By James Rosen
June 5, 2016
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight for the third time on Oct. 1, 1975, during their "Thrilla in Manila."(Corbis/Bettmann)
Which Muhammad Ali do we mourn?
Is it Cassius Clay, the I’m-so-pretty Olympic medalist and deceptively clownish figure who stunned the boxing world by dethroning thuggish Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, the Nation of Islam convert who swiftly changed his name to Cassius X?
Is it the dazzling, singularly thrilling, unbeatable athlete of 1964-67, far and away the fastest, sharpest and greatest heavyweight champion of all time?
Is it the polarizing political symbol of the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era, the Ali of 1967-70, who sacrificed his athletic prime for his conscientious objection to military service, only to be vindicated by a unanimous Supreme Court?
Is it the courageous battler of the early and mid-’70s, who slugged it out with Frazier and Foreman in matches so epic, so global in significance, that they made Ali the most famous face on the planet? The Ali whose transitions from rope-a-dope to attack, accompanied by the staccato shouting of Howard Cosell, drove crowds wild — still the most electrifying spectacle you can find on YouTube?
Dare we overlook the Ali who preached Muslim abstention but fathered children out of wedlock? The hero of the left whose views on race, gender and homosexuality appalled rather than enthralled? The Ali who belittled Joe Frazier in the ugliest terms, even after the latter, as champion in his own right, loaned Ali money and campaigned for his right to box?
Likewise, can we ignore the Muhammad Ali who fought too long — the saddest Ali of all — slurring his words and absorbing beatings from men of whom, in his prime, he’d have made short work? The battered, bruised and defeated Ali of Holmes-Ali, in Las Vegas in October 1980, when the body was still lithe and beautiful but eerily immobile at ring center, unable to throw punches or defend itself, the well of magic unmistakably empty?
And what, lastly, of the Ali of later years, the prisoner trapped inside the once-splendid body that had liberated him from segregated Louisville? The mind was sharp as ever, the doctors said, but the motor function was gone — leaving us with the cosmically cruel verdict, unanimous on all scorecards, that the man who “shook up the world” with his mouth, hands and feet could no longer walk or talk.
This was the Ali of the 1996 Olympics and beyond, carrier of torches, wholly new symbol: shorn of controversy, universally beloved, a vision of strength in the face of enfeeblement. Now his grace lay not in his poetry of motion but in his acceptance of immobility.
The eyes never dimmed; one look from them and you knew the fire still flickered. But still: How hard to see him like that! How much longer that vision endured compared to the halcyon era when he reigned supreme: beautiful, fluid, lightning-fast, the dancer who balanced, as Norman Mailer wrote, on the edge of the impossible?
We mourn them all, of course — which is why our loss is so staggering, so unacceptable, even though the man himself had long retreated from the world stage he formerly dominated. Living without him is, in a sense, unthinkable.
I write not merely as fan or scholar but as an obsessive — and one who came along too late. In childhood I collected old boxing magazines (a favorite: the November 1977 World Boxing, cover adorned with an iconic Thrilla in Manila image and the headline JOE FRAZIER’S COMEBACK PLAN: “I’LL KNOCK CLAY OUT IN SUPERFIGHT 4”). I prevailed on my dad to install heavy and speed bags in our basement, mastered the Ali shuffle, perfected my impersonations of Ali and Cosell. In adulthood, I purchased on bootleg DVDs every round of Ali’s career.
The night of the Holmes fight, when I was 12, I cried uncontrollably to the bulletins coming out of Vegas on 1010 WINS. Oh, Muhammad Ali is taking a terrible beating! . . . Larry Holmes is just unloading on the former champion! . . . Ali is defenseless . . . And so on, until: It’s over! Trainer Angelo Dundee has stopped the fight . . . a technical knockout, the first in Ali’s career . . . the end of an era!
One night in April 1999, walking on Capitol Hill, I met The Champ. Joined by his longtime photographer and friend Howard Bingham, we spent about 20 minutes together, wherein I delighted Ali with my backward-prancing footwork and impersonations, amazed him by knowing his birthdate.
As we sprinted past the cars waiting at a red light about to change on Massachusetts Avenue, The Greatest leaned over and said: “Now I’m just another n—-r trying to cross the street.”
“No, you’re not,” I replied.
“No, you’re not,” I replied.
James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author, most recently, of “Cheney One on One.”