A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

As a boy, Davis Miller worshipped Muhammad Ali, then in his prime. His adulation transformed his life; at one point he even sparred with the great fighter. But most enriching of all have been his encounters with the older Ali, slowed and slurred by Parkinson's but undimmed in spirit. This extract from a new book chronicles a remarkable relationship
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I first met him atop his Pennsylvania mountain in July 1975, though I had seen him thousands of times. While pulling on a pair of blood-red trunks I'd bought just for this occasion, I heard him through the dressing- room walls, exhorting the small crowd who had paid $1 each to watch him train. "I will prove to the world that I am not only the greatest boxer of all times," he said, "I am the greatest martial artist."

Even through the walls, his was the most elemental voice I'd heard; it was huge, melodic, and somehow eternal. Listening to him made me so nervous that I shook a little. The old guy standing in front of me, strapping a pair of rich-smelling red leather gloves on my arms, laughed. "He won't hurt a little white boy like you," he said.

I was 22 years old, hard-bodied as a bee, and I no longer thought of myself as "little" or a "white boy". The old guy was stooped; his eyes were yellow with age. "Naw, he won't hurt you," he told me again. "Not too bad anyways."

When he finished tying the gloves, taped the laces down, and left the room, I paced back and forth. When I couldn't stand the wait any longer, I walked outside and stood on a rock, gloved hands at my sides. To calm myself and get my lungs started, I shut my eyes and drew four deep slow breaths. I'd never known my body as well as I did then. I swear I could feel oxygen rush all the way to my toes with each breath. With closed eyes, I imagined the very power of the cosmos flowing up from the boulder and into my torso.

He's standing in the centre of his ring when I step through the ropes. Insect-looking splotches of dried blood dot the porous canvas under my feet. As I stare up at him, he comes into focus and everything else blurs. And I realise again that no one else on the planet looks quite like him. His skin is unmarked and without wrinkles, and he glows in a way that cannot be seen in photographs or on television.

He introduces me to the crowd as a "great karate master", an accolade I certainly don't merit. Then he opens his mouth wide, points his gloved left fist at me, and, in a voice directed to no one in particular, he shouts: "You must be a fool to get in the ring with me. When I'm through, you gonna think you been whopped by Bruce Lee.

"Are you scared?" he asks, looking at me straight and level. "Are you scared? Just think who you're with. How's it feel, knowin' you're in the ring with the Greatest of All Times?"

He turns back to the crowd. "I am the centre of the universe," he proclaims, and I almost believe him.

The bell rings and he dances to my right around the 20ft square of taut canvas. Suddenly I'm no longer nervous. My thighs are strong and springy, there's looseness in my movement. He bounces from side to side in front of me; I feel every step he takes shoot into my feet and up my legs. I bend to the right, toss a jab towards his belt line, straighten up, snap a long, tentative front kick to his head. I figure it's the first kick he's ever had thrown at him, but he pulls away as easily as if he's been dodging feet his entire life. He stops dancing and stands flat-footed in front of me, studying my movements. God, what a big man. I try to lever in a jab from the outside, where it's usually easiest for me to connect. His eyes are bright. His face is beaming and round and open. He waits until my punch is about half an inch from his nose and pulls his head straight back. I punch nothing but air and dreams. He turns square towards me, teases me by sticking out a long, white-coated tongue, steps back to the ropes, takes a seat on the second strand, where his head is about level with mine, and beckons me in with a wave of his gloves.

I block out spectators' laughs and slide inside his arms three half-steps; he's so close I feel his breath on my shoulder. I dig a round kick into his right kidney, feel his flesh conform to the shape of my shin, see the opening I'm hoping for, fake a jab, and explode from my crouch, rocketing a spinning backfist-left hook combination into the right side of his jaw. As the punches connect, they feel so good that I smile. People in the crowd ooh and aah.

He opens his eyes fried-egg wide in feigned disbelief. He has never thought of me before, will never think of me as a fighter again, but for two seconds I deserve his serious attention. For two long seconds we are bound, whirling in a circle of electricity, each seeing nothing but the other. For two week-long seconds I am flying. Then he squashes me with one flyswatter jab.

I see the punch coming; it's a piece of red candy the size of a gloved fist. I try to move away and can't - it's that fast. The back of my head bounces off my shoulders. A chorus of white light goes off behind my eyes. There's a metal taste in my mouth, then a second, heavier thump. The spectators suddenly sound way, way off; my legs go to soup beneath me.

