Boxing: Why don't they leave him be?

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The Independent Online
ON A wall to the right of where I am laboriously picking out these words hangs an autographed poster listing all but one of Muhammad Ali's 61 professional contests, each bout represented by a glove. Ali won the heavyweight championship three times, a record, and those triumphs are celebrated in gold; the other gloves are coloured red.

The details of a career without equal in the history of boxing are set out beneath a photograph, one of the thousands taken of Ali in his prime, and it is a triumph - handsome features above a black open-necked shirt, four fingers of his right hand raised in prediction.

Ali is wallowing - didn't he just - in the attention. There's a marvellous smile on his face; a wonderful twinkle in the young, direct eyes; joyful, carefree, brash and mischievous, he is a monument to charisma.

Last Monday I saw Ali again, not in person but witheringly on Channel 4 television in the first documentary of a series that gets to some discomfiting truths about sport. The truth about Ali is that boxing has left him brain-damaged.

The sad thing was not simply to observe that Ali's condition appears to be deteriorating but that it was being exploited for effect by the programme makers. They may refute this, pleading accuracy in mitigation, but what other conclusion could be drawn from scenes that showed Ali struggling to make conversation with an aspiring heavyweight at Madison Square Garden in New York, and finding it difficult to raise a teacup to his lips?

Over the years television keeps learning new tricks, keeps making technical advances, but it would be a foolish producer who passed up poignant footage. So Ali's sad predicament is placed in the context of exploitive promoters and scheming managers.

If as faithful to the cliche as most earlier treatments of a hackneyed theme, Welcome to the Sewer did touch on a height of tastelessness in sport which may not have been seen on television previously.

Special credit for this accomplishment belongs to Mike Marley, an attorney of my acquaintance who covered boxing for the New York Post before setting up as a manager and gaining employment with Don King. Marley has some good qualities but he manages to keep them under wraps for most of the time.

Ali was Marley's boyhood idol. 'I started a fan club,' he can be heard saying. He also used a small association with the great man to acquire a promising young heavyweight, Shannon Briggs. It appears that nothing Marley had on offer mattered as much to Briggs as meeting Ali. Predictably, the introduction takes place at a press conference. Ali ponderously shapes up to block Briggs' playful jab, at only 51 a shell of the great athlete he was. He is being used.

I used to think that there could be no sadder sight in sport than Joe Louis being wheeled around the casino at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, his mind gone, his mumbled responses barely audible to the people who came forward to shake him by the hand. Once, in a London hotel, I had breakfast with him. Saying very little, he ordered poached eggs and used them as an ashtray. I winced.

They say that Ali will fare better, that he responds to medication and may even improve. You also hear, and I'm inclined to believe it, that he will get progressively worse. Then there is the evidence of your eyes, how he looked this week on television.

Perhaps somebody close will decide that the time has come for Ali to ration his appearances. No one can measure the influence he exerted on boxing, but you will not come across a fighter who does not pay homage to his career.

'Without doubt the greatest of all time, the only one,' Carl Williams said this week in Birmingham when preparing for Saturday night's contest against Frank Bruno. He had not seen the programme. 'Why don't they leave him be,' he added when told about it. 'Let him get on with his life.' Those are my sentiments exactly.

Like anybody else, Ali takes pleasure in the success he achieved so spectacularly. But isn't it time that he was protected from the carnival vulgarity that debases it? There is one bit of good news. Since the programme was made it seems that Shannon Briggs has found himself another manager.