It was not an emotional farewell. It was not Washington's Farewell Address. Neither was it Sydney Carton climbing the guillotine scaffold saying, "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done . . . "
But Muhammad Ali, the fistfighter, seemed to be saying goodbye to the arnica, smelling salts, heavy bag, skip rope, water buckets, eye swabs, smelly gyms and lung-stabbing road-works as he stood in a humid auditorium and summed up a lifetime of nosebleeds, kidney punches, rope turns, left hooks and the international notoriety it is given only a few men to know in their lifetime.
He positioned himself in history only a little below Muhammad the Prophet, whom he identified as "Muhammad of Arabia," Christ, Moses and the inventor of the wheel and discover of fire. Hilter be placed "95th" in this celestrial pecking order.
He did not say the press would not have Ali to kick around any more because he identified himself as the kickee. He said he was spurning newsmen's bid for private dressing room audience because he, Ali, was "the people's champ" and he wanted the people to see how his genuine wisdom and common sense would win out over the "educated fools of media."
His great victories, he wanted the world to know, had not been over Sonny Liston or a gorilla in Manila or "the rabbit" (George Chuvalo) or "the washerwoman" (Floyd Patterson) and not even the forthcoming one over "the vampire" (Leon Spinks) but his greatest nights in boxing had come when he put away David Frost, William F. Buckley, and assorted sports columnists.
"These are the super, super stars of mentality," he shouted, "any my common sense overcame all their loaded questions, trick words and traps!"
Like all Ali orations, this one ranged in time from the dawn of history to the 21st century. Muhammad of Louisville was in fine evangelistic fervor as he spoke of his future "world organziation" to which he already donated his tax-laden farm in Michigan and to which he would soon be giving his total cerebral attention.
Is this really The Kid's last fight? Can Ali stand life away from the ring lights? Will the little mamas' boy from Louisville, who never had a street fight or a drink of hard liquor in his life and used to run away from school-yard bullies until he went on to become one of the most fearsome fistfighters in history, be able to handle being an ex-somebody?
He wandts the world to know he never lost a fight or a debate in his life. He rule over a bankrupt kingdom - there were probably 11 qualified heavyweights in the world in his heyday, there were hundreds in Joe Louis' - but he wants the world to know no one acted out the part the way Muhammad Ali did. He can draw the biggest gate in fistic history fighting a pumped-up amateur before the biggest audience in the world's history. Nobody could do that, he boasted.
Not Barnum, Richard, Hitler, Napoleon, Caesar or the pope in Rome. Only Muhammad Ali could take a Leon Spinks, as almost classic case history of a ghetto foundling, fatherless, rootless, indifferently educated, and turn him into a man who has 61 hotel rooms for himself and friends, $250,000 for training expenses and more millions of dollars than he can count.
This is where it all began, this steambath of a city at the Mississippi's mouth. This is where "gentleman" Jim Corbett demythologized the great John L. Sullivan, the burly immigrant's son who boasted he could lick any man in the house. This is where speed and footwork first dismantled brute strength in the first big fight where gloves were worn and the Marquis of Queensberry rules were enforced. This is where fighting became a speed sport and not a strength sport.
Ali was the successor to the Jim Corbetts and the Jack Johnsons and the Gene Tunneys, the champions who relied on their head and feet more than their hands.
The Muhammad Ali who waged four listless rounds with a sparring partner out of Cincinnati on Tuesday was not the lithe young tiger who destroyed Liston in 1964, mocked Patterson, crippled Cleveland Williams, manhandled Ernie Terrell. The face is as unmarked as a soap ad for a baby but the body shows the ravages of attack by ice cream, apple pie, lamb gravy and fettucine.
"Look at me!" he screamed. "I'm the prettiest thing that ever put on boxing gloves. I've got all my teeth, my nose is proportionate." There is no scar tissue over the eyes but the chocolate eclairs have left their scars in telltale rolls at the waist.
A prize fighter who has beaten the U.S. Army, the U.S. Supreme Court, five world champions and William F. Buckley wants to whip the ghetto kid out of St. Louis he changed from a pumpkin into a prince.
It is, undeniably, Ali's last dance. After this, they put the calliope away, take down the three sheets, strike the set, fade to black. Muhammad Ali is going to join the ranks of used-to-bes. But he's not going to go gently into that good night but rage against the dying of the light.
His light. Not Leon Spink's. Not Larry Holmes'.
He does not want to be carried out like Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Patterson. He wants to go out on shoulders, not stretchers. Either way, it won't be long now before the word will be "Yeah, but you should have seen Ali!"
He'd like to leave them cheering, not crying, go out as he came in - before he starts general-managing the world for us. He said goodbye as he had said hello - full of bombast, breast-heating and bragging, the only man in history who can manage to sound like Genghis Khan and the Archbishop of Canterbury in the same monologue.