Boxing: The Meaning Of Ali

As the world's greatest boxer turns 70, James Lawton considers his life and times with the help of Gene Kilroy, the man who shared them more closely than any

The whole world will mourn Muhammad Ali when he goes, it will lament the once fierce light that has been extinguished, but for those who know him best, and have loved him most intensely, there will be along with the sadness a degree of relief that the most poignant assignment of their lives is finally over.

There will be relief, certainly, but also a terrible sense of emptiness.

It is apparent even as celebrations are prepared for the great man's 70th birthday on Tuesday. Today there is a party at the Ali Centre in his native Louisville. On 18 February, President Clinton flies into Las Vegas, where a spectacular tribute is being planned at the MGM Grand Casino.

Joyful occasions, no doubt, if Ali, who was perilously ill last month after returning from the funeral of his great adversary Joe Frazier, fills the big rooms with his presence, if he can reproduce one or two of those moments of needle-sharp awareness that he showed when rising to his feet and applauding the life of his old opponent in the funeral chapel in Philadelphia. But if there is pride and idolisation, there is also a kind of agony and no one captures such ambivalence more deeply than Gene Kilroy, the man who of all Ali's inner circle has most passionately celebrated those little pinpricks of light that over the years have from time to time illuminated the enveloping darkness which has accompanied the Parkinson's syndrome so cruelly accelerated by those last brutal years in the ring.

Kilroy, a lawyer and one of the most familiar denizens of the fight jungle, was a young army officer when he first encountered the young Ali at the Rome Olympics. He has rarely been long or far from his side ever since. Kilroy travelled to Philadelphia with Ali and noted the herculean effort required from the man who once seemed to embody physical grace even under the most extreme pressure. When Ali was found unconscious in his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, soon after his return from the East, Kilroy, the ultimate boxing retainer, wondered if it was indeed the end and, if it was, what astonishing symmetry in the possibility that he had given the last ounces of his will and energy in saluting the man with whom he had, in his own view, been locked in a "near death" experience in the ring in Manila all those years before.

Yesterday, Kilroy was on the line from Las Vegas, drumming up the old memories as though they happened yesterday, but most of all lauding the enduring courage of the man around whom he had shaped the highest and lowest points of his life. "You know this Parkinson's thing is really kicking his butt," said Kilroy, "but as long as he has breath in his body you know that he will never hide away... he will always come to face the world, to be acknowledged and try to give something back. Will he make it to Vegas again? I know he will if it is humanly possible. You have your coronations in London and we have inaugurals in Washington, well this will be our version of a combination of the two."

For Kilroy, it will be something rather more personal, something that will carry him through all the days of glory and pain, all the riotous affirmation of a talent and a competitive character and personality that made Ali not only the world's greatest boxer and sportsman but someone who could stop the traffic anywhere in the world.

"Ali once said," recalls Kilroy, "that he wasn't just born to be a great champion, that was what he did for a living, but he also wanted to touch the world, make it a better place. Fight injustice, racism. That seemed like a pretty tough task when people were saying he was a traitor when he refused to serve in Vietnam, when he was so unpopular when he joined the Black Muslims and he had to fight his way all the way to the Supreme Court to win back his livelihood, but I always knew he would make it through the worst of those days.

"You see, his heart was so big and then you put it beside genius, you have a very strong chance." Kilroy ignites so many memories because you put Ali into any of the scenes of his extraordinary life and the chances are that his friend will be at his shoulder. When Ali was drawn into the camp of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, when he rejected his slave name Cassius, the only white men who retained access to the inner circle were the brilliant trainer Angelo Dundee and Kilroy. They were the surviving evidence that no one section of the world, one set of convictions, was likely to annexe Muhammad Ali.

You remember the time you drove with a colleague up to Ali's training camp in Deer Lake in Pennsylvania, where he was training for his last big fight, a desperate attempt to turn back the clock against his formidable former sparring partner Larry Holmes, and Kilroy greeted you like minor royalty. He explained that Ali was getting restive because of the lack of attention, asking: "Where are all the writers and the TV cameras? Do they think I'm finished?"

Six years after victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa, it was a reality he would not be able to dispel in the ring before Dundee threw in the towel after seven rounds of brutal punishment – rounds which may well have triggered some of the pain and the diminishment which would oppress him for the rest of his years.

