It started as a craning of 14,000 necks, then grew into a spreading murmur that built to a roar. Finally, it erupted into a chant so familiar, and yet so rarely heard these days, that even the two boxers plugging away in the Madison Square Garden ring had to take notice.
Muhammad Ali, as instrumental as anyone for making this arena the center of the sports universe, had returned to the scene of some of his greatest triumphs.
But there was nothing triumphal about this return. The 64-year-old former world heavyweight champion, slowed by Parkinson's and the toll of 61 professional fights, had to be driven to ringside in a golf cart so he wouldn't need to be seen shuffling in on a walker. It was apparent that his condition had worsened in the year since I last spoke to him for a Neurology Now cover story [March/April 2006].
Ali had fought his epic first battle with Joe Frazier in this arena 35 years earlier, suffering his first-ever defeat on the most glittering night in sports history. But now, Ali was fighting only his own body—once a marvel, now an enemy.
As the chant continued and the roar intensified, Ali momentarily seized control of his tremulous right hand, the one that once stung like a bee, and offered it up in a feeble wave. But there was no mugging for the camera, no biting-lip mock sneer, no bellows of “I am the greatest of all time!” That Muhammad Ali had not been seen in the Garden, or anywhere else, for nearly 20 years.
Returning this November for his daughter Laila's bout on the undercard of a heavyweight title fight, Ali entered the arena 10 minutes before she would. As he sat in his seat, flanked by wife Lonnie and Dustin Hoffman, Ali's body was wracked by uncontrollable dyskinesias. His arms and hands trembled and waved in unrelated dances, his mouth alternately puckered and stretched, and his eyes blinked involuntarily. His once-chiseled body now seemed shriveled and shrunken.
One by one, a procession of old friends made their way to his ringside location. All were shocked and saddened by what they saw. Budd Schulberg—the author of On the Water-front and The Harder They Fall, a boxing tragedy that paled next to the reality of the fate that has befallen Ali—came away crestfallen. Himself still energetic and productive at age 92, Schulberg was certain that Ali, a friend for four decades, no longer recognized him.
After a time, the well-wishers were shooed away and Ali settled back in his seat to watch Laila stop her opponent in four rounds. Throughout the brief bout, Ali's eyes, which had seemed perilously near sleep a few moments earlier, became wide and alert, the way they had years before when facing danger in the ring.
But as soon as Laila had finished her work, the world's most famous athlete was helped back to his golf cart and driven out of “The World's Most Famous Arena,” the cheers and the chant of the crowd still ringing in his ears.
Muhammad Ali had brought a fight crowd to its feet one more time.