• U.S.

The Greatest Is Gone

20 minute read

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of kings:

How some have been deposed, some slain in war.

Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos ‘d…

—Shakespeare, King Richard II

“We have a split decision,” Ring Announcer Chuck ‘Hull proclaimed, and absolute silence fell over the plush Las Vegas boxing emporium where Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks had struggled through 15 lashing rounds to claim sport’s most special crown. “Judge Art Lurie: 143-142, Ali. Judge Lou Tabat: 145-140, Spinks. Judge Harold Buck: 144-141.” A pause, a breath in that utter stillness and then: “The new Heavyweight Champion of the World, Leon Spinks!”

All but the first two words were lost in the roar of the crowd, that unmistakable, primordial voice of a fight crowd hailing a new king of the most basic sport. But the silence before the verdict had spoken too, for it anticipated the passing of a giant, a unique athlete whose skills and life had resonances far beyond the ring. As Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Cassius X, or Muhammad Ali, he had talked from center stage, mirror and lightning rod for a tumultuous era. Olympic gold medalist, Louisville Lip, upstart champion, Black Muslim convert, draft resister, abomination, martyr, restored champion, road show.

Through everything, Ali was a fighter. In his youth, when he psyched himself into manic pretensions and took the title from Sonny Listen, he was a dazzling, dancing fighter. In midcareer, when he willed his body through three epic bouts with Joe Frazier, he was a courageous fighter. Toward the end, when he paced his guttering resources to turn away muscular challengers like Ken Norton, he was a thinking fighter. Last week he was an old fighter. He had to match the craft of his past against an opponent who seemed to have little more than youth, stamina—and courage—on his side.

Leon Spinks, just 24, had fought only seven times as a professional after a busy amateur career that culminated, as had Cassius Clay’s, with the winning of the Olympic light heavyweight gold medal. Spinks had never fought more than ten rounds. The demanding logic of a title bout requires 15 rounds: it is the final five that probe the heart and take the true measure of a fighter’s will. Ali was perhaps the greatest war horse in heavyweight history, a man who had the guts and gifts to win the excruciating final rounds. The odds against Spinks were so prohibitive that only one Las Vegas betting shop would cover wagers—a general cowardice that shook the city’s bookmaking creed.

As he fought Spinks, Muhammad Ali’s career, in all of its various styles, was suddenly telescoped. He talked and taunted in the early rounds, danced and threw flurries of punches just as he had years ago—though he paused on the ropes and covered up to rest. He was casually giving rounds away to Spinks, confident the pace would wear him down.

Then, just as he had so many times before, Ali tried to take command in the middle rounds, and for a time the old magic blinked on. In the champion’s corner, Trainer Angelo Dundee had noticed that Spinks’ early bobbing and weaving had degenerated into an amateur’s dangerously upright stance as the young challenger appeared to tire. “This is it,” Dundee told Ali before the 10th round. “He’s ready to fall. This round, champ, this round. Go get him! Hit him! Take him out now!”

Ali tried. He flicked the famous snakelike jab, laced together combinations and shot rights to Spinks’ head. It was exquisitely conceived boxing from Ali, the aesthetician of ring art. But what the canny mind desired, the 36-year-old body—measuring itself now in the milliseconds between impulse and action—could not deliver. Age had slowed the timing: too many punches landed without sting, grazed past Spinks’ youth-quick dodges or missed altogether.

Spinks got through the 10th round and four more, giving as good as he got, enough to maintain the early points he had built up against Ali. Then came the 15th. Ali bravely swung for the knockout that alone could have saved his championship. His rallies were reminiscent of the magnificent final rounds he had fought in the past—against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton—but there was no power in his punches. He slowed, seemed to move as if underwater, locked in leaden embrace with an equally exhausted Spinks. Finally, unable to fight any longer, Muhammad Ali absorbed two last-second uppercuts, and accepted the final bell, beaten, but on his feet.

In victory Ali had sought the microphones to shout that he was the prettiest, the greatest. In defeat, battered and swollen, blood splattered on his trunks from a 5th-round cut in his mouth, he did not shy from the questions: “I lost fair and square to Spinks. I did everything right, and I lost. I lost simply because Spinks was better, that’s all. It’s just another experience in my life, nothing to cry about.”

Ali departed the next day on one of those journeys to a global constituency unique to his championship reign. This time the destination was Bangladesh, where he was to dedicate a sports stadium named in his honor. He left behind a new boxing king and a glorious—and sometimes infuriating—past.

To peer into the kaleidoscope of memories of Ali, studying the changing shapes and shifting images, is to glimpse reflections not just of a man, but of an American time. Demanding that the nation know his every thought, insisting that the public mark each of his deeds, he was bound to the events—and thus the lives—of his era.

