Ali definition as elusive as the boxer used to be

MIKE LITTWIN

January 17, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Muhammad Ali turns 50 today. It is very sad. They'll throw him a grand party, at which he'll desperately try to evoke the Ali of his youth and ours -- and fail. When it's over, he'll mumble his thanks and turn away, a man made old before his time. Let's just say it's a different kind of Ali shuffle now.

And yet, those close to him -- there are always people who want to be close to him -- will say he's OK, that the disorder, Parkinson's syndrome, isn't as bad as it looks. But you know that it is. Or, anyway, you feel that it is, and because it's Ali, you don't see what there is to celebrate.

You feel sorry -- for him and for yourself. You remember that he said, long ago, back when he owned the world, that he never wanted to end up like Joe Louis. And here he is.

But there's a difference. These last, disquieting chapters in Ali's life do not define him, as Louis' end defined him. Louis was the great world champion inevitably laid low. It was tragedy, but perhaps not high tragedy. In any case, it is a story we have heard before.

Of course, there is no story quite like Ali's. And nothing defines him because he is, if anyone is, indefinable. There are too many versions of Ali to say that one or two or three or even a dozen of them are Ali. He is all of them and none of them.

In the end, Ali remains as elusive as he ever was in the ring.

You can't simply speak of Ali. You must say which Ali. Even in the ring, there were many Alis. There was the floating, stinging Cassius Clay, who danced in or out of hearts. And there was the Ali who came back from exile to slug it out with Joe Frazier, who rope-a-doped George Foreman, who fought with his head and with his heart and with what was, in its rawest form, courage. And then, finally, there was the Ali who stayed too long. Was there ever a sadder spectacle in sports than Ali's fight with Larry Holmes? Sure, in the end, Willie Mays could no longer run down fly balls, but he didn't pay for his slowing reflexes with hard leather propelled toward his brain.

When you argue great fighters, you must argue both the young Clay and the later-but-was-he-greater Ali. But for all Ali accomplished as a fighter, the boxing was simply subtext for his life. Certainly, no one can deny that Ali transcended the sport.

He began his boxing life as Cassius Clay, a quick-witted, quick-footed, loud-mouthed, poetry-spouting kid ready to take on the world. He was an anti-hero in the post-Eisenhower days when anti-heroes were coming into fashion. Then he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and said he wouldn't go to war, suggesting, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." For those who were against the war and clung to their exemptions as if they were their mothers' arms, they admired his guts, his will. For others, he was a traitor.

For all his genius in self-promotion, Ali was basically a simple man. And yet, somehow, certainly without planning it, he somehow became a lightning rod for the great and often divisive issues of his day. In many ways, Ali came to symbolize that divide.

As Cassius Clay, he insisted he was beautiful. What black man had ever dared say so to the white world? He said it and he winked.

As Muhammad Ali, he became a black Muslim, when simply being a black Muslim was often interpreted as a threat by many, both white and black.

He refused to go to war. Even though he probably never would have had to fight -- except maybe exhibition boxing matches -- if he'd gone into the Army, he refused. He said he would prefer jail.

In his three-year exile from boxing, when his titles were stripped while he appealed his conviction for draft dodging, he challenged long-held American ideals for its heroes. And yet, in the end, he became perhaps the most famous man in the world and definitely an American legend.

He is beloved now. Yes, beloved. He is a kindly old uncle about whose health you can't help but worry. From all reports, he lives quietly with his fourth wife on a horse farm in Michigan where he spends much of his day in study of the Koran. It is hard to imagine that the young Ali evolved into the person he is today.

And when he turns 50, Sports Illustrated puts him on the cover -- because he's Ali -- and newspapers everywhere, this one included, try to sum up a man and a career that simply won't be summed up.

Everything is contradiction. Once, with his beauty in the ring, he was the greatest argument for watching a sport that defies every societal norm. Now, seeing the terrible injury done to him, he is the greatest argument for banning the sport.

I guess, the important thing is that, whatever the argument, Ali remains the greatest.

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