He knows I'm hurt and he steps back. It's obvious he could knock me out with a single punch. I'm sure most boxers would be pleased to do so. Instead, his eyes go kind, he slides an arm around my shoulders, we exchange hugs and smiles, and it's over. But I've accomplished something I've never, yet always, believed I'd have the opportunity to do. I have boxed with Muhammad Ali.

As we leave the ring, the greatest of all pugilists speaks in a way few men have ever spoken to me: softly, gently, almost purring. "You're fast," he says. "And you sure can hit, to be ssooo little."

He may as well have said he was adopting me.

I begin to quake. My insides dance. But I manage to stay composed long enough to say the one thing I hope will (and that seems to) impress him most. With the absolute confidence I've learnt from watching him countless times, I say simply, "I know."

SIX YEARS earlier, I'd been the smallest kid at RJ Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I hadn't eaten properly since my mother died unexpectedly when I was 11 years old. At 17, I was 4ft 10in, weighed 4st 5lb, and still looked 11. The family doctor told Daddy that I'd never get much larger. Guys in my classes nicknamed me "Foetus". I was regularly punched, pushed into girls' lavatories, shoved fully-clothed into showers, stuffed into lockers, picked up over guys' heads and spun in circles.

I had no interest in school. I flunked the 11th grade and would not be able to graduate until I was at least 19. Three to four times every month, I was caught skipping school. Usually, when I cut class, I didn't have any place to go and I stayed in the building, creeping down the halls from one bathroom to the next (the best way to avoid getting caught). When I attended class, I laid my head on my desk and slept.

But I had Ali.

I had first become a serious Ali-watcher in 1963, a few months after my mother's death. I remember sitting mesmerised in front of Daddy's small black-and-white television as the voice of Cassius Clay (as he then was) roared and crackled: "I'm young and handsome and fast and pretty and can't possibly be beat..." The song the voice sang rolled with menace and grace. Could any warrior ever have looked so vulnerable as the young Ali with his shining and tender chin high and untucked, angular poet's body fully erect, hands at his sides, eyes round and wide and scared-seeming even as he shocked opponents and blistered their features with punches thrown from angles and with a rapidity that they, and we, could scarcely conceive of, much less see?

I bought a copy of the Ali biography by Jose Torres, Sting Like a Bee. In it I discovered that my birthday was two days before Ali's - his was 17 January, mine the 15th - and that his wife Belinda studied karate. I began taking kyokusbinkai karate because there was no boxing in town and I longed to become as fine a fistic artist as Ali. I bought a gi (Japanese for "uniform"), attended class religiously, and worked as hard as a 63lb runt could - I kicked at the walls, punched the air countless hundreds of times, sweated and hurt for an hour and a half four nights a week. After a year and a half of study, I was awarded a brown belt, the second highest belt rank. I read everything I could about the martial arts and about boxing and, of course, about Ali.

On Saturdays before Ali fights, I'd be so nervous that I could hardly eat. I'd spend much of the afternoon pacing the rooms of the house, dancing in long elegant strides like Ali, up on the balls of my feet circling clockwise, stopping at every mirror to whirl into a flurry of pitty-pat punches, then dancing on to another room. About an hour before fight time, I'd get so nervous that my shirts would be limp and darkened with sweat. It wasn't uncommon to shower and change clothes a couple times on the afternoon of an Ali bout.

Throughout my adolescence, my bedroom walls were covered with newspaper clippings of Ali's victories; yet when he lost to Joe Frazier in their first fight, I felt even closer to him. After all, hadn't life regularly kicked the shit out of me? And didn't that make me at least a little bit like Ali?

IN 1973, I decided that I was going to become the greatest martial artist to walk the face of the earth. I was 21. After graduating third from bottom out of 1,473 students, I'd spent several months lying around the house, moping and sleeping and wondering if there might be something I could do with my life. Then Ali's second traumatic defeat - listless and unfit, by Ken Norton, on 31 March 1973 - shook me into a decision: I had to do something in this world, something important - if not to anyone else, then at least to me.

I went into training in May. Over the next months, I did tens of thousands of push-ups, sit-ups, leg raises, stomach crunches, stretching exercises, and the like. I jumped rope a minimum of half an hour and ran at least five miles a day, every day. By eating four full meals every 16 hours and drinking a couple blenders of whole milk, ice cream, bananas and Bob Hoffman's weight gain powder every afternoon, I pushed my weight all the way to 10st 5lb.