Three years before, in Madison Square Garden, Ali had produced the last of his best, repelling with marvellous skill and physical resilience the heavy-hitting attack of Earnie Shavers. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's medical adviser, resigned after the fight. In the darkened dressing room the champion complained that the overhead lights were like needles in his eyes and after switching them off the fight doctor said this had to be the end. Ali was taking too much punishment. "The damage is everywhere," said Pacheco. "It's in your head, your liver, even your bowels. You can't go on." It was a verdict supported by Teddy Brenner, the Madison Square Garden match-maker, who said: "I never thought I would live to see the day when Muhammad Ali's greatest asset in the ring was his ability to take a punch."

Pacheco left, but not Kilroy. He was beyond despair or disillusion. He would go down to the wire of Muhammad Ali's life, however it came. He had seen too much, felt too much, at too close a range, to ever walk away. Normally, nothing disperses faster than the entourage of a beaten fighter but Ali was always guaranteed a quorum of one in the man who had so quickly identified the force of his destiny.

It was a resolve that hardly needed any confirmation yesterday when he re-traced the days running back to Rome, when the impertinent young man from Kentucky first announced his intention to conquer the world. Kilroy knows all of it, the dread and the racing blood pressure before the ogre Sonny Liston was dispatched in Miami, the shots fired by rednecks in Georgia before the fight with Jerry Quarry, the wars with Frazier, the staggering upset of Foreman in that mythic jungle back among his "kinfolk".

Kilroy still dines out on the story of how he was summoned to Ali's side as the plane entered the descent pattern on the approach to Kinshasa. He wanted to know which type of person the people of Zaire most detested. Kilroy, aware of the harsh colonial days, speculated that it was probably a Belgian. When Ali stepped out of the plane to be welcomed by an excited crowd, he announced immediately: "George Foreman is a Belgian."

You have to ask Kilroy which was the best moment of all, the most uplifting time in a life spent in the company of the greatest sports figure of all time. He hesitates for scarcely a moment. "It was walking with Ali through New York City on a winter morning after he had won the second Frazier fight in 1974. He had all of it back in that fight, all the footwork, the feinting, the wonderful timing. Ali won by a mile and he was full of life when he walked to the press conference. New York stopped. Cars honked. People rushed up to him and embraced him. He was no mere fighter, not that he had ever been that. No, he was the king of the world. Nobody, nothing could touch him."

It might be a little intrusive to ask Gene Kilroy what he would give to have that New York morning back again but he anticipates the question and says: "Sometimes it's hard seeing him as he is today. It takes huge effort for him to make the simplest communication now but so often from somewhere he finds what it takes. Then, when he does, everything is worthwhile."

It means, after all, that the Greatest is still alive – and for quite some time, who wouldn't settle for that?

The Greatest: Muhammad Ali in his own words

*At home I'm a nice guy but I don't want the world to know. Humble people don't get very far.

*Twenty-six years after beating Sonny Liston in Miami I listened to a tape of me talking after the fight. I was great but, man, I was crazy.

*I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. I'm not going to Vietnam to help bomb brown people when black people back home in Louisville are being treated like dogs.

*A man whose views are the same at 50 as they were when he was 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.

*I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.

*Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down and come up with the extra power it takes to win when the fight is even.

*I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before it was dark.

*It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.

*I hated every minute of training but I said "don't quit – suffer now and then live the rest of your life as a champion".

*I beat him so bad he will need a shoe-horn to get his hat on (after an early victory).

*Jimmy Ellis (a former world champion who was a sparring partner for Ali before the Earnie Shavers fight in 1977) dreamt last night that he beat me. The first thing he did when he came in this morning was apologise.

*Hating people because of the colour of their skin is wrong and it don't matter which colour is doing the hating. It's just plain wrong.

*I'm the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey were just pilots.

*A big fight is just like chasing a pretty girl. You slap on the cologne and you get very excited. Then, when it's all over, you wonder what all the fuss was about.

*My toughest fight was with my first wife.

*A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he will never crow. I've seen the light – and I'm crowing.

*Timber! (As basketball star Wilt Chamberlain walked into a press conference for the announcement of a proposed fight with Ali, who had been warned that he should be respectful).

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