The towering figure of the champ has come to mean different things to different people.
Muhammad Ali will be 70 on Tuesday, but he remains, as singer Bob Dylan crooned in his classic 1974 hit, forever young. The former heavyweight champion is still one of the most revered figures on Earth, inspiring passionate feelings more than 30 years after his final bout, more than 50 years since he won an Olympic gold medal.
His voice, once so resonant, so vibrant, is largely muted now, silenced by the effects of Parkinson’s disease. His days are spent mostly in a chair, his once-dazzling smile just a memory.
The hands that were so blazingly fast, the feet which were so nimble, now betray him. He moves slowly, the tremors making it difficult for him to perform simple acts.
And yet, he remains a hero to many, still an inspirational icon despite his physical decline.
“When I think of him, I think of the verse from scripture, from Genesis, which said, ‘There were giants in the land,’ ” said former heavyweight champion George Foreman, who last week turned 63. “In the Sixties, we had giants in the land, but most of them are gone. The Kennedy brothers, they passed away; Martin Luther King … There is no proof now that there were giants in the land, because they are all dead. Muhammad Ali is the proof that once there were giants in the land.”
Ali means different things to different people, though he’s a towering figure to nearly all.
[Photos: Muhammad Ali through the years]
Author Thomas Hauser, who wrote Ali’s 1992 biography, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” had long been fascinated by Ali. After working out a deal with Ali to secure his full cooperation on the project, Hauser spent many hours with Ali and his wife while researching the book.
Veteran trainer Dick Sadler told Hauser a story of the time an 18-year-old Ali, full of energy, spent most of a long train ride singing the hit ’60s song by Chubby Checker, “The Twist.”
“I rode with [Cassius] Clay from the West Coast down to Texas, where Archie [Moore] had this fight against Buddy Thurman,” Hauser quoted Sadler in his book. “We went by train and it was a pretty wild ride. First, the kid would be standing, shouting out of the carriage, ‘I am the greatest. I am the greatest.’ He’d shout this at the passing cars and sheeps and fields and stuff. After a while, he started singing this number by Chubby Checker about ‘The Twist.’
“He didn’t know the words. He just kept on singing and singing, ‘Come on, baby. Let’s do the twist. Come on, baby. Let’s do the twist. Come on, baby. Let’s do the twist.’ It got to me. It was driving me crazy, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Jesus, son. You’ve been twisting all across California and Arizona.’ By the time we got to New Mexico, I told him, ‘Look: Sing the Charleston or the Bugaloo. Any damn thing, but get off the Twist.’ Seven hundred miles of twisting, twisting and ‘I am the greatest.’ It drove me crazy.”