I began to kickbox, combining the legwork of karate with the punches and movement of boxing. Patterning my martial arts style after Ali's boxing skills, I soon found a rhythm and a suppleness that I felt had been asleep inside me. Studying the way Ali punched, I developed a precise yet slippery kicking method, popping kicks in relaxed, syncopated rhythms. For hours a day, every day, I'd dance and punch and kick and talk, attempting to emulate the noble melody that was uniquely Ali's: "Is that all you got?" I'd ask the mirror, thinking of the reflected face and body not as my own, but as that of Joe Frazier or the US draft board that had caused Ali to lose his title in 1967.

In October 1974, as an 8:1 underdog, Ali knocked out the supposedly invincible George Foreman to recapture the world's heavyweight title; almost overnight, he became the most popular man on the planet. In December, inspired by Ali's success, I had my first professional fight. Hundreds of millions had cheered for Ali in his victory over age and Foreman; 50 folks watched me outpoint my opponent, a stiff, traditional karateka who seemed never to have seen a jab other than the ones that I bounced off his face. The guy was so easy to hit that I became bored in less than two rounds, and felt sorry for him by the middle of the third. Yet I didn't have the meanness or the skill to put him away.

Over the next two years, I took six more bouts. I liked the daily rigorousness required of a professional athlete, loved the flow of combat. The act of sparring was the first thing I had found in my life that made me feel good. But I didn't like hurting anyone or getting hurt. In my entire time as a kickboxer, the only person or thing I ever really kicked shit out of was my own ego. But this was victory enough. Through the thousands of hours (millions of minutes, billions of seconds) I spent learning to box and to perform martial art, I began to wake, to feel for the first time that I was living in each moment. I became open to the possibilities and to the mysteries. Like Ali, I strove to become hard and soft, fast yet precise, strong and graceful.

By 1976, I realised that I didn't have all it takes to become a world champion, or even a particularly wonderful fighter. But my experiences in the martial arts had spoiled me - I felt that there was no way I could ever be content working a day-to-day, nine-to-five job. I decided that I'd go back to school and study creative writing.

Like my idol, I did not much value understatement, and when I managed to sell a short article about my 1975 sparring session with Ali to Sports Illustrated my dreams became even more inflated. "I will become the greatest writer of all times," I said over and over in my best Ali voice while standing in front of the bathroom mirror.

I worked part-time in music and book stores while I taught myself the craft of fiction writing. When everyone else forgot my one sale to the Mount Olympus of sports magazines, I reminded them. I submitted chapter after chapter of my novel to magazines, hoping and believing that some editor, somewhere, would publish them; none did. Years passed. Eventually, I took a job managing a video store. This didn't mean that I had given up my dream; I had simply put it to sleep. "I'll get to it, I'll get to it," I told myself as I read other people's books in bed each night.

ON Good Friday, 1 April 1989, I was driving through Louisville. I was 37, married, the father of two young children, overweight, still managing video stores, although I was a regional manager by now, and living in Louisville, Kentucky - where Ali was born and grew up. I was on the way to my southside Louisville store. As always, I looked to the right as I passed Ali's mother's place. A block-long white Winnebago camper-van with Virginia plates was parked on the grass. I knew it was his vehicle.

I drove past the house, worked up courage, turned around, came back. I parked the Volvo behind the Winnebago and grabbed a few old magazines I'd been storing under the front seat ever since moving to Louisville, waiting for the meeting with Ali I'd been sure would come.

When I thought of Ali, I remembered him as I'd seen him at his training camp all those years before. Yes, in those days he had been luminous with sweat and hubris. His hands and feet seemed to be constantly moving in almost impossibly wondrous patterns; his eyes shone like electric blackberries. But every recent report had Ali sounding like a turtle spilled on to his back, limbs thrashing air.

I was sure he wouldn't remember me; he had met, and sparred with, nearly half the population of the planet. But I'd always believed that, given the chance to talk with him for a long time, he and I would become friends.

His younger brother Rahaman opened the door. He saw the magazines under my arm, smiled an experienced smile, and said, "He's out in the Winnebago. Just knock on the door. He'll be happy to sign those for you."

I recrossed the yard, climbed the couple of steps on the side of the Winnebago, and prepared to knock. Ali opened the door before I got the chance. I'd forgotten how damned big he is. His presence filled the doorway. He leaned under the frame to see me.