John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency when Cassius Clay Jr. returned triumphant from the Olympic Games in Rome. The blithe boy-child stepped off the plane spouting poetry and singing of his possibilities. He was bold—some said brash—with hopes and dreams, but much seemed within the reach of American aspirations in those freshening days. Cassius signed with a syndicate of wealthy Louisville businessmen, who underwrote his early training as a professional fighter against a 50% belief in purses to come. He had been boxing since the age of twelve with the heavyweight title as his unwavering goal, and he was willing to pay any price, bear any burden to fulfill his vision.

With the aid of his backers, Ali apprenticed under Trainer Angelo Dundee, a skilled groomer of fighters. Dundee recalls: “The Louisville group wanted me to train him. I told them to send him down to Miami after Christmas. Twenty minutes later, I get a call telling me Ali wasn’t waiting till after Christmas, he was coming right away. They told me he said, ‘I don’t want to wait for Christmas. I want to fight.’ That’s how it all started in October 1960.”

Dundee soon discovered just how good his young charge was. The strident gym voice softens, as if remembering something rare and lovely: “Oh, yes, I knew I had a winner. Of all the fighters I’ve ever known, only he could make the heavy bag sing when he hit it. I used to hear him make it snap like a snare drum every time I came up the stairs to the gym.

“He ran seven miles to the gym from the hotel and back every day along the causeway. He was always the first in and the last out of the gym. He is the most unspoiled kid I’ve ever had. He insisted on putting on his own gloves. He didn’t like to be pampered.”

Dundee tells how he had barnstormed the country with the young Clay and finally brought him into Madison Square Garden in 1962 to fight Sonny Banks. “Banks hit Ali with the finest left hook I’ve ever seen. It would have floored King Kong. Ali’s eyes glazed like he was out of it, and his keester hit the canvas. Then he sprang back up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and stopped the guy cold. He won by a knockout. That’s when I knew for sure. I really thought for a split second that Bank’s punch was goodbye to everything, then and there.”

Cassius moved up in the rankings, and with each step he minted new doggerel predicting the round of his opponent’s defeat. The talking, talking, talking had begun in earnest now; the young, barely literate Louisville Lip displayed the stirrings of a genius more valuable in a media age: a flair for public relations, for hype and self-aggrandizement.

He superbly displayed his talents for promotion in 1964, when he was matched for the title with Champion Sonny Liston, a great, seemingly invincible giant of a man. Clay called Listen an “ugly old bear” and pranced around carrying a bear trap to the delight of the photographers. Budini Brown, Clay’s corner man and cheerleader, gave his fighter the perfect line: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” That is precisely what he did. Cassius attacked, disappeared on those marvelously fast feet, attacked again, disappeared again, until the bear was beaten, helpless in his corner.

Then the first shock from this narcissistic, almost coquettish new champion. He went off after the fight to eat ice cream in the company of Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader whose unyielding words attacked the nation’s racial hostilities and foretold the fire to come. The next morning, the conqueror of Listen told sportswriters he had become a Black Muslim.

It seemed at first that the conversion was just another idiosyncrasy, some kind of gimmick. It was nothing of the kind. Clay had actually changed his religion before the Listen fight. Harold Conrad, for mer sportswriter, sometime promoter, and, in the years when Ali was banished from the ring, tireless seeker after the means of his return, was privy to a prefight crisis.

Two weeks before the fight in Miami, Promoter Bill McDonald learned of Ali’s Black Muslim associates and threatened to can cel the fight if Cassius did not denounce the Muslims. Conrad remembers: “When Ali heard that the fight was going to be nixed, he turned to Angelo and said matter of factly, ‘Well, that’s that.’ He had absolutely no intention of renouncing his faith, not even for a crack at the world championship he’d fought and slaved so long and hard to get. It meant chucking the fight and plunging into obscurity, but he didn’t hesitate.”

His conversion, complete with the adoption of the new name, Muhammad Ali, raised eyebrows but not full public ire—yet. He was funny and, yes, pretty, and so what if Malcolm X was looking over the man-child’s shoulder? He was still eating ice cream. How bad could it be?

Ali and the American public learned the answer to the question in 1965, when he defended his title against Floyd Patterson. A sporting event became a religious war between Catholic Patterson and Muslim Ali. It was also a terrible mismatch between a flagging ex-champ and a cruelly derisive young titleholder. By the time of the K.O. in the 12th round, even the most bloodthirsty fight fans were sickened by the gruesome giving and taking of pain. But there was more than that to the scene. White America had seen Watts burn with a deadly rage that summer. Now there stood a triumphant Black Muslim fighter, lips peeled back around his mouthpiece, sneering down at a softspoken, respected black who talked of moderation. Muhammad Ali had confirmed the worst fears; the rest came easy.

