Move back time two years to a windy fall day on Broadway. Muhammad Ali is strolling along, signing autographs, and generally succeeding in turning a simple walk into an event. Suddenly he starts sprinting down the street and screaming: "Jack Johnson! JACK JOHNNNSON!" He had caught a glimpse of James Earl Jones, the powerful lead in the drama The Great White Hope. Reaching Jones, he shouts: "The line! Gimme the line." Startled, Jones puts down his shopping bag full of books and, summoning a vast wave of defiance, recreates Jack Jefferson, the name given Jack Johnson in the play's script. Damning his oppressors and telling them that if they want his title they will have to come to Mexico and fight for it, Jones holds his fists over his head and rages into the Broadway wind: "Here...I...is!"
"That's the line," cries Ali, laughing and slapping his sides. "That's it. That's me. You can see it's me, can't you?"
"Yes, Muhammad," says Jones, "that is you."
"Oh Lord, brother, you're too much," says Ali. "Isn't that somethin'? You're here doin' this Jack Johnson story at the same time they steal my title from me, just like they did Johnson. History all over again. Except I'm a clean Jack Johnson. They can't say I mess with white women, or drink whiskey or go to them nightclubs. See, there's nothin' dirty they can lay on me. I'm the clean All-American image. They can't say I'm bad and that makes 'em angry. They know I'm not gonna lose my title in the ring. Now that drives 'em out of their mind. So they take my license away. Now ain't that somethin'? As if a little old boxin' license is important. I'm fightin' for 22 million black people. I'm fightin' for their freedom, and that's really big. I ain't losin' nothin', but gainin' the world."
Nothing is the same anymore, not even the king of the world himself, the only champion whose title seemed to have a quality of the universal, or, as Bundini Brown calls him: the Blessing of the Planet. "Everything changes," says Muhammad Ali. "Governments change, kings fall, people change. I've changed." He sits in the back room of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, back where he began 10 years before, once again, so it seems, one with the thin coat of dust on the windows, the dirt neatly piled in corners, that smell of dead dreams. "It's been so long," he says, beginning to dress. "I never thought I'd be back again, here again. Back in my old life again. All those years."
The gym and its people mark the stretch of time. The posters on freshly painted walls of cheap whitewash tell of new names and where they have been, and an American flag frames the dressing room door. The old face of Luis Rodriguez, with its wondrous nose, is now an old, old face. The look of Angelo Dundee, the only constant figure in Ali's professional history, is one of weariness, of too many nights in too many corners in too many faraway places. Even Bundini seems worn, no longer ageless or robustly emotional. Only Muhammad, the visual Muhammad, seems to have taken Time and held it off by the throat, the condition of his body now dramatically saying what he will not say: "Here...I...really is!"
The dressing room door swings open, and out move Bundini and Ali. Bundini sings: "Look out, give him room. Here he come now, the king of alllll he see." Muhammad moves in front of a mirror, looks long and hard at himself and then begins. Jab, jab, jab, dance, quick shuffle, several trunk twists and then, coming out of the twists, the jabs explode again, and then three rights within a microsecond. Jumping into the ring, he works 10 rounds with two sparring partners, concentrating on fluidity of movement, and absorbing punishment to the body. "Like lightning," says Dundee. "Big man...he moves like silk, hits like a ton."
Ollie Wilson, who has spent a lifetime in gyms, says, "He's like nobody else I've ever seen. Like no other fighter in the history of the world. Gone three and a half years, and nobody can touch him. Just a few weeks back in the gym, and nobody can touch him. He does what he wants in a ring. He trains the way he wants. He's the only one in the gym that doesn't wear gloves on the bag, and he's never had any real trouble with his hands. Everyone else drinks hot tea right after a workout, but not him. Ali, he'd rather have a large glass of ice water. He'll lay over the ropes day after day and allow the sparring partners to beat him to the body, and as a result he takes the best body shot I've ever seen. You got to say the big man knows what he's doin'. I don't know what makes him what he is. He's human, but hey—maybe he ain't."
Finished for the day that began at 5 a.m. with six miles of roadwork, his weight now down to a hard 214 pounds, he returns to his small, dim hotel on the ocean, an obscure Jewish retreat during religious holidays where old women sit rocking and looking on the porch and others sit nodding in a half-sleep in the lobby. It is here that he prepares his own dinner, spends almost all of his time in his room where—usually in a Muslim robe, and hands extended—he prays toward the East three times a day. It is an ascetic atmosphere, one that reflects the immense sacrifice being endured by a man who cannot stand restraint of any sort. To help himself, he repeatedly gazes at a picture taped to a mirror. It is a picture of Ali taken five years ago before the second Liston fight.
Interrupting his deep study of himself on the mirror, Muhammad asks an old trainer in the room: "How you fight Quarry?" The trainer looks at Angelo Dundee. "Yeah, you answer him, that's what I want, somebody else to give him an opinion," says Dundee. "You beat Quarry with the jab," says the old man. "What else do you do?" presses Dundee. "Always move behind the jab and don't come straight at him when he's in the corner," replies the trainer. "That's it!" shouts Dundee. "The left handles Quarry. Bob-bop-bop, slip, slide, move out. But you don't fall in. Then Quarry's dangerous, a short, quick, hard counter puncher with either hand. Keep him in the middle of the ring and make him lead. Then he reaches, lunges with his punches." Muhammad mutters "un-huh," and returns to the picture.