I felt no nervousness. Ali's face, in many ways, is as familiar to me as my father's. His skin remains unmarked, his countenance has a near- perfect symmetry. Yet something is different: he's no longer the world's prettiest man. He's handsome, but in the way of a youngish granddad.

"Come on in," he says, and waves me past. His voice has a gurgle to it, as though he needs to clear his throat. He offers a massive hand. He does not so much shake hands as he places his hand in mine. His touch is gentle as a girl's. He motions for me to sit, but doesn't speak. His mouth is a little tense at the corners. He slowly lowers himself into a chair by the window. I take a seat across from him and lay my magazines on a table between us. He picks them up, produces a ballpoint pen, and begins signing. He asks, "What's your name?" and I tell him. Without looking up, he continues to write. His eyes are not glazed, as I've read, but they look tired. A wet cough rattles in his throat. His left hand trembles almost constantly. Amid the silence, I feel a need to tell him some of the things I've wanted to say for years.

"Champ, you changed my life," I say. "When I was a kid, I was messed up, couldn't even talk to people. No kind of life at all." He's watching me while I talk, not judging, just watching. "You made me believe I could do anything," I say.

I pick up a magazine from the stack in front of him. "This is a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated while I was in college," I say. "It's about the ways you've influenced my life."

"What's your name?" he asks again, this time looking right at me. I tell him. He nods. "I'll finish signing these in a while," he says, putting his pen on the table. "Read me your story."

"You have a good face," he says when I'm through. "I like your face."

He'd listened seriously as I'd read, laughing at the funny lines and when I'd tried to imitate his voice. He had seemed to enjoy my story.

"You like magic?" he asks.

"Not in years," I say.

He stands and walks to the back of the Winnebago, moving mechanically. It's my great-grandfather's walk. He motions for me to follow. There's a sad yet lovely, noble and intimate quality to his movements.

He does about 10 tricks. The one that interests me the most is a simple deception. "Watch my feet," he says, standing about 8ft away, with his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he's just had real trouble walking, he seems to levitate about 3in off of the floor. He turns to me and, in his thick, slow voice says, "I'm a baaadd niggah."

Next, Ali grabs an empty plastic milk jug from a counter beside the sink. He asks me to examine it. "What if I make this rise up from the sink this high and sit there? Will you believe?"

"I'm not much of a believer these days, Champ," I say, thinking not only about the way my life is going, but also that part of what Ali's malady teaches is that no one can defy gravity.

"Well, what if I make it rise, sit this high off the ground, then turn in a circle?"

"I'm a hard man to convince," I say.

"Well, what if I make it rise, float over here to the other side of the room, then go back to the sink and sit itself back down? Then will you become one of my believers?"

I laugh and say, "Then I'll believe."

"Watch," he says, then points at the plastic container and takes four steps back. I try to see both the milk jug and Ali. He waves his hands a couple times. The container does not move. "April Fools," Ali says. We both chuckle and he walks over and slips his arm about my shoulders.

He autographs the magazines and writes a note on a page of my SI piece: "To Davis, The Greatest Fan of All Times," I feel that my story is finally complete, now that he has confirmed its existence. He hands me the magazines and asks me into his mother's house.

ALI'S family easily accepts me. Ali has just introduced me to his mother, Mrs Odessa Clay, and to Rahaman, then suddenly he's gone. They're not surprised to have a visitor and handle me with grace and charm. Rahaman tells me to make myself at home. I take a seat on the sofa beside Ali's mother.

Odessa Clay is in her seventies, yet her face has few wrinkles. She's watching Oprah Winfrey on an old TV. I wonder where Ali has gone. Rahaman brings me a root beer. Mrs Clay pats me on the hand. "Don't worry," she says. "Ali hasn't left you. I'm sure he's just gone upstairs to say his prayers."

I hadn't realised my anxiety was showing. But Ali's mother has watched him bring home puppies hundreds of times. "He's always been a restless man, like his daddy," she says. "Can't ever sit still."

Ali comes back to the room, carrying himself high and with stately dignity, though his footing is ever so slightly unsteady. He falls deep into a chair on the other side of the room.

"You tired, baby?" Mrs Clay asks.

"Tired, I'm always tired," he says, then rubs his face and closes his eyes.

