Each evening about nine, just before the king of all he see goes to sleep, an odd and dumbing scene takes place on Muhammad's mountain. The day is dead. Great portions of steak and greens and corn bread have been devoured by his disciples at the camp in Deer Lake outside of Reading, Pa. His sparring partners in the bunkhouse have already begun to twitch in their sleep, and Muhammad Ali lies on his bed next to his gym listening to one of his followers, a slight and still man who makes you think of a Saturday night special. The man reads to Ali from the
Guinness Book of World Records, and the words come haltingly but not without clarity.
"Thee tallest race in the world is the Tutsi," he reads. "They are also called...Ba...tutsi...Watut...si...or Waaa...tussi. Thee males average 6'1", with a maximum height of 7'6"." He reads on for nearly half an hour, and Ali, who has been quiet, interrupts: "Let me hear 'bout that star again." The man thumbs through the pages quickly. "The explosion of theee Crab Nee...bula," he reads, "which occurred in 'bout 3000 B.C., became visible...on earth by day in the year 1054...and its reemains are still ex...pandin' at theee rate of 800 miles per second."
Ali lets that fact float through the silence of the room and then says that he desires sleep, leaving you lost in the real darkness between least and most, a hard ground upon which Ali has seldom been caught. The word real has had no meaning for him, and he has looked into its dwarfing eyes maybe only twice. The draft, his exile, the financial drain and some of the abandonment that went with it, all of that he saw as real and he fought it well. As for his loss to Joe Frazier, it was something to which he gave no obeisance whatsoever.
Now, as he prepared last week for his second fight with Ken Norton a few weeks off in Los Angeles, it is quite evident that Muhammad Ali is again feeling the clammy touch of reality. Never before has he been so crowded by the inescapable, and not even his jet-stream monologues, fewer in number now, can blow what he deeply perceives to the side: for the first time in his career he stands smack on the edge of failure, not a conventional failure but one with shards of humiliation that only genius can feel.
This he knows well. He did get beaten badly by Ken Norton. He did get a broken jaw. He did lie in a hospital, acutely aware that he did not merely lose a fight, aware of the jolting aftermath: the kind of sympathy that drips on brilliant fighters who have stayed past their time; his gentle wife Belinda lying quietly in another hospital following her karate attack on three security guards who tried to keep her out of the ring; the whispers of those around him who were certain he was through.
"Some guy," says Bundini Brown, Ali's doctor of mysticism, "comes up to me in the hotel with 2,000 Ali buttons, you know, the ones with THE PEOPLE'S CHAMP written on them. He says, 'Well, I guess these aren't good anymore. He's had it.' "
"You can be rich or poor," Ali interrupts, "but ya don't know nothin' 'bout either until ya felt pain."
"Yeah, when there's no root," says Bundini, "there's no fruit. Been waitin' years to see this kind of Ali."
"That's right. Brother."
"You don't look in the mirror to see life," adds Bundini, "ya got to look out the window."