Friday, April 20, 2018
Sports

A champion leaves us with a name for the ages: Ali

Ali.

The name thunders still, defiant, unforgettable.

Ali.

The name echoes in history as much as it does in sports. The name generated joy, for the way he played. The name generated hate, for his star and the stands he made. The name became a symbol, for a champion of causes, a citizen of the world. Nobody will ever take away that belt.

He boxed some, too.

Muhammad Ali died Friday. "The Greatest" was 74.

There's nothing else to say. There's so much more to say.

"I love that man," said former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. "Ali will always be Ali, and it'll be that way as long as the world goes on."

Ali fought some of history's greatest fights, three times against his epic rival and foil, Joe Frazier. Ali rumbled in the jungle and thrilled in Manila. He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

He talked trash before people knew what trash was. He wasn't perfect. Far from. But the man had more on his mind than sports. Ali shook things up, and not just to shake them. He opposed a war. He was exiled, his title stripped. He held his ground. He fought for civil rights and religious freedom. And we're better for it.

In the long twilight, after all the punches he took and three decades battling Parkinson's disease, he still retained a dignity, as he lighted the Olympic flame 20 years ago in Atlanta, even as his body and words were robbed from him.

He was still Ali.

"Who didn't want to be Muhammad Ali?" said St. Petersburg's Winky Wright, former undisputed light middleweight champion. "I think of greatness. I think of skills. I think of the total package. Ali was a heavyweight with that speed. Speed. I would have loved to have seen him fight. He ducked no one. He fought the best. Growing up, everybody tried to be Muhammad Ali. I loved Ali's jab, just killing them, and talking while he did."

I remember a March night in 1971. It seemed like the world stood still as Ali and Frazier climbed through the ropes at Madison Square Garden for their first meeting, "The Fight." You had to be there. I wasn't even there and I was there, a 12-year-old hanging on round-by-round radio reports long after bedtime, then crying in my pillow when Ali lost. I don't know why it mattered so much, but it did.

Ali mattered, then and now.

"Muhammad was a social and political figure," said Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, arguably the seminal work on the three-time heavyweight champion. "He was possibly the greatest fighter of all time, but he was certainly the most beautiful fighting machine ever put together. And he was a beacon of hope for oppressed people all over the world."

"Seventy-five million millennials will never understand that once there was this guy who was bigger than any sports franchise, bigger than sports," said Tampa attorney and fight manager Jim Wilkes. "He was the most well-known name in the world — and he changed the world. He was someone who conveyed that the message of Islam was peace. We've lost that. I'm sorry Muhammad couldn't speak, because he would have spoken against those who've perverted Islam."

"He was my brother," said Jimmy Dundee, who lives in Tampa Bay and is the son of the late Angelo Dundee, the iconic trainer and Ali's cornerman, and, more important, Ali's friend for more than half a century. "Muhammad had a serendipity to him. He loved life. He was a kid around kids. He lived enough for four or five lives."

Dundee remembers the time 40 years ago when his father asked him to drive Ali from Miami's famed 5th Street Gym to the airport.

"People saw him in the car and they honked their horns," Dundee said. "They slowed down, and their cars surrounded our car. We had to pull over, to the side of I-95. Everybody pulled over, to be with him, to be with Muhammad. He loved it. He literally stopped traffic."

"He came twice to help me promote my farmers market," longtime Tampa boxing promoter Phil Alessi said. "He did magic tricks for the kids. Muhammad's personality just blossomed over you."

"We had a bet once on Muhammad," said legendary boxing promoter Bob Arum. "We were in midtown New York. We bet that if we gave Muhammad $5,000 in bills, he wouldn't make it a block before he gave it all away. I think he went from 51st to 52nd street. People just swarmed him. That was Muhammad's glow. He didn't have a dollar left by the end of the block. He had such a heart. He was the greatest person I've ever known in my life."

When I was in college, Ali came to speak. After, he asked a few students to shadow box with him. I was in line to face him when he had to go. He left the gym flicking jabs, applause following him into the night.

"No one ever transcended sports like Muhammad did," Hauser said. "A hundred years from now, someone like Michael Jordan will blur with people like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell and other great basketball players. Muhammad Ali will always stand out on his own."

The last time I saw Ali was four years ago in Clearwater at the memorial service for his friend Angelo Dundee. He talked to people with his eyes as they came to shake his hand or touch his shoulder. A woman reached out. She smiled and said the word. She said the name.

"Ali."

Ali.

Times correspondent John C. Cotey and news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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