It is like watching a late late movie on television. The image is a little blurred and the action has slowed down and only once in a while, in a stretch that has not been flawed, do you see the clear, exciting image you remember from the years gone by.
Maybe it is more like watching a ballplayer in an Oldtimers game, the first year after he has retired. Most of the physical skills are still there, but his life has changed and he has other things on his mind. Once he gets back into the swing of it, he looks almost the way he did as a star.
Muhammad Ali (see cover), a bit trimmer than he was on the night Joe Frazier knocked him down and took undisputed claim to the heavyweight championship of the world, is almost indistinguishable from the young Cassius Clay who beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. He is bigger and stronger but, when he wants to, he moves with the same ineffable grace and speed and the left hand still flicks like a snake's tongue. But in the quiet of his hotel room, he is a different man.
In the old days he was always on stage. In his hotel before the first Liston fight he was never still. He was on his feet, dancing, watching himself in the mirror, talking about what he would do to Liston, appreciating the appreciation of his audience, even if the audience was only one man.
In his room last week in Houston he lay quietly on his bed going over a thick sheaf of cards upon which he had made notes for a lecture that he calls The Intoxication of Life. He did not really care much about the fight coming up with Jimmy Ellis, who was his sparring partner for most of the big fights of his career.
"This is very heavy stuff," he said, waving the cards. "Very heavy. But it ain't as heavy as another lecture I do called The Inner Man." He tapped himself on the chest.
"The Inside Man," he said.
When he was younger, his face, even in repose, was alight with mischief. Now it is rather somber, the planes wider and beginning to grow heavier with age. It is only when he is in the gymnasium, working out and reacting to a crowd, that flashes of the old lively Ali show.
He went across the street to the Astrohall, next to the Astrodome, to work out early in the afternoon. Jimmy Ellis was finishing and Ali sat in the crowd, watching. Once the spectators realized he was there, he was surrounded and he began to respond to the attention like an old trouper.
He crouched behind the row of people in front of him, pretending to hide, glaring at Ellis with a menacing look. Ellis saw him and grinned but said nothing, and Ali sat up again. Now youngsters were approaching him for autographs.