He must feel me watching, or is simply conscious of someone other than family being in the room. His eyes aren't closed 10 seconds before he shakes himself awake, balls his hands into fists again, and starts making typical Ali faces and noises at me - sticking his teeth out over his lower lip, looking fake-mean, growling, other playful cartoon kid stuff. After a few seconds he asks, "Y-y-you OK?" He's so difficult to understand from across the room that I don't so much hear him as conjecture what he must be saying. "Y-y-you need anything? They takin' care of you?" I assure him that I'm fine. "Come sit beside me," he says, patting a bar stool to his right. He waits for me to take my place, then says, "You had any dinner? Sit and eat with me."

MUCH later, we slip an Ali tape into the VCR. Rahaman brings everyone a root beer and we settle back to watch, he to my left, Ali beside me on the right, and Mrs Clay beside Ali. The family's reactions are not unlike those you or I would have looking at old home movies. Everyone sighs, and their mouths are at tender angles. "Oh, look at Bundini," Mrs Clay says; and "Hey, there's Otis," Rahaman offers.

And then it's just Ali and me. On the TV, it's early 1964 and he's framed on the left by Jim Jacobs and on the right by Drew "Bundini" Brown. "They both dead now," he says, an acute awareness of his own mortality in his tone.

For a time, he continues to stare at the old Ali on the screen, but eventually he loses interest. "Did my mom go upstairs? Do you know?" he asks, his voice carrying no farther than mine would if I had my hand over my mouth.

"Yeah. I think she's probably asleep."

He nods, stands, and leaves the room, presumably to check on her. When he comes back he's moving heavily. His shoulder hits the side of the door to the kitchen. He goes in and comes out with two fistfuls of cookies. Crumbs are all over his mouth. He sits by me on the sofa. Our knees are touching. Usually, when a man gets this close, I pull away. When he's through eating, he yawns, closes his eyes, and seems to fall asleep.

"Champ, you want me to leave?" I say. "Am I keeping you up?" He slowly opens his eyes. The pores on his face suddenly look huge, his features elongated, distorted. He rubs his face the way I rub mine when I haven't shaved in a week.

"No, stay," he says. His tone is gentle.

"You'd let me know if I was staying too late?"

He hesitates slightly before he answers. "I go to bed at eleven," he says.

With the volume turned this low on the TV, you hear the videotape's steady whir. "Can I ask a serious question?" I say. He nods OK.

"Does it bother you that you're a great man not being allowed to be great?"

"Wh-wh-what you mean, `not allowed to be great'?" he says, his voice hardly finding its way out of his body.

"I mean ... let me think about what I mean ... I mean the things you seem to care most about, the things you enjoy doing best, the things the rest of us think of as being Muhammad Ali, those are precisely the things that have been taken from you. It doesn't seem fair."

"You don't question God," he says, his voice rattling in his throat.

"OK, I respect that, but ... Aw, man, I don't have any business talking to you about this."

"No, no, go on," he says.

"It just bothers me," I tell him. I'm thinking about the obvious ironies, thinking about Ali continuing to invent, and be invented by, his own mythology. About how he used to talk easier, maybe better, than anybody in the world. About how he sometimes still thinks with speed and dazzle, but it often takes serious effort for him to communicate even with people close to him. About how he may have been the world's best athlete - when just walking, he used to move with the grace of a cat turning a corner; now, at night, he stumbles around the house. About how it's his left hand - the same hand from which once slid that great Ali snakelick of a jab - that shakes almost continuously. The seeming precision with which things have been excised from Ali's life sort of spooks me.

"I know why this has happened," Ali says. "God is showing me, and showing you" - he points his shaking index finger at me - "that I'm just a man, just like everybody else."

We sit a long quiet time then and watch his flickering image on the television screen. Then I say again, "Champ, I think it's time for me to go," and make an effort to stand.

"No, stay. You my man," he says, and pats my leg. He has always been this way, always wanted to be around people. And I take his accolade as one of the greatest compliments of my life.

"I'll tell you a secret," he says, and leans close. "I'm gowna make a comeback."

"What?" I say. I think he's joking, yet something in his tone makes me uncertain. "You're not serious?" I ask.

And suddenly there is power in his voice. "I'm gowna make a comeback," he repeats louder.

"Are you serious?"

"The timing is perfect. They'd think it was a miracle, wouldn't they?" He's speaking in a distinct, familiar tone; he's easy to understand. It's almost the voice I remember from when I met him in 1975. In short, Ali sounds like Ali.

