Muhammad Ali always knew how to make headlines during his prolific boxing career. From timeless insightful soundbites to politically-motivated life decisions, the man’s presence was larger than life, both inside and outside the ring.
Ali always knew how to party, too, which explains why Saturday’s celebration in his hometown of Louisville is the first of five scheduled over the next few months to mark Ali’s 70th birthday, which is today.
And while Parkinson’s disease has taken a tremendous toll on the former heavyweight champion over the last 30 years, Ali’s presence remains larger than life. As former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis said, Ali is “still the greatest.”
The 350 partygoers in attendance Saturday serenaded the soon-to-be birthday boy with chants of “Ali! Ali!” harkening back to his days of dominance in boxing and the national and international sports landscape.
That Ali has fought Parkinson’s to reach 70 is a testament to the steel resolve that still courses through his weakened body. The occasion also serves as a mile-maker for Baby Boomers who grew up watching Ali ascend to the pinnacle of his sport.
Is it really 37 years since the surreal pre-dawn moments on the edge of the Zaire jungle when Little David went to the ropes and Goliath hammered him there round after round. And all through it, Little David wasn’t singing psalms. He was telling him what eventually was going to happen as sure as night follows day in the moment he willed it to be so.
It came in the eighth round ... a short, chopping right hand ... a hook ... another right ... and George Foreman came tumbling down just the way Muhammad had told me he would back in training camp when he insisted “I’m gonna knock that sucker out.”
And he damned sure did.
James Smith of the Chicago Sun Times chronicled Ali’s life in a lengthy timeline piece that starts with a stolen bike in 1954 and ends with Joe Frazier’s funeral in November. Sports Illustrated also opened up its vaults, highlighting nearly 50 years worth of stories about Ali’s life and career with this special birthday archive.
But for the last three decades, Ali’s life has been limited by a disease that continues to diminish his control over the body that brought him fame.
“He’s had a very visible and courageous fight against this disease. He has not given up,” said Columbia University professor Dr. Blair Ford, who teaches clinical neurology and specializes in Parkinson’s research. “Three decades of Parkinson’s is devastating. This is a tougher opponent than anyone he’s faced.”
In Ali’s own words, he’s been close to death before. After his memorable Oct. 1975 rubber match with Joe Frazier, Ali said “It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.” The physical trauma he suffered during those brutal bouts no doubt has affected Ali’s response to his disease, but his spirit helps him continue to stay positive.
Ali’s birthday has boxers and the sport’s longtime fans out in force to celebrate one of the country’s greatest sports icons. Where does he rank among the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and other notable living athletes whose reach has wrapped around the globe? And how pivotal was Ali in paving the way for those men to reach such great recognition?
What are your greatest memories of “The Greatest”?
More on Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday:
Lonnie Ali: ‘He’s still a big kid... He loves birthdays’