably beat Joe Bugner in Las Vegas
Then he said: ‘Stick with me and you too can be The Greatest.’
He had a habit of foretelling the round in which his challengers would fall – our ‘Enery Cooper included – so he is entitled to get the odd prediction wrong.
There is only one Greatest. But what Ali has done, in all his overwhelming self-belief, is convince all who cross his path to endeavour to be the best we can.
That January night in 1973 we looked we looked out from a penthouse in the London Hilton across Hyde Park.
Dream team: Ali at his 70th birthday party with his trainer Angelo Dundee
Last Saturday here in Louisville the view from atop his Center was of a freezing Ohio River.
The supreme athlete, the ultimate world heavyweight champion, is a somewhat frail figure now but he remains a magnetic presence. Still the Pied Piper as thousands flock to his public appearances and cheer him from the streets where he grew up.
There can be no denying that he Is in the final stages of his disease. But he is still fighting the good fight.
Praise me: Ali was never afraid to proclaim his greatness to the world
There is no telling how long he has left. What I do know is that these last 39 years have been enlivened beyond measure by encounters with Muhammad Ali.
Simply, they have flown by. As fast as the quickest hands in heavyweight history.