"Wouldn't they?" he asks again.

"It would be a miracle," I say.

"Nobody'll take me serious at first. But then I'll get my weight down to 215 and have an exhibition at Yankee Stadium or someplace, then they'll believe. I'll fight for the title. It'll be bigger than the Resurrection." He stands and walks out to the centre of the room.

"It'd be good to get your weight down," I say.

"Watch this," he says, and dances to his left, studying himself in the mirror above the TV. His white shoes bounce around the carpet; I marvel at how easily he moves. His white clothing accentuates his movements in the dark room; the white appears to make him glow. He starts throwing punches.

"Look at the TV. That's 1971 and I'm just as fast now." One second, two seconds, 12 punches flash in the night. This can't be real. But apparently it is. The old man can still do it: he can still make fire appear in the air. He looks faster than does the Ali image on the screen. I wish I had a video camera to tape this. Nobody would believe me.

"And I'll be even faster when I get my weight down," he tells me.

"You know more now, too," I find myself admitting. What am I saying?

"Do you believe?" he asks.

"Well..." I say. God, the Parkinson's is affecting his sanity. The guy can hardly walk, for Christ's sake. Just because he was my boyhood idol doesn't mean I'm blind to what his life is now like.

And Ali throws another three dozen blows at the gods of mortality - he springs a triple hook off of a jab, each punch so quick it trails lines of light - drops straight right leads in multiples, explodes into a blur of uppercuts, and the air pops. This is his best work. His highest art. The combinations that no one has ever thrown quite like Muhammad Ali. When he was fighting, he typically held back some; this is the stuff he seldom used - or had to use.

"Do you believe?" he asks, breathing hard, but not much harder than I would if I'd thrown the number of serious punches he's just thrown.

"They wouldn't let you, even if you could do it," I say, thinking: there's too much concern everywhere for your health. Everybody thinks they see old Mr Thanatos waiting for you.

"Do you believe?" he asks again.

"I believe," I hear myself say.

He stops dancing and points a magician's finger at me. Then I get the look, the smile, that has closed 100,000 interviews. "April Fools," he says, and takes his seat beside me again. His mouth is hanging open, and he's breathing hard. The smell of sweat comes from his skin.

We sit in silence for several minutes. I look at my watch. It's 11.18pm. I hadn't realised it was that late. I'd told Lyn I'd be in by 8pm.

"Champ, I better go home. I have a wife and kids waiting."

"OK," he says, almost inaudibly, and yawns.

He's bone-tired, I'm tired, too, but I want to leave him by saying something that will mean something to him, something that will set me apart from the billion other people he's met and will make the kind of impact on his life that he has made on mine. I want to say the words that will cure his Parkinson's syndrome.

Instead I say, "See you Easter, Champ." He coughs and gives me his hand. "Be cool and look out for the ladies." His words are so volumeless that I don't realise what he's said until I'm halfway out the door.

LAS VEGAS, December 1989. I'm in town as writer for Sport magazine to cover the third Leonard-Duran fight. The day before, I go down to the casino and right off spot a familiar face. "Lonnie," I call as she walks past, heading for the penthouse elevator. "Lonnie Ali," I say as she turns around. "I hope you remember me. I'm Davis Miller."

"Oh, Davy. Sure I remember you. I was just going to the room. Come with me. Muhammad'll be glad to see you."

Ali is sitting on a small white sofa near full-length windows that overlook the east side of town. He's munching a big muffin that looks small in his fist. He's the heaviest I've seen him. I'd guess he's at about 265lb.

"My man," he says. "How's Loovul?"

I remind him that I don't live in Kentucky any more. He seems not to take interest; his eyes go dull. He gets up and walks stiffly to the windows.

"Look at this place," he whispers. "This big hotel, this town. It's dust, all dust. Steve Wynn, thinkin' he's some kind of pharaoh, building this big tombstone like it'll make him immortal."

His voice is so volumeless that the words seem to be spoken not by Ali, but by a spectre standing in his shadow. "Elvis, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, they all dead. It's all only dust."

We stare down at the sun-bleached town. In the middle distance, a military fighter touches down at an air base. "Go up in an airplane," Ali is saying, his voice rattling with phlegm. "Fly real low, we look like toys. Go high enough and it's like we don't even exist. I've been everywhere in the world, seen everything, had everything a man can have. Don't none of it mean nothin'." His tone is not cynical.

