BTEWEEN THE LINES - Forever 'the Champ'

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Amazing, isn't it? Forty-one years after he won a gold medal in Rome, and barely able to speak, Muhammad Ali is still better known and better loved than any champion today.

I was happy to see the big movie "Ali" debut, because there's a lot of the man's life that I didn't know.

I remember him as an aging fighter, talking a lot before the matches, cringing against the ropes during them.

But even then, EVERYONE watched an Ali fight. It wasn't a boxing match, it was a happening.

These days, the top matches in the sport are pay-per-view, so most people don't see them. There's a handful of different boxing organizations, all with their own champions, most short-lived and few capable of uttering a complete sentence.

None of them could carry Ali's gym bag. Goodness knows Mike Tyson would probably try to eat it.

Ali fights were on TV, and in a prime slot where the family would gather around to watch, whether they liked boxing or not. He took an ugly club game and single-handedly made it into the major pro sport of its day.

Why did it take so many years to make such a movie? Maybe Hollywood didn't know where to start.

With the 12-year-old getting his first lessons in boxing from an Irish cop named Joe Martin, who got tired of seeing the neighborhood bullies take the boy's bike?

Or as the young man who came home from Italy with a gold medal around his neck, to be refused a meal in his home-town diner, because it didn't serve people with black skin. As legend had it, Ali responded to the racism by hurling his medal into the Ohio River.

Or perhaps as the new world champion who shocked the world by converting to Islam, then shocked Islamics by refusing Malcolm X's extreme methods.

Or was it the Ali that saw his title tainted when the WBA refused to recognize his name? The Ali who was forced out of boxing and stripped of his title after being convicted of draft evasion for refusing to fight in Vietnam for religious reasons?

Or was it the Ali who won a last heavyweight title in 1978, after 20 years in the ring?

Perhaps the best story is the Ali who has fought Parkinson's Disease, which has crippled his motor skills and speech, but never his mental abilities or his determination.

In 1990, just prior to the Persian Gulf War, it was Ali who went to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein, and won the immediate release of 15 hostages. Heck of a story.

In 1996, his lighting of the Olympic torch was one of the most memorable moments in the modern history of the Games.

He goes about his humanitarian work quietly, but travels more for that and works more hours than he ever did as a fighter.

Sports Illustrated called him "Athlete of the Century," and a good enough case can be made for that.

But honestly, Ali has done more out of the ring than he did in it.

It is a long story, from being the most vilified sports figure since the Black Sox when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, to being one of the most beloved and recognized figures throughout the world.

His best fights were never in the ring.

He fought for respect of people of all colors and religions. He fought against the government when his convictions demanded it, and paid with his title, reputation and fortune.

Strangely, a man who made a living with his fists has become one of the world's preeminent fighters for peace.

And now, he also fights for dignity for those afflicted with a debilitating disease.

"He doesn't have to open his mouth," says the producer of the movie, Howard Bingham. "When he walks into a room, he controls the room. He is loved by everybody, by the world."

He came to the international scene with an outrage born of carnage in Vietnam and abuses in Selma and Birmingham, but he was also brash, outrageous, funny and at times, touching. He defied the establishment, and even the establishment came to love him for it.

Most of all, Ali clung to his beliefs, and even those who didn't share them came to respect that.

"Ali is a common man," Bingham said. "He would rather be down here with the people than in a golf course or a corporate office. He's always been that way. People genuinely move him. He draws his strength from the people. He's loved because he never lied to the people."

I hope the movie tells all that, and tells it well. For all those who don't remember The Greatest from his heyday in the ring, there is a story behind this man that parallels a coming of age of his country, as well, and the story needs to be told.