The great men’s magazine writer Cal Fussman once told me the greatest story of the champ. The champ comes through the double doors of a swank hotel. Fussman admires him for a second, the way you do when you’re in his presence. He says that all other boxers think he’s just great. Parkinson’s can’t take that away from him. And when he sees him walk around the swank hotel room he has to agree.
Fussman notices Ali’s right hand shaking. But he goes on about how George Foreman insists that no president, CEO or movie star can ever come close to the gravity of Ali’s star power when he’s in the room. This is 2003. Before selfies. These people honestly just want to walk right up to him and see how close they can get.
Then both of his arms start quivering. His breaths go shallow. Quicker. Fussman doesn’t know what to do. Ali slumps down. His whole body trembling.
Ali fought with Parkinson’s for years. But as he would say, “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
“Champ! You OK?” He’s calling him champ. He hasn’t fought since a brutal match in December 1981. The one before that actor Sylvester Stallone sat ringside saying it was, “Like watching an autopsy on a live person.”
Ali fought with Parkinson’s for years. An insidious disease that came on slow, and then too fast. But as he would say, “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
Now, Fussman is on assignment and freaking out that the story of meeting his hero is the old man losing it five steps from bed. Those once mighty hands are shaking. They’re giving Ali a left, then a right.
Then Ali stops shuddering, lifts his head and smiles like a kid playing a prank.
“Scared ya, huh?” he said.
Kids these days will know Muhammad Ali. They won’t know the war resistor. The controversial Muslim. He will live on in inspirational posters and excellent Toyota ads about the disabled. He will be remembered in the headphones of former athletes getting back in shape after having a couple of kids. His picture will forever be on the mirrors of boxing champions in training.And one time (for this writer) in a myriad of quotes taped above my desk while preparing for a storytelling competition. But that’s all talk. Talk doesn’t run a story or a fight.
But like a great story, a great fight and a great athlete, Ali followed only one rule: “I will show you how great I am.”