Memories mixed with sorrow

By Linda Robertson
Updated: September 25, 2010
Muhammad Ali arrives Thursday night for the reopening of the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach.

Muhammad Ali arrives Thursday night for the reopening of the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach.

MIAMI — With halting steps, the man who once danced around the boxing ring entered the new 5th Street Gym.

When Muhammad Ali arrived at 9 p.m. Thursday, the fans and boxing people who had gathered to welcome him back to Miami Beach cheered his name.

“Still the champ!” they cried. And then, a hush. Whispers.

“How old is he? He doesn’t look so good. Poor Ali.”

They snapped pictures, although they had been warned not to. They pushed and leaned and stood on tiptoes to get a glimpse.

They saw Ali sitting at a table, looking through the glossy photographs in GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time, the 800-page book on his life. His sister-in-law, Marilyn, who is his caregiver along with his wife Lonnie, helped him sip water and put on sunglasses.

His old trainer, Angelo Dundee, helped him turn the pages. Ali, 68, diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, cannot speak. His facial expression is nearly frozen. His hands shake.

By making this rare public appearance on behalf of Dundee, Ali opened himself up to gawking. He is a national treasure, and an attraction.

People want to say they saw Muhammad Ali, like they saw the pope or the president.

The reincarnation of the iconic gym was meant to be a happy occasion but it was sad, too. The most famous person in the world, in the public eye for 50 years, has aged dramatically right in front of us.

He inspires awe and pity, admiration and sympathy, as he did when he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. He refuses to be hidden away, and we love him today for his weakness as we once loved him for his champion’s strength.

Ali prompts us to look in the mirror and put aside our own denial: Time flies.

We are sad for him, and for ourselves.

“He’s the hero of our youth, our lost youth,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar, who used to spar with Ali and who helped him get to the door Thursday.

Ali reminds us of those audacious days of turmoil and promise in the 1960s, when he embodied change by joining the black power movement of the Nation of Islam and expressed his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

That was 46 years ago.

When We Were Kings is the title of the great Ali film. Because he had such a pretty face and beautiful body, it is painful to see the mask and tremors of Parkinson’s today.

“I thought Muhammad would beat Parkinson’s,” said Dundee, 89. “I hoped they would find a cure. Why him, of all people?”

It was Dundee and his brother Chris who encouraged Cassius Clay to become a poet, a showman, a bouncing, bobbing big man. Dundee still talks with Ali, still understands him.

“He doesn’t miss a thing; he’s as sharp as ever,” Dundee said Friday after Ali had visited the gym to look at the photos and posters on the walls, the faces of everyone from Joe Frazier to Howard Cosell, Sonny Liston to the Beatles, George Foreman to the little kids he befriended.

Ali and Lonnie visited Dundee three weeks ago at his Tampa home when their son was playing in a college baseball game. Dundee was at Ali’s side throughout his visit to Miami Beach.

He does not feel sorry for Ali. Nor does he express regret for what happened toward the tail end of Ali’s career, when he kept fighting despite slurred speech and other signs of brain damage.

“He did what he wanted to do with his life,” Dundee said. “Nobody pushed him or forced him. It’s his life. I was there at the beginning and I was there at the end, and I’m still here.”

That’s Dundee — ageless, energetic, amicable, so gregarious “I’d get along with a dead rat.”

Ferdie Pacheco, the “Fight Doctor” who was Ali’s cornerman, does not feel comfortable around Ali. He saw him Thursday, but it was difficult, brief and “pathetic.”

Pacheco believes Ali could be healthier today had he retired after the pummeling both he and Frazier took in the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, the “closest thing to death that I could feel,” Ali said then.

He urged him to retire, then begged him after Earnie Shavers battered him. He quit the corner before the Leon Spinks fiasco and the horror of Ali’s loss to Larry Holmes in 1980, after which Holmes told Ali, “I know something’s wrong. I really didn’t want to hit you.”

“That was criminal,” Pacheco said, blaming the “Ali circus” for allowing him to fight. “I told him a long time ago that he would suffer and now he’s suffering.”

“To be a great talker like he was, like I was, and lose your power of speech is very, very hard,” said Pacheco, still bluntly erudite despite a stroke.

In Dundee and Pacheco we see a rift, and the conflicting feelings toward Ali.

It is hard to look at him. Yet you can’t take your eyes off him.

“I’d rather see him now than not see him at all,” said Suzanne Dundee Bonner, Chris’ daughter, who grew up watching the Champ at the 5th Street Gym. “None of us is forever young.”