There was a war on. Every night, television sets in the nation’s living rooms showed—in color—the horror of the fighting in Viet Nam. Ali refused to do his bit. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said, and changed his life forever. When the Army tried to draft Ali, he appealed, claiming that, as a Black Muslim, he was a conscientious objector: Ali managed to squeeze in a few fights, mostly in Europe, before the date he was supposed to take the fateful step forward to induction. Ironically, the man who read so haltingly that he was once declared below Army standards was also invited to lecture on campuses by students who were sitting out the war behind a book. Ali became the symbol of opposition to the war at a time when Lyndon Johnson still was in office and, supposedly, there was light at the end of the tunnel. He was also bitterly attacked in the press for his close association with Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader. The Chicago Tribune ran eleven anti-Ali draft stories in a single issue.

Ali and his entourage claim that the Government secretly sought to strike a deal—offering, if he would go quietly into uniform, to allow him to defend his title regularly and put on boxing exhibitions. A similar arrangement had been worked out for Joe Louis during World War II. The Pentagon last week denied that any such arrangement was ever suggested to Ali.

By April 1967, Ali had exhausted all of his appeals. At the Houston Induction Center, he refused orders to step forward to join the Army. Within minutes the New York State Athletic Commission rescinded his boxing license; it took the World Boxing Association four hours to do its patriotic duty and take away his title. The State Department confiscated his passport so that he could not travel to nations willing to sanction his fighting. For his stand, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and given a five-year prison sentence. He started the lengthy process of appeal, and discovered that he could no longer get fights in the U.S. Conrad recalls the banishment: “I canvassed 27 states trying to get him a license to fight. I even tried to set up a fight in a bullring across the border from San Diego, and they wouldn’t let him leave the country. Overnight he became a ‘nigger’ again. He threw his life away on one toss of the dice for something he believed in. Not many folks do that.”

For three and one-half years, Ali was not allowed to earn a purse at the only work he knew. The banishment cost him his fighting prime. Finally, late in 1970, he began to get some bouts: he tuned up by beating Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena and then challenged Joe Frazier for the title on March 8, 1971. He lost, but three months later scored a bigger victory in another arena. On June 28, 1971, his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, which ruled 8 to 0 that the draft board had improperly denied Ali’s claim for exemption on grounds that he was a conscientious objector. Ali returned to the frustrating trail of a contender: a broken jaw at the hands of Ken Norton, a rematch triumph over Frazier, newly dethroned by George Foreman.

No matter that his best years were gone; the fighter was back working at his craft. His championship had been a bully pulpit, and he eagerly sought it once more. The Muslims had softened their separatist hard line, and with that there was less raw, reverse-racism talk from Ali. Finally Ali reclaimed his crown in Kinshasa, Zaïre. George Foreman, the hardest puncher since Sonny Listen, spent himself pounding Muhammad Ali ceaselessly—and uselessly—on the ropes one early African morning. Ali again was the underdog, but it was his galvanic personality that drew the attention of the world.

In his long odyssey, Muhammad Ali became a global celebrity on a scale known by only a handful of men. He called upon heads of state, and it is they who were thrilled by the meeting. As one of the world’s most recognizable faces, he drew appreciative, knowing crowds from African village to Asian hamlet to European capital. If he walked a single block, he trailed a mob in his wake. Now an aged, dethroned champion, he can no longer light the ring with his skills. But the path he burned across his time remains.

A few days before the fight, Muhammad Ali sprawled on the couch of his 29th-floor Las Vegas hotel suite. His eyes were closed, the great, graceful body quiet under a maroon-and-white bathrobe. His 18-month-old daughter’s doll lay near by, and from the next room came the laughter of his third wife, Veronica, and another daughter. The room filled gradually with relatives, gym figures, musicians, sycophants, friends. His dietician entered, carrying a bushel bag of carrots. The champ suddenly clucked. Everyone jumped. This sound of a popping champagne cork is Ali’s command signal. It was a summons for his infant daughter, Laila, dutifully brought in by her nanny and admired by the claque.

With the time to the fight measured now in hours, Ali had no presentiment that this was the bout when the overarching years would finally catch him: “I’ve never felt better. I’ve never been in better shape.” He spoke to TIME Correspondent James Wilde in a sleepy whisper: “Because people know athletes are superior physically, when they see these men go downhill, they see themselves. Everything gets old. The pyramids of Egypt are now crumbling. Buildings crumble, and so do monuments of all kinds. When we look at our bodies, we see how its shape is changing. We see our children and we see ourselves in them. It don’t take the fall of an athlete to show people they can fall too.”

He looked back on his life and times: “My life has been a lot of fun, a lot of suffering and a lot of pain. It has also been a lot of testing: being black in America and saying the things you want to say and exercise real freedom. My life has made me controversial; it has made me different. My title was taken away because of my religious beliefs and for not going to war. The decision to deprive me of my title was reversed, but first I was tested.”

