The Last Word: Britain's muted farewell to the poet of pugilism

It's a crying shame that Ali's final visit to the UK will leave us with memories of decline rather than glory
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Muhammad Ali is coming to Britain this week and I wish he wasn't. It will not be a pretty sight. I hate to say this, but the gloved genius who has been my hero for more than half a lifetime is now little more than a zombie.

He cannot speak or walk unaided and the famous Ali shuffle is exactly that, no longer that dazzling quickstep but painfully slow and robotic, his gaze blank and unrecognising.

The toughest fight of the 67-year-old Ali's career has lasted a quarter of a century – against Parkinson's Disease, the nerve-paralysing condition that he inherited from his house-painter father which was undoubtedly exacerbated by having 10 fights too many. Alas, he never was the retiring sort.

I was fortunate enough to travel the world with the fistic phenomenon who so ennobled his art that his act as the heavyweight champion has become impossible to follow. Yes, there have been those who have worn the crown – or tawdry, fragmented versions of it – since then but none with such style, such guile, skill and charisma. Ali said he was The Greatest, and he still is.

It is one of life's ironies that the greatest orator sport has known, the street poet of pugilism, has been reduced to a shambling shell of his erstwhile self. Which is why his visit here will reduce many of his fans to tears. It will be heartbreakingly emotional, but is it really necessary?

He flies in by private jet on Wednesday principally for two functions in his honour, a dinner at Old Trafford and a lunch at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium. They are not speaking engagements, because while Ali's brain still functions no words can emanate from the Louisville Lip because his facial muscles are paralysed.

Is it right that the supreme sports personality of the 20th Century should be exhibited in this fashion? According to his wife, Lonnie, it is something he has insisted on undertaking because he wants to say farewell to his fans, friends and former foes in Britain. Doctors have told him his health is deteriorating fast and soon he will be unable to travel. It is also a mission to raise money for the Muhammad Ali Foundation in Louisville and the host of charities that it supports.

There are sceptical voices which suggest it is an obscene assault on his dignity to have been paraded around the world these past few years at corporate and charity appearances and that he should be left in peace. Lonnie, 52, disagrees. She believes that if her husband didn't keep in the public spotlight, soaking up the applause and adoration that fuels his very existence, he would sit at home and vegetate, perhaps even die.

"This is not just his living, it is also his life," she says. "He simply couldn't bear to fade away or be forgotten. Being who he is is his lifeblood. There is a quality about Muhammad that makes you want to give him all the love in the world. He is a warrior. He has always needed something to battle over."

The woman whom the father of 10 and four-times wed Ali calls "The Boss" accompanies him everywhere, controlling his life and the purse strings. Although many of the millions from his fighting years have dwindled, he is still able to live comfortably, earning US$100,000 (£60,000) a time from personal appearances that enabled him to afford the much-needed medical care.

Unlike some of his predecessors and successors he was never destined to end up destitute, but money was not the most compelling reason that kept him in the spotlight. "The trouble with Ali is that he doesn't know how to die," Joe Frazier once remarked.

Much as I wish Ali wasn't coming, we must salute his bravery as we did when his trembling hand lit the torch for the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.

His first port of call will be Ricky Hatton's new gym in Manchester. Perhaps the Hitman should reconsider any idea of fighting again, for in front of him will be the living evidence of what can happen if you linger too long in the hardest game of all.

Ali has always had particular affection for Britain, and the British for him. "How's Henry Cooper?" was the first question he would ask whenever he encountered a British face. He will meet up again this week with three of the four Brits he fought and beat. Joe Bugner now lives in Australia but Brian London and Richard Dunn will be guests at Old Trafford.

It was London, thrashed in three rounds, who said years later when it was suggested that Ali's condition was caused by boxing: "Don't blame me, I never laid a glove on him."

Ali and Sir Henry will have their reunion, somewhat bizarrely, at the European Jumping and Dressage Championships in the grounds of Windsor Castle on Friday, doing a lap of honour in an open-topped Range Rover.

It will be a deeply moving moment and one which demonstrates the gladiatorial camaraderie that is unique to boxing. "It will be nice to be in his company again," says Cooper, now 75, whose 'ammer famously floored the then Cassius Clay 46 years ago. "He was a bit special."

Indeed. Seeing Ali once more will be heartbreaking. However, being reminded of who he was and what he accomplished as a boxer and a man, and witnessing the overwhelming love and adulation awaiting him on this poignant farewell visit, will be heartwarming. So thanks for the memories, Muhammad.

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