Once so dazzling, the man before me was broken: Mail’s legendary late sports writer moving interview with Ali republished


The Mail’s legendary sports writer Ian Wooldridge followed Muhammad Ali’s career for nearly 50 years. Here we reprint the hauntingly moving piece he wrote after one of his last meetings with the boxing icon in New York in 1997.

The mind still functions in the wreckage of his body but he cannot speak. It is no longer possible to interview Muhammad Ali. Only a sudden widening of the eyes conveys his comprehension of a conversation. Occasionally, he attempts a sentence but it emerges merely as a garbled whisper.

From time to time he lapses into sleep, snoring loudly. Then an involuntary jerk of the head awakens him and he smiles apologetically. The hands flutter incessantly, the body trembles and when he labours to his feet to walk in short, shuffling steps, you fear for him because his gait is forward-leaning and perpetually you think he is about to fall.

But he doesn’t and in confounding you, he turns and grins.

Wooldridge, right, covered Ali's career for almost 50 years, meeting the former champion many times 

Wooldridge, right, covered Ali’s career for almost 50 years, meeting the former champion many times

Thus Muhammad Ali at 55. Thus the supreme athlete of our generation, arguably of the 20th century. Thus the man deemed by Time magazine to be the most instantly recognised human being in the world. Thus The Greatest, the man whose dazzling virtuosity within the prize ring was matched only by his articulacy and outrageous showmanship outside it.

And now this: the speechless broken victim of both the treachery and brutality of professional boxing.

I should have wept for this man whose precocious emergence I witnessed as a young reporter when he danced to an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960.

I should have raged in recollection of his downfall that terrible night in Las Vegas in October 1980 when, in the three last rounds of his fight-too-far, the young Larry Holmes moved in and remorselessly slammed 30 steam-hammer blows to Ali’s head.

Wooldridge witnessed Ali defeat Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski for gold in the Rome Olympics in 1960

And I should have screamed obscenities against the iniquities of those who bled him of vast fortunes in the intervening years. At least $40 million remains unaccounted for.

But I did none of these things for the great man who clambered from his chair and slowly raised his arms in an embracing bear-hug.

You reckon, in our game, that you can become impervious to emotion but it isn’t true.

Inside that body, now three stones heavier than in his fighting prime, behind the now bloated face, the spirit remains intact. Indeed, it has been so rekindled that Muhammad Ali is about to embark on a world tour that will include visits to 11 European cities.

Many will regard his mission as a vicarious peep-show, the shameless peddling of a human wreck barely able to string three coherent words together. But that is to forget the moment at the Atlanta Olympic Games last summer when this man emerged from the shadows high on a gantry and the world held its breath as Muhammad Ali’s shaking hands fumbled with a burning torch to ignite the Olympic flame.

‘That,’ said Lonnie, ‘is when he knew the world hadn’t forgotten him and he needs people to stay alive. Meeting people is his lifeblood.’ Lonnie, real name Yolanda, was five years old when she first met Ali, then a brash 20-year-old named Cassius Clay. She could hardly avoid it. The Clay family lived just across the dusty street in Louisville, Kentucky. The families were inseparable friends and the young, already famous, boxer used to bounce her upon his knee.

By the time Lonnie was 17 she knew beyond all doubt that she would marry him.

‘Don’t ask me how or why,’ she says. ‘I just knew.’ It was a long wait. Ali’s first wife was Sonji, whom Lonnie never met. His second wife was Belinda, of whom Lonnie speaks with high regard.

Wooldridge was also in Las Vegas when Ali, right, fought Larry Holmes - which was one bout too many 

His third wife was the glamorous Veronica, upon whom Lonnie has no comment. There were seven children of these unions and Lonnie was always aware that there had been more than a few other dalliances along the way.

‘My relationship with him was entirely different,’ she says. ‘I was 14 years younger, but as I grew up we became great friends. He never flirted with me but he always took me out to lunch or dinner when he came back to Louisville.

‘He was kind and full of good advice, particularly about my education.

‘The funny thing was that I wasn’t even very interested in his boxing. I only saw him fight twice and I wasn’t really aware of what had happened in that Larry Holmes fight until a couple of years later.

‘Then he came back to see his mother and he took me out to lunch. For the first time I noticed that his voice was slightly slurred and that sometimes he stumbled as he walked. I also knew that something was going wrong with his third marriage.’

Ali paid for Lonnie to graduate in business studies at a California university. In July 1986, Ali and Veronica were divorced. The following November he and Lonnie were married. ‘It wasn’t all that romantic,’ says Lonnie. ‘He didn’t go down on one knee or anything. He simply said: “Better get across to Louisville and get a licence.” ’

It was then she discovered the murk, the turmoil, the charlatans, the flattering deceivers, the hangers-on, the retinues of free-loaders, the bent publicists, the bought-off journalists and some of the utterly corrupt promoters of the boxing world.

Despite their enduring friendship she had been unaware that Ali’s sheer profligacy with money was petty cash compared with the vast sums that had been ripped off him after he had been seduced from his Southern Baptist upbringing by the Black Muslim movement.

Boxing for Allah was an expensive business. In 1978, his unparalleled career in boxing now in decline, he was so broke that he outraged his Muslim masters by turning to a white man for rescue. That man was Barry Frank, New York chief of Mark McCormack’s IMG sports management organisation.

