Ali's health fades but not his deeds on 50th birthday

January 17, 1992|By Robert Seltzer | Robert Seltzer,Knight-Ridder

He was not an actor, but he generated more drama than a troupe of Broadway stars.

He was not a magician, but his hands were so fast that slow-motion cameras sometimes failed to pick up his punches.

He was not a politician, but he could be more elo-quent and impassioned than those who were.

And although it seems impossible, Muhammad Ali, the man who captivated both the sports world and the "real" world with his skill, wit and grace, turns 50 today.

Fifty.

Some fans may remember him as the athlete of towering skills who made some of his bouts look as easy as shadow-boxing sessions.

Others may look at Ali as he is today, a man who suffers from parkinsonism, a chronic condition of the nervous system.

The sickness forces him to walk slowly and speak haltingly, but those who have seen him up close know he is as intellectually vibrant as ever.

Despite his condition, Ali expects no pity for one simple but powerful reason -- he refuses to pity himself.

His remarkable accomplishments remain fresh and vivid in our minds.

He won the heavyweight title in 1964, and he won it again in 1975 with his reflexes and timing -- but not his wit and cunning -- vastly inferior the second time around.

Ali would lose the crown twice, and win it back two times, becoming the only man in history to capture the heavyweight championship on three different occasions.

But what made him truly special was that more than any other athlete in history -- more than Jack Johnson, more than Joe Louis, even more than Jackie Robinson -- he made the public look upon athletes as human beings, as people who could embody their eras as much as kings and statesmen did.

"My name is known in Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco," he once said. "There are countries that don't follow the Kentucky Derby."

For all his dazzling skills in the ring, however, Ali crossed over from athlete to social phenomenon because of the one battle he refused to wage -- in Vietnam.

"I got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said on Feb. 17, 1966, refusing induction into the armed services.

Today, Ali lives on a farm in Berrien Springs, Mich., with his fourth wife, Lonnie. He still punches the bag, and he walks several miles every morning, his schedule allowing. Ali travels widely, preaching the religion of Islam, which he embraced more than 25 years ago.

"What I suffered physically was worth what I've accomplished in life," Ali said at a news conference to discuss his health in 1984. "A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life."

During a visit to the Joe Frazier Gym in Philadelphia, a week before the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight title match last April, Ali held a delightful news conference.

"I might come out of retirement," Ali said, his eyes lighting up. "I can take the winner of Holyfield-Foreman."

Some fighters do not have to challenge the guy who happens to wear the crown at the moment.

Some fighters remain champions forever.

Happy birthday, champ.

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