Ali twisted on the couch and considered the future: “I’d like to keep the title for 15 years, the longest any man, white or black. Not even Presidents ruled that long. I’d like that.” He grinned wolfishly. “But one must face reality. We all go down eventually. And this makes you sad, but you always have, for the rest of your life, the knowledge that you were a winner to the last. I want to go out a winner. I really do.”

Many ghosts shadow the comet-man Ali. Old opponents, ancient grievances, roiling issues stilled by forgetfulness and, perhaps, forgiveness. Yet he can be bitter. Someone last week remarked that the U.S. was the greatest country in the world. “Yes,” said Ali dryly, “I have access to it sometimes.”

But he also has the gentle memories of children. For however much his ego has needed the reinforcement of the crowd, he has been a most accessible public figure, striding into schoolyards and across sidewalks, a plainly gleeful Pied Piper who always, always signs autographs for kids. The touch of a heavyweight champion is a big moment to a child, and in some ineffable manner those titled men seemed drawn to children. It is remarkable how many ex-fighters work with children after retirement. Perhaps it is a means of staying close to the incandescence of their youth. Or perhaps it is an impulse to pass on that special strength forged in fighting, man’s first competition. Ali tells how his daughter tried to thread a needle for several minutes, then gave up in frustration. “I spanked her and made her try again. It wasn’t important for her to thread the needle, but it was important to wash away the taste of defeat. She had to learn she could not fail.”

Defeat came to Muhammad Ali, and with it the ghosts of a Miami night. Sonny Liston had been a tired man, worn by poverty and prison. At 35, he was old for a fighter—even for a slugger who stayed put and blasted. He got into the ring with a strong, fast, young Cassius Clay, who had nothing to lose and a crown to gain. Last week Muhammad Ali was a tired man too, pummeled in the ring for 24 years—amateur and professional. At 36, he was old for a fighter—especially for a boxer who must move and whittle. And, like Liston, Ali had looked across the ring and seen a lean, eager, young fighter. In the words of Promoter Bob Arum: “Ali was beaten by his own shadow.”

After a remarkable reign, Muhammad Ali stands whole—old and young, winner and loser—for assessment. Was he really, as he proclaimed from the earliest days, the greatest? Comparing fighters of different eras is a risky enterprise, flawed by changes in boxing rules, training methods, improved diet and medical care. Then there are those shifting subjectives: the accuracy of recollection and loyalty to generations. One expert favors Joe Louis, another Jack Dempsey, voting for the knockout punch that Ali admittedly never had. Rocky Marciano was inelegant, but he could hit and he never lost a fight.

Ring Announcer Don Dunphy, who has called the blow-by-blow in over 2,000 fights during a 37-year career, insists: “Certainly Ali’s the fastest heavyweight champion of all time. Joe Louis had fast hands, but not fast feet. Rocky was a bit of a plodder.” Joe Frazier, who ought to know, credits Ali’s savvy: “He knows how to psych most of his men out.” Veteran Manager Gil Clancy pays homage to the post-exile Ali’s distinguishing characteristic: “He can absorb a punch better than any fighter who ever lived.” Still, there is a tendency among the experts to say the best fighter probably was Louis, the man with the fast and powerful hands. But Ali had something else that put him in a class apart, a personal flair that, coupled with his athletic skills did indeed make him “the greatest.” No less an authority than Dempsey praises Ali for his accomplishments: “He brought back boxing. It was dying, and he brought it back.”

Will Ali come back? He insists that he shall, pinning everything on one last benchmark: becoming the first man to regain the title a third time. “I ain’t through yet,” he claims. “I want that boy, and I want him bad.” The new champion is also eager for a rematch.

Ali does not need to fight Spinks for the money. He made nearly $60 million in purses—$3.5 million against Spinks, who got $320,000—and even Ali could not spend all that. Two divorces, bad investments, taxes, profligate generosity and a large, leeching entourage have made tens of millions vanish, but he has an estimated $2 million in cash and real estate. He has no need to stagger through humiliating defeats, as did Joe Louis, trading on memory and affection in order to survive.

What drives Ali to think of returning to the ring is pride. If he could somehow beat Spinks and win back his title, he would round out his career and make time stand still—for a little while. The rhyming ex-champion is much like Shakespeare’s deposed poet-king Richard, who wrestled with himself and the gathering forces that beat against his life. Muhammad Ali careened across his stage, by turns as hopeful and despairing as his times. He is unlikely to go quietly into the past.

Of that I were as great

As is my grief, or lesser than my name,

Or that I could forget what I have been,

Or not remember what I must be now.

—King Richard II

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com