Ali fighting his greatest fight
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America will awake on Saturday morning marvelling at how The Greatest has fought off Parkinson’s for so long to reach the grand old age of 73.
The most powerful nation on earth will then hope to celebrate Muhammad Ali’s birthday by reclaiming a major portion of the world heavyweight title, which it was once accustomed to brandishing as a symbol of its manhood.
Ali, having emerged from yet another hospital scare, is expected to spend his evening watching on television as the latest American contender for his throne strives to bring home the most cherished of the heavyweight belts.
Deontay Wilder, another black Adonis of the ring, will be in Las Vegas challenging Bermane Stiverne for the WBC title having vowed: ‘Ali’s crown is coming back where it belongs.’
Since the boy from Tuscaloosa, Alabama has flattened all his 32 professional opponents thus far inside four rounds, the US is agog that he will deliver on that promise.
That sense of impending destiny is encouraged by the return to the boxing big-time of the larger-than-life promoter who staged Ali’s epic Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman, Don King.
This is an occasion awash with statistics, starting with that of no American having held so much as a particle of the heavyweight championship for almost a decade.
Yet the most remarkable figure is 30, the number of years since Ali was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The average survival span while suffering from this affliction is 16 years. By that estimation it is extraordinary that Ali has lived beyond his late 50s.
Thirty years, going on 31 now, is a monumental tribute to the fighting spirit which continues to infuse Ali’s life so long after it galvanised the hardest game of all, nerved him to champion civil rights in America, steeled him to oppose the Vietnam War and even now rouses him to condemn the violent extremists who pervert the religion to which he converted.
Parkinson’s has virtually silenced what was once the most loquacious tonguein sport but it has not dulled a kaleidoscopic mind as dazzlingly brilliant as his footwork and handiwork in the ring. To sit with him, as I did at his 70th birthday dinner in his home-town Louisville and during his visit to the London Olympics, is to see the lights in those penetrating eyes fully switched on.
Far from surrendering to the ravages of disease, or even complaining of it, he has used its restrictions as a cocoon for quiet reflection on his life and times.
Much of his energy is expended on the many charities which benefit from his thriving foundation, for which he often travels to Louisville from his current home in the soothing warmth of Arizona. Yes, he looks frail at times.No, he does not look enfeebled. Concern for his well-being is at its most acute at times of medical alarm. The most recent emergency admission to hospital came amid reports that he had contracted pneumonia, one of the most frequently fatal conditions for Parkinson’s sufferers.
By the time he was discharged, last week after a fortnight, much of which was spent in intensive care, that diagnosis had been revised to a urinary tract infection.
That is not always good news, either, but he has rebuffed it with the fortitude with which he resisted the sledgehammer punches of Sonny Liston, Foreman and so many others in a golden era for heavyweight boxing.
Of course, having the resources to finance the finest and most expensive specialist treatment helps prolong life expectancy in cases like his.
Thus it is by protecting her husband’s finances and maximising his income potential that his devoted fourth wife Lonnie confounds those who frown upon the public appearances to which she gives her approval.
And no-one knows better than she how much he still relishes being in the spotlight of public attention. This is one of the world’s greatest showmen and had he been confined to a rocking chair on his porch we would surely have mourned his passing years ago.
As it is, Ali will be watching as Wilder goes in pursuit of the one heavyweight belt not in possession of Wladimir Klitschko which will make him the first American holder of a heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs in 2007.
And that would be the best birthday present the greatest of them all could receive.
Happy birthday, champ. – Daily Mail