There came a story last week that Muhammad Ali is near death. It is no more true of Ali than it is of anyone 71 years old. We will tell you better.
We will tell you this first: Time is a vandal. Jimmy Cannon said so. It robs us of who we were. It robbed Joe Louis and it robbed Muhammad Ali. There was a moment when we saw it happening, a moment in October of 1980.
They had been heavyweight champions, the best ever. Time had stripped Louis bare and left him in a wheelchair. Ali was in Las Vegas to fight Larry Holmes. He had always robbed time. He thought he could do it once more.
Boxing's shameless hucksters brought the two together for a media event. Louis was 66. He had last fought when Ali was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., nine years old. That year, 1951, Cannon wrote, "You're Joe Louis, aged 37, a main-event heavyweight. You were the greatest champion of your time. But now you're trapped by the fight racket which you conquered. You're absolutely through but you can't declare yourself. You're still making a living the only way you know."
That October in Las Vegas, Ali was 38. In July, I had seen him bloated, his face puffy, his eyes streaked by blood lines. He had the look of a man who carried his life's belongings in a grocery cart. His voice was an airy gurgle. He said, "I have surpassed storps." He meant to say "sports" and he got it right on a second try. This was a man who forever had sung his life story at full volume.
By October, he had lost 30 pounds. With the help of a black rinse on hair going gray, he was again Ali, the gorgeous imp. For the pleasure of the assembled literati, he did a monologue in which he dropped the names of fellow stars of the universe: Brezhnev, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Carter, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jesus Christ and Ben Vereen.
Then he saw Joe Louis come into the room. In 1951 Cannon had written of the man he called a credit to his race, the human race: "You know you're finished. You knew it first. You understand what happened to you better than anyone. You're the guy taking the punches. You share everything in the fight racket but the punches. You have no partners in pain."
Someone rolled Joe Louis to Ali's side. Ali's father had announced on his son's birth that he had a little Joe Louis in his family. Growing up in Louisville, the young Clay leaned against a telephone pole because neighborhood legend had Louis leaning against it. Gene Kilroy, Ali's faithful companion, once took him to a nursing home. A toothless man in diapers said, "That's Joe Louis." Ali said, "That's right." He later told Kilroy, "His whole life, he wanted to meet Joe Louis. We all look alike, so let him think he met Joe."
"The dream is gone forever," Cannon wrote of Louis. Cannon was a New York sports columnist, a World War II correspondent, Hemingway's drinking buddy. "It's not only getting knocked out by a kid who wouldn't have lasted a round with you 10 years ago. It's the subtle differences you feel. You aren't disturbed by the small matters. They inform you what's liable to happen. You're holding on, watching it slip away. But there's still some of it left."
In Las Vegas, Ali thought he had some left. He had lost the bloat by working out and taking a month's worth of thyroid pills. He looked good, brilliant as a sunrise, and here came Joe Louis in a wheelchair, his life's light gone dim. He wore a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. He had a bad heart. He'd had three strokes. There was the cocaine, the paranoia. His skin was yellow-gray, the color of old newspaper clippings. His hands lay flat in his lap.
"Joe," Ali shouted. "I'm gonna put a whuppin' on him."
This was for the television cameras.
Ali came closer, his voice softer. "You gonna be there, Joe?" No answer.
"Joe," Ali said, again for the cameras, "I watched films of you the other night, Joe, you and Schmeling. Your combinations were something' else, Joe. That one-two you hit Schmeling with in the first round, that's what I'm gonna hit Holmes with. One round, Joe, I might do it in one round. So don't be late, Joe, you might miss it."
Joe Louis sat there, eyes dead. Ali bent down, whispering under the Stetson's brim. He said, "You feelin' any pain, Joe, feelin' any pain?"
Louis moved his chin an inch up. Yes.
"You eatin' good, Joe, you eatin' good?"
An inch down. No.
Back to the cameras then, Ali raised his voice. "Thanks for comin' by, Joe, it's gonna be a great fight." In a last whisper, against the dying man's ear, Ali said, "I'll try to come see you, Joe, before I leave. I'll come to your house."
Jimmy Cannon saw the end coming for Joe Louis, the fighter: "You must have noticed that the night Rocky Marciano knocked you out. Neither of you is the champion. But he's coming. You're going." Marciano by TKO, eighth round.
I saw it coming for Ali and I wrote the scene with Joe Louis in the wheelchair. That same day, I heard Larry Holmes pronounce it and I knew it to be true. "Ali was a great fighter once," Holmes said. "You been seeing him work out? A little old middleweight is hitting him. If he can hit him, I damn sure'll hit him. I'm going to hurt him bad." Holmes by TKO, 10th round.
Six months later, Joe Louis died. Now a newspaper in England, London's Daily Mail, has reported that Muhammad Ali is near death. The story said Ali can neither speak nor walk and that he has been kept from people who love him. The story's only source was Ali's brother, Rahman, meaning there is no believable source; in their later years, Rahman was the least reliable witness to his brother's life, every story diminished by jealousy and bitterness. Yes, Ali has Parkinson's disease, likely the result of brain damage suffered in the ring. Yes, sunrise has become sunset. Be Joe Louis. Be Muhammad Ali. Choose a life that gets you hit in the head a million times. Yes, time is a vandal.
Still, one of Ali's daughters says he is happy. The day after the Daily Mail story, Laila Ali tweeted a photograph of her father in a Ray Lewis jersey watching the Super Bowl. In the picture, we could see the remnants of that imp's smile. What the picture could only suggest is what a friend in Ali's life told me when I asked how the great man is doing.
That answer: "For your peace of mind, Muhammad is completely fine – other than the Parkinson's and its particular challenges. He's amazing with his 'never give up' attitude and his determination to live his life, even with this insidious disease, on his own terms. He is a walking, living example of 'Yes, I can.' His voice and mobility may be compromised, but nothing will deter that indomitable spirit that makes him uniquely 'Ali'. In other words, he's still the same stubborn yet adorable man he's always been."