I think of that day when he walked into the Shriners hospital in Philadelphia and spotted a boy with no legs. He picked the child up, looked into his eyes and said, "Don't give up. They're sending men into space. You will walk some day and do this...." And he began to do the Ali Shuffle with the boy in his arms—the boy spun and bounced and giggled as the doctors and nurses blinked back their tears. Didn't he do that for all of us—make us believe in metamorphosis, yearn for what was possible, make his whirling lightness ours?
Three victories turned him into a myth: three transformations. He was the raving adolescent against Sonny Liston; the sorcerer against George Foreman; the warrior, brutal and willful, in the third fight with Frazier. He trusted his instinct, followed the river of his life force, changed as it bade him change in order to win, in order to survive. All of Ali's changes—maybe even this last one that makes him seem so far away—don't they all have something to do with survival?
But this is not a celebration of the way Ali won—did not all the great ones win? This is a celebration of the way Ali lost, the way Ali today goes on losing. Man does not show greatness by touching one extremity or the other, Pascal once wrote, but rather by touching both at once.... A-li! A-li! A-li!
Who else could refuse to accept defeat as absolutely as Ali did in the terrible third war with Frazier? And yet accept it as absolutely as Ali did when he lost? Where was his resentment when, accused of draft evasion, he was banished from boxing for three years, when he had to bum money sometimes to get by? They're doing what they think is right, I'm doing what I think is right, he would say. Think of all the men who have huffed after immortality in our arenas, on our playing fields. Who among them never pointed to the officials or the press or their coaches when they lost? What other man of such runaway pride never let it turn to bitterness or shame?
I think of him walking away from the ring, head high, tears welling, after he lost the world championship by decision to Leon Spinks. "Robbery!" someone in his locker room shouts.
"Shut up," says Ali. "Nobody got robbed. He won. I lost the fight. Can't you understand that?"
I see him murmuring through his pain and his wired jaw to his cornermen in the hospital after losing to Ken Norton. "Now what are you looking so down about?" he is asking them. "It's just a little broken bone. I put men in the hospital before. Now it's my turn to go to the hospital. It's just another test Allah puts before us. Accept it as that."
A test. Think of that when you listen to him speak now and you wince. We are watching a man take a test, a man who understands that the questions on the test as he nears 50 are not the same as those when he was 23.
I watch him carefully pack his training gear into his gym bag. It is three years after the frightening car ride—he wants me to watch him work out again. He is 45. His short-term memory fails him sometimes now. We drive to an abandoned gym. He walks inside, starts to unbutton his shirt and stops.
"What do you know?" he says. "I forgot my bag." That is all. No sheepishness. No excuses. No need to go back home. He simply begins to pound the heavy bag in his hard shoes and street clothes. Forty minutes later, we walk out. He is exhausted again; he is fading.... Now his key will not open his car door. Sometimes he misses the keyhole. Sometimes he gets the key in but cannot quite make it turn. For three minutes he works at it...four minutes...five. He never mutters. He never scowls or shakes his head. He never gets angry at his shaking hands. He never apologizes to me for the delay. He never shows the slightest trace of self-consciousness. He starts over, again and again.