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Happy birthday, Champ

On Ali's 65th, we should let him enjoy golden years

Posted: Wednesday January 17, 2007 10:38AM; Updated: Wednesday January 17, 2007 12:04PM
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Even as Parkinson's disease takes its toll on Muhammad Ali, The Champ is still one of the most recognized athletes in sports history.
Even as Parkinson's disease takes its toll on Muhammad Ali, The Champ is still one of the most recognized athletes in sports history.
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Happy birthday, Champ. You're still The Greatest, even if it's been a long time since you could float like a butterfly or sting like a bee. We don't expect that of you anymore, especially not now, as you turn 65 today and continue to wage a fight against Parkinson's disease, a far tougher opponent than Frazier or Foreman ever were.

What goes through your mind on a day like this? Do you think back to when you were Cassius Clay, a promising young fighter out of Louisville, Ky., or a little bit later on, when you took out Sonny Liston in 1964 and proved to the world that you were more than just a loudmouthed braggard when you proclaimed yourself the greatest of all time?

Do you smile when you think of yourself as the young Muhammad Ali, so quick, so skilled that you could drop your hands and slip opponents' jabs with ease, or does the anger rise up when you remember how you were stripped of your heavyweight championship -- and some of the prime years of your career -- because you refused to serve in the military when you were drafted during the Vietnam War?

Maybe you're like us and you think of it all, the entire, remarkable life you have led. Maybe on this milestone of a day you think about the lasting effect you have had on American culture, arguably a bigger effect than any athlete of the last century. You had it all, Champ -- talent, wit, charisma, and most of all, substance. You were true to your beliefs even when it cost you dearly, and that is what sets you apart from the legion of imitators you spawned. All the self-absorbed jocks with their sack dances and end zone celebrations, all the me-first athletes who pound their chests and tell us how great they are -- they are all doing poor imitations of you, Champ, whether they know it or not. But ask them to make a stand for something other than their next contract, and suddenly they get very quiet.

For your sake, Champ, we hope you don't pay much attention to them. We hear that you you like to spend your time at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with your wife, Lonnie, watching videos of your fights, documentaries of your life and the occasional Elvis movie. It sounds like a fine, peaceful way to spend your golden years. In fact, if we could make one birthday wish for you, it would be that you enjoy the rest of your days -- and may there be many of them -- in peace, without being trotted out to make appearances at so many sporting events.

We remember the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when you suddenly appeared, a surprise to us all, to light the cauldron to open the Games. It was a powerful, emotional moment when we saw you, quivering from Parkinson's with the Olympic flame in your hand. But ever since then it seems that too many people have tried to recreate that moment. As the Parkinson's has progressed, it seems your schedule has become busier, to the point where your appearances have been less inspirational and more uncomfortable. At the Orange Bowl a few weeks ago you were there, with Arnold Palmer and Dwyane Wade, and to be honest, it looked as though Wade had to help you stay on your feet at times.

There's no need for such appearances, Champ. It's not that we don't want to see you, it's just that you look like you would be more comfortable at home in Scottsdale. It's all about your comfort now. You have inspired enough people for one lifetime. Now you've earned the chance to rest. The next time someone comes calling, asking you to grace their event with your presence, feel free to say no. Just because you're out of our sight doesn't mean you are out of our thoughts. We wish you the best, Champ, on this day and every other.

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