He shuffles back to the sofa and drops heavily into his seat. "The only thing that matters is submitting to the will of God," he says. "The only things you've got is what's been given to you."

He gestures for me to join him. "Want to show you somethin'." When I last saw Ali, his left hand trembled; the right one did not. Now it does.

He grabs his briefcase, places it on his knees and opens it slowly. It contains thick stacks of Muslim pamphlets, his glasses, a photo of himself with "Sugar" Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, a Koran, a Bible. He removes a copy of a painting of Jesus, which he holds up, widening his eyes like he used to when challenging an opponent or the press.

"I carry this everywhere I go. It reminds me just how famous I am. If you had your whole life handed back to you right now, and your one goal, from the moment you were born, was to become famous as this man, how would you do it? If somebody told you some nigger boxer from Loovul would become famous as Jesus Christ, you'd tell 'em, `You crazy.' But I did it."

This bigger-than-Christ talk makes me uncomfortable for Ali. "Did you?" I ask. "Or was it done for you?"

He grins and laughs, like a three-year-old caught with a stick of candy he has been asked not to eat. "You got me there," he says. And then he drapes a bear's arm about my shoulders. "I still get arrogant sometimes. You really straightened me out."

Ali returns his briefcase to the floor, stands, moves for the bathroom and, when he gets there, slowly takes a starched white shirt from its hanger on the door and slips it on, then struggles a little with the buttons. Without tucking the shirt in his pants, he pulls a tie over his head that has been pre-knotted, I'm sure, by Lonnie. He looks at me through the mirror and nods slightly, which I take to mean he'd like my help. In this moment, the most talented athlete of the 20th century looks so eggshell fragile that I find my hands shaking a little. Ali is so large that I have to stand on my toes to slip the tie under his collar. He tucks his shirt in his slacks, then tugs on his jacket. Without being asked, I pick a few motes of white lint from the jacket's dark surface and help him straighten his tie. We head for the door.

When we reach the ground floor, we meet Howard Bingham, Ali's personal photographer and best friend for nearly 30 years. I introduce myself to Bingham and we walk from the elevator, Ali in the lead; Bingham follows me. We don't get more than 15 steps before a crowd of probably 100 people surrounds us, wanting to touch Ali or shake his hand. Cameras appear from women's purses, as do pens and scraps of paper. "Do the shuffle, Champ," an older man shouts.

Ali hands me his briefcase, gets up on his toes, and dances to his left. He tosses a few slow jabs at several people, then turns to take his briefcase from me, pulling out a thick stack of Muslim tracts. Bingham reappears with a folding chair. Ali sits, places the briefcase on his lap, and produces a pen.

Two minutes later, there's 500 people in the hallway. I stand at Ali's right shoulder, against the wall. Bingham is to my left. We're in those positions for nearly an hour before I ask Bingham (whose photographic chronicling of Ali's life was most recently collected in the book Muhammad Ali: In Perspective), "Is it always like this?"

"Always," he says. "Everywhere in the world. Last year, over 200,000 came to see him in Jakarta."

"How long will he do this?"

"Until he gets tired. All day."

Ali gives every person something personal. He talks to almost no one, yet almost everyone seems to understand what he means. Women and men in line openly weep upon seeing Ali. Many recount stories about his impact on their lives. Some tell of having met him years before. He often pretends to remember. "You was wearin' a brown suit," he jokes with men. "You was in a blue dress," he tells women.

A huge, rough, Italian-looking man in his mid-forties takes Ali's hand, kisses it, then refuses an autograph. "I don't want anything from you, Champ," he says. His mud-brown eyes are red and swollen. "We've taken too much already."

I have breakfast with Ali and Lonnie the next morning. He's wearing the same suit and tie. This isn't a sign of financial need or that he doesn't remember to change clothes. Even when he was fighting and earning tens of millions of dollars, he didn't own more than five suits. He seldom wears jewellery and his watch is a Timex.

I ask why, unlike the old days, everyone, everywhere, seems to love him. "Because I'm baadd," he clowns; then holds up his shaking left hand, spreads its fingers, and says: "It's because of this. I'm more human now. It's the God in people that connects them to me."

! Text adapted from `The Tao of Muhammad Ali', by Davis Miller, published on 30 January (Vintage, pounds 7.99). Howard Bingham's photographs from a selection in `Muhammad Ali in Perspective', by Thomas Hauser (HarperCollins)

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