After this one, there will be more fights. It will be sad. Muhammad Ali won't quit until it is very sad. Marilyn Monroe reached for the telephone, reaching for help, when it was too late. How brightly she burned, how sad her darkness. Now we see Ali burning into darkness. It is sad.
Deadlines run a newspaperman's life. So I'm writing this before Ali fights Larry Holmes and you'll read it knowing what happened. The event changes nothing. In victory, Ali will eagerly pursue the flame that burns. Only ignominious defeat will sway him from plans to keep on fighting, for he is good at one thing alone. Forget politics, show business and shilling for roach spray. The guy is a fighter.
Marilyn reached for the telephone her last day hoping someone could tell her she was worthwhile. Men dreamed of her. Women cared for her because they saw in her, plain and painful, the awful vulnerability they felt. We all laughed with Marilyn in her movies, and when she reached for the phone in her house we all cried. She wasn't 40. She felt old, she felt ugly, she felt alone. Her world built on a flame had turned cold.
Marilyn's flame was sex. It defined her life, and in the end she was its prisoner. She wanted to be a real actress doing serious roles. She couldn't. She was Marilyn Monroe, Sex Symbol. Wiggle it for us, honey. It was sad that Marilyn could find no one on the other end of the telephone, and it is sad today that Ali will keep on fighting. They deserved more.
When Marilyn saw age robbing her of beauty, taking from her the one thing everyone told her was her ticket through life . . . when she hated what she had become but knew no way to become what she wanted to be . . . she killed herself then. The kind of failures that brought Marilyn reaching for help are part of Muhammad Ali's life, too.
It is sad to see Ali go so painfully into the night.
Ali's life story is an illusion. Esquire magazine once ran a cover of Ali the martyr, his handsome physique a pincushion of arrows. That's because he wouldn't go to Vietnam, and Esquire's lefty editors liked that as a political statement even though Ali's refusal was based on his work as a Muslim minister and not on any idea that Uncle Sam shouldn't meddle in Southeast Asia.
And yet when we accepted Ali as a minister, here came his boss, Elijah Muhammad, suspending him from the religion for his insistence on prizefighting for money, a transgression that Ali committed whenever anyone waved a million dollars at him.
The illusions go on until Ali seems a hall of mirrors, every image different, every image there to make of it what we will. If we want a minister, if we want a politician, if we want a Broadway singer, a movie actor, a presidential envoy -- what you see in this hall of mirrors is what you get, an illusion of Ali.
Sometimes that is very good, indeed.
"Ali always has given people hopes beyond their imaginations," said Odell Barry, 38, once a kick returner for the Denver Broncos and now the mayor of a Denver suburb, Northglenn, Colo.
"Ali is an idol, for blacks and white alike, from politicians to trash collectors," Barry said. "His life says to people, 'When you're down, reach beyond what you thought you could do.' This man instilled belief in people. 'It can be done.' He had me running for mayor in an all-white city in 1979. He has defied all the odds in his life, from Vietnam to the whole world."
Don King, the hyperbolic promoter of the Ali-Holmes fight, said he was at first reluctant to make the fight. He didn't want to see Ali beaten. He told Ali that.
"I was protecting, as many people were, their own dreams of what Ali meant to them," King said. "He was my hero. 'You can't break this dream,' I told him. 'You represented this dream that I have, the free soul, the free spirit, the liberated man. You, a black man, said everything that I, a black man, wanted to say but I couldn't have an opportunity to say it. You said it for me. Every fight that I wanted to fight, you stood tall and firm every time. You stood up and were a fighter for truth, justice and equality. You did that. And now if you lose, we're going to lose the the Isiberation and free spirit of soul that you represented so gallantly and so bravely.
"So I don't want you to get sick, I don't want anything to happen to you, I don't want you to ever die, I want you to always stay there crystal clear and pristine, my dream cast in indelible ink on my wall in my heart."'
To that, Ali said, "Don, what have we been fighting for all these years? We've been fighting for a black man's right to make his own decisions. And now you're trying to make decisions for me."
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," King said. "I [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
After the fight, though, what happens for Ali? He needs the money. His share of an $8 million paycheck may be as little as $2.5 million, which isn't much the way Ali spends it. Ali needs more the flame of attention that burns brightly around him as a prizefighter. He has failed as an actor; he is out of his depth as a politician; his work as a minister is flawed by his worldly excesses, and for all his talk about big business deals there is no evidence any has made him wealthy (his latest scheme, revealed here, is to sell blue jeans to the 2 billion Red Chinese).
All that remains is Ali, the fighter, and time will rob of him of that as surely as time came to Marilyn's room. Then where does Ali go? No one can know. Each of us loves Ali for our own reasons: Against persecutors, he stood on principle; he showed by athletics the majesty of man; he gave blacks a sense of self and pride; he made us laugh, and he carried us to the stars.
Someone, I hope, will be there to answer the phone when it is Ali calling.