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The former heavyweight boxing champion of the world's birthday wish was a trick at a magic shop

By unknown | Jan 18, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Tim Dahlberg

Tim Dahlberg

The images are unsettling at best, upsetting at worst. The world, after all, remembers what he once was.

Muhammad Ali trembles and has to be wheeled to a ringside spot to watch his daughter fight in New York. A frail Ali needs to be supported by basketball player Dwayne Wade at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

The voice that once bellowed that he was "The Greatest" is but a whisper now, and he communicates mostly with facial expressions.

His body is ravaged by Parkinson's disease and the effects of recent spinal surgery. He tires easily. His mind, though, remains sharp and clear, and his passion for people hasn't faded with age.

Ali turned 65 yesterday. The heavyweight champion who shocked the world is a senior citizen now.

Like many other retirees, he has moved from the northern state of Michigan to the desert of the American southwest to be out of the cold.

Visitors to the home in a gated area of Scottsdale, Arizona, that he shares with his fourth wife, Lonnie, often find him absorbed in the past, watching films of his fights and documentaries on his life - and Elvis Presley movies.

"Muhammad is a little sentimental. He likes looking at older things. He likes watching some of the interviews and saying some of the crazy outrageous things he used to say," Lonnie said.

"Sometimes I think he looks at it and says, 'Is that me? Did I really say those things'?"

Those were the days when Ali still floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, when he added to his legend by defying the odds to beat George Foreman in Zaire and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.

"Rumble young man, rumble," cornerman Bundini Brown would yell to him.

That young man's face is now distorted, making him look far older than he is. Now, instead of the "Ali Shuffle" that once dazzled the boxing world, he is reduced to sometimes using a walker, the result of surgery to help correct spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal that causes compression of the nerve roots.

Some days are better than others. Ali reads fan mail every now and then and painstakingly signs autographs with his trembling hand. Sometimes in the morning before his medication kicks in his family can understand every word he says.

"We give him enough meds to make his day go well enough, but not enough to make him look absolutely normal," Lonnie said.

"He would look better if we did, but we don't want to. We don't want him on too many medications."

His birthday passed with calls from his children and relatives.

Ali's only request to mark the occasion was a trip to one of his favourite magic shops so he could pick up a new trick or two to show visitors.

One of his daughters, Hana, said no one should feel sorry for him.

"People naturally are going to be sad to see the effects of his disease," she said.

"But if they could really see him in the calm of his daily life, they would not be sorry for him. He's at complete peace, and he's here learning a greater lesson."

The man who made headlines and TV highlights with his predictions and boxing prowess can no longer really talk about himself.

But other people can.

Hana listens often to the tapes, the ones her father made for an audio diary in 1979 when she and her sister, Laila, were little girls. On them Ali's voice is strong, his opinions certain.

"This is Muhammad Ali making a tape for future reference explaining what's going on in the world," it begins.

Ali talks about his efforts to mediate when Iranian militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took Americans hostage.

He talks of meeting kings from different nations.

He gives his thoughts on war and peace, and he has a talk with Foreman on God and religion.

Of all his children, Hana might be the closest to her dad.

"He needs people like we need the air to breathe," she said. "He knows how great he is, but at the same time he's very humble.

"He's shocked to see how people still love him and remember him. You see his eyes light up and it takes him back a moment when they chant 'Ali, Ali.' It's like charging a battery up."

From the inner circle, Gene Kilroy travelled the world at Ali's side. His official title was business manager, but Kilroy was known mostly for being the man who got things done.

He sheltered Ali from anyone trying to make a quick buck off him, and took care of the people around him. For years, he was the lone white man in the champ's entourage.

"I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world just to call him my friend," Kilroy said.

"If I was to die today and go to heaven it would be a step down. My heaven was being with Ali." - Sapa-AP


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