‘Muhammad was in such bad shape that we had to do a deal with the First National Bank of Chicago even to buy him a house,’ Frank recalls.

‘But we knew we couldn’t fail to market such an enormous personality. Stick with us, we said, and you’ll be right for the rest of your life. But there is one inviolable stipulation. You look good, you speak wonderfully so you must never step into a boxing ring again.’

Two years later, a rising promoter named Don King offered Muhammad Ali $10 million to fight Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Ali took the bait. Watching the closing three rounds of what then was still a 15-round world heavyweight championship was the most sickening 11 minutes I have spent in a lifetime watching men or women in physical combat.

Blow after blow slammed into Ali’s head. Viewing big fights on television is to have no comprehension of the devastating power of the hitting. A single one of those punches would have killed the likes of me, but such was Ali’s bravery and pride that night that he would not go down and such was the referee’s sycophancy to a blood-baying crowd that he would not stop it.

Despite the millions earned by Ali and his legion of fans, he was not a wealthy man at the end of his career

It was the end of Ali in more ways than one. Barry Frank telephoned him to say that his contract with IMG had been torn up. ‘The deal,’ he said, ‘was that you never fought again.’

‘Sorry,’ replied Ali. ‘I couldn’t resist the money.’

No balance sheets exist to reveal exactly how much Ali received from the promised $10 million but, when her turn came at last, Lonnie did not marry a wealthy man.

They were not broke. They had a four-bedroomed farm house and 88 acres in the fruit-belt of America’s Mid West where, from his out-house office, Ali still personally signs replies to every fan-mail letter sent to him.

He received more than 6,000 letters in a single week after his dramatic Olympic Games appearance in Atlanta.

‘I didn’t go blind into this marriage,’ said Lonnie. ‘I soon learned the score. I knew he was hopelessly vulnerable to being exploited and I knew it was my duty to maximise his legacy.

‘His legacy was his fame and we saw just how enormously that fame was remembered at the Olympics.

‘Muhammad came alive again that night. He wouldn’t go to bed. He just sat there cradling the Olympic torch and I knew then that he had to get out and meet people again to stay alive.

‘It is beautifully quiet where we live, but it’s too serene for him. He loves the limelight, attention, adoration, people . . . so we decided on a new course of action.’

From time to time, as Lonnie relates all this, her husband opens his eyes and nods endorsement. He becomes inarticulately profusive when she talks of Asaad, the son they adopted six years ago.

‘He loves him,’ says Lonnie, the wife-daughter-mother figure of a stricken idol. ‘If he had his way we’d have adopted an entire orphanage of kids. He loves them. He loves everyone and that’s been half the problem.’ Ali rolls his eyes. Lonnie also rolls her eyes, but in a different way. The gesture says: ‘See what I am lumbered with.’

But visibly she loves the boy from across the road to distraction. Her shark-antennae are operating and she’s too intelligent and shrewd to allow her husband to get caught again. Six weeks ago, through Howard Bingham, the most steadfast friend Muhammad Ali has ever had, Lonnie contacted Barry Frank to re-open the contract that had been broken off after Ali had fought Holmes. ‘Y’know,’ says Lonnie, ‘I’m aware I was placed on this earth simply to assist Muhammad Ali. It’s no big deal, but I gave up my own career at 25 to look after him.

‘I was brought up strictly Catholic and have converted to Islam because that’s what he wanted and I now believe fatalistically that certain things are ordained. I am probably living proof of that.’

Quite what Muhammad Ali will get up to during his forthcoming world tour is not clearly defined. Certainly he will open events and new buildings with Lonnie as his mouthpiece and maybe that’s what it will amount to. But, as the Atlanta experience proved, thousands will turn up merely to get a glimpse of him.

Henry Cooper, left, was the first man to knock down Ali on June 18, 1963 in Wembley Stadium 

Perhaps by then Ali will have perfected his remaining party trick. It is an astonishing performance that appears utterly to contradict his impaired physical balance.

He rises, turns his back on you and appears to levitate six inches from the floor. The eye has been deceived, of course, because what he has actually done is balance his entire bodyweight on the ball of his right big toe. His demonstration in front of me was not entirely successful, but at least I got the gist of it.

‘How in Allah’s name can he manage that?’ I ask Lonnie. She shakes her head and laughs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says, ‘but all his life Muhammad has been an inspiration to people. First of all it was to young people to excel at sport.

‘Maybe now it is time for him to inspire the disabled of the world to rise above themselves.

‘His religion has taught him to accept his condition. He believes his condition now was ordained for him from birth.’

It sheds a new light on what so many of us regard as one of the great human tragedies of sport. But was it really ordained that Ali should break a contract to take that fearful beating in Las Vegas? Was it really ordained that he should be fleeced of successive fortunes?

‘I don’t know,’ says his remarkable fourth wife. ‘But I can tell you one thing. It was always ordained that he would marry me.’

Muhammad Ali smiles at that. He had one trick left. He slowly reaches for my left arm, rolls my fingers into a fist and steers the fist towards his nose to simulate a punch. It was a British left fist, remember, that felled him for the first time in his fight career — the fist of Henry Cooper.

Was Muhammad trying to tell me something? Was he sending a message to his British fans of old or a personal greeting to Our ’Enery?

Tragically, as about so many things in the life and times so far of Muhammad Ali, we shall never know.

Source: The DailyMail

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