Parkinson's Syndrome has left Ali unable to articulate fluently. His hands sometimes shake. His legs, that possessed the best footwork in heavyweight history, carried him at a snail's pace through the restaurant tables. He sat down in a roped-off area, ordered turkey soup and grilled chicken by pointing at the menu, and stared listlessly down at his lap.
After a while Ali took out a paperback, identified by one of his aides as an Islamic tract, and began carefully reading it. He only stirred when a small boy seeking an autograph was intercepted by a waiter. The boy seemed almost overcome by nerves and imminent disappointment. Ali noticed what was going on immediately and, snapping momentarily out of his trance, waved the young fan through. It took him three attempts to get the autograph right.
Some say that Ali's condition has its roots in his finest moment, the victory over George Foreman in 1974 in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' when Ali unveiled the 'rope-a- dope' strategy that then became part of his ring act, prolonging his career but causing him to absorb more punches. Others say it has its roots in the drugs he took to effect weight reduction before an ill-advised comeback against Larry Holmes in 1980. Others maintain that his condition has nothing to do with boxing.
According to doctors, while Ali's speech and movement are damaged, his mind remains unimpaired. Indeed as the meal progressed and conversation went on around him, generally concerning some Ali story, it was noticeable that a look of scepticism sometimes appeared to cross his face and he would fix an interlocuter briefly with a gaze of wry amusement. When the former 'Louisville Lip' wanted to address someone he would sway forward and speak an inch away from their ear with a short sentence or two, to save breath and preserve clarity.
He is in London to help promote a book of photographs by his closest friend, Howard Bingham. Entitled Muhammad Ali A Thirty-Year Journey (Robson Books, pounds 19.95), the book serves as a biography of Ali's extraordinary life as no work of words could. Bingham met Ali in April 1962. Ali was in Los Angeles for a long-forgotten fight with George Logan that would give him his 13th win. Bingham, then a photographer for a black newspaper called The Sentinel, saw Ali and his brother Rudolph waiting on a street corner 'looking at girls' and offered them a ride. Bingham estimates that he has taken about 500,000 photographs of Ali since then.
In Thomas Hauser's biography Ali says of Bingham: 'I have the best friend in the world, and that's Howard Bingham . . . and if you write that I don't want Howard to think I was getting soft, so write down that he's lucky I'm his friend too. And tell him I said I'm the only person in the world likes him.'
Bingham recorded virtually every step Ali took: the meetings with Malcolm X; facing his military accusers; turning up on Sonny Liston's doorstep in the middle of the night on a 'Bear-hunting' trip. 'Of course,' Bingham now concedes of the stunt, 'Sonny knew we were coming all along.'
Asked his opinion of the book, Ali said: 'Beautiful.'
Asked which was his favourite photograph, he replied: 'The one of me and Joe Louis.' Louis had initially resented the emergence of the brash young contender, but in later years, when Louis was wheelchair- bound as a 'greeter' in a Las Vegas casino, Ali always made sure to look him up.
Ali signed off with a few magic tricks and handed out leaflets about Islam. By the time he left, the word had got out and a huge crowd had gathered outside Planet Hollywood. It was 10 minutes before his limousine was able to manoeuvre out of the crush. In the meantime the handful of invited journalists had unashamedly asked for autographs for their children.
As security men cleared a path for Ali's exit, I found myself standing alone with him. Fumbling for something to say, I said apropos of nothing that I had once been stuck in a lift in Las Vegas with Smokin' Joe Frazier. Ali slow-danced towards my ear and whispered: 'Is he still ugly?'
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