A black limousine pull up in front of Caesars Palace. Gene Kilroy watched. Kilroy used to work for Muhammad Ali, and now he made small talk with a prostitute as he watched Ali's limo stop. "A hundred, tops," Kilroy said, and the girl said, "What you think I am?" They laughed together. The back door of Ali's limo came open, and the first thing you saw was Ali's belly.
Give him the best of it. Say he was scrunched up in the back seat. Still you saw the stomach first. Ali lost weight for Holmes last fall, but now it is back. Hooking a hand on the door, Ali craned himself out of the car and walked two steps to Kilroy, who now works for a hotel here.
"Champ," Kilroy said.
"Tired," Ali said, and he leaned against a wall in front of the prostitute, who said, "Gene, that's Ali."
"Tired from what?"
"Gettin' old," Ali said.
They didn't laugh.
As Ali walked to the registration desk, one person wanted an autograph. At the desk, as he waited for his friend, Howard Bingham, to get the key to their suite, Ali signed two more pieces of paper. Largely unnoticed at 7:30 p.m. in Las Vegas' busiest hotel, Ali propped an elbow on the counter and rubbed a hand across his eyes.
"Gettin' old," he said.
"I was 40 the other day," said a newspaperman, the only reporter who cared enough to find Ali when the old champion checked in for the Joe Louis funeral.
"Jan. 18, I'm 40," Ali said. His eyes half closed until now, opened wide. "Must be a second life," he said, "because this one's gone too fast. Seems like only yesterday I was out here in Vegas foolin' around with Liston."
It was 18 years ago when Cassius Clay made such a pest of himself that Liston fired a gun at the loudmouth punk. The gun shot blanks. It was 18 year ago, which isn't long for some of us, but for an Ali who lived a year in a day, for a Marilyn Monroe who counted her value by the calandar, for an Elvis who shorted out from sensory overload -- for these suns of fame, the flame dies too too soon, and 18 years is forever.
"Gettin' old," Ali said again, the third time in 10 minutes.
Walking across the Caesars casino, Ali went 50 yards without anyone stopping him. No one called his name. Ten feet from the hallway to his suite, Ali turned around.
"My lady," he said to a woman pulling at a slot machine, and she smiled at him, clearly pleased that this handsome and famous man interrupted her play.
"What are you doing here?" she said, and they talked about Louis, and then Ali said he had to go, he would see her later maybe.
In his room, Ali sat in the dark. Half an hour later, Kilroy would turn on a light.
"I'm giving my camp in Pennsylvania to my religion, so they can use it for kids," Ali said.
He sniffled, as if he had a cold, and his voice was a whisper with a rasp edge.
"My farm in Michigan, I'm turning that over to my religion, too. I'll leave it to them to learn to grow food to feed themselves. Eighty acres there going to waste the way it is. My million-dollar mansion in Chicago, I'm turning that over to the Elijah Muhammad Foundation so they can use it as a school to train ministers and for guests to stay.
"I've put so much in all these things, I can't sell them. So I give them to my faith. It is a sin to have all those buildings and not use them."
Old men must get their affairs in order.
Athletes 40 years old must find out if there is a second life out there.
"I'm starting to record an album," Ali said. "It will be records of my motivational lectures only. I've already done one album. On one side is my lecture, 'The Purpose of Life.' The other side is, 'The Tragedy of Life: the Real Cause of Man's Distress.'"
Boxing was just Allah's way of introducing him to the world, Ali said, just a minor purpose in Allah's plan for him. Allah's major purpose for him, Ali said, is to take Allah's word to mankind.
"All I want to do now is speak to the people," he said. "Fame and trophies don't make me happy anymore. My first album, I was in heaven making that. It's 20 minutes on each side, and it is the word of Allah. People will listen to me because that is my gift from Allah. If I was on dope or if I got caught in bed with some white woman, that would be the end of me. But people need somebody they believe in to tell them something. That is my gift and it is priceless."
Time has changed him, Ali said.
"What always worried me was, 'Am I going to come out a winner?' That stuff ain't important now, whether I won or not. By me believing in Allah, I am so much bigger than an decision on a fight. I can't walk lobbies, I got such a fame now."
Three autographs this night. One stop at a slot machine.
"I am bigger than the president. The fame, the popularity. Since the Holmes fight and I lost, I have been in the news, worldwide headlines, four or five times. Ain't no athlete ever could do that."
This winter, Ali talked a man out of jumping from a ledge. The only other time his name has been in the worldwide headlines is in connection with an alleged $20 million embezzlement from Wells Fargo Bank. Ross Fields, a.k.a. Harold Smith, paid Ali $1 million to use his name in Muhammad Ali Pro Sports Inc. (MAPS).
The Smith affair can't hurt him, Ali said.
"Listen to this prayer and you will know why it can't hurt me," Ali said, and he recited a prayer that included a line about Allah's exalting a man above reproach. "I am exalted by Allah. It can't hurt me. Vietnam didn't hurt me, calling the white man devil didn't hurt me, joining the Black Muslims didn't hurt me. . . It will just make me stronger. Here I am, real life, right in front of you, and I have never been in jail."
He probably won't fight the European champion, John Gardner, as proposed for this summer.
"God raised me too high now," Ali said. "I'm over that.I don't need to fight."
He weighs 238, Ali said. He hasn't been in training.
"But I could fight. I haven't retired. I don't think I'll fight Gardner, though. Might. Don't want to go to fighting bums, though, and leave that image."
Ali rubbed his left hand on his puffy face.
"Do I look like I'm finished?" he said.
Because he sounded like a man wanting to hear a no, someone in the room said, "If you lost 10 or 15 pounds, no."
Ali said he didn't go to the Holmes-Berbick championship fight two weeks ago.
"I feel ashamed to go," he said. "I'm too big. Everybody would pay so much attention. They would be saying, 'Ah, he miss the crowds, don't he? He miss the cheering, don't he?'"
The television across the room caught Ali's attention.
"When I lost the Holmes fight, no more Jonny Carson shows for me. Those TV shows use whoever's on top. Now it's Sugar Ray Leonard. My face is out, as far as TV goes. 'Now, here's Muhammad Ali.' Clap, clap. Now they don't call me. I haven't been on a talk show for a long time now, have I, Gene?"
Kilroy shook his head.
"They get tired of me," Ali said. "I'm old stuff now, overpublicized, old stuff."
Life begins at 40, for some of us.