THERE WAS a moment in Muhammad Ali's cavalcade procession through Brixton yesterday that captured in an instant the joy and poignancy of the occasion.
Young and old lined Brixton Road and some ran alongside his green, open- topped 1930 Bentley. One girl waved a banner that read: "Ali Still The Greatest". Inside the car Ali had not moved; his face remained utterly impassive.
But as the cheering reached a climax he raised an arm to wave. It moved painfully slowly and only up to his waist. Then, equally slowly and painfully he brought it down. And he did not try to repeat the gesture.
Ali was meeting the leaders of Jubilee 2000 in south London. He is helping to spearhead their international campaign for world leaders to write off the debts of the poorest Third World countries. At the Brits the night before he had received a special award for his work. On neither occasion did he utter a word in public.
In Brixton, the traditional centre of London's black community, Ali remains a hero two decades after his boxing triumphs and almost as long after his physical descent into frailty caused by Parkinson's disease. His car, escorted by mounted police, drove up and down Brixton's main street to the cheers of a still adoring public.
One man in dreadlocks came out with his two sons, 13 and 14, also with dreadlocks. He said his name was Fred, a name to which he was clearly attached, as both his sons were also called Fred. In Brixton not everyone likes to give their real name. It was a joke that Ali would have laughed at once.
There lies one of the biggest changes in the man. Heavy- jowled, impassive, silent and serious, the biggest contrast is not with Ali the once-nimble and super-fit, but with Ali the joker: the man who in the Sixties and Seventies performed verbal somersaults, recited impromptu poetry and smiled at his own audacity as he danced the Ali Shuffle before delivering a knock- out punch.
From the present-day Ali there is no sign of a joke, no hint of laughter. When he received his award at the Brits he did not smile.
Throughout his Brixton procession he did not smile. Only when he ponderously left the car to go into the church hall for his meeting did he surprise onlookers by performing a magic trick, making a handkerchief disappear. Perhaps that's as near as one will get to the old Ali.
It did not matter; not to the crowds yesterday who had come out to see a legend, a campaigner and a role model, not a joker, not even a boxer. It was 13-year-old Fred II who said: "He is a role model for me. He is a success. He shows what you can do." Edwin, 19, added: "My dad looked up to him. He is the greatest fighter of all time. He is a role model for the black community."
John, 29, said: "I'm here to support him over dropping the debt. I believe this debt is a great disadvantage to black people. You can never develop. Plus, Ali is a great man, he believes in principles and he was persecuted for them."
Perhaps he was referring to Ali's Islamic beliefs, perhaps to his imprisonment for refusing to fight in Vietnam in the Sixties. Perhaps, with many others, he has been entranced by the Ali portrayed in When We Were Kings, the film of his Seventies fight in Africa with George Foreman, the rumble in the jungle. It was "Ali Boombayay", the African chant from that film, which resounded down Brixton Road.
Earlier, Ali laid a wreath at London's anti-slavery monument in Victoria Tower Gardens to show his support for the campaign. At the park, near Westminster, he was met by six children, said to represent the lives of the seven million children which could be saved by 2000, if Third World debts were cancelled.
The six children and Ali took part in a one-minute silence at the monument, before the singer Jacqui Manning sang a version of Bob Marley's "Redemption" song.
Ali, in a vivid multi-coloured jumper and navy blue trousers, kissed the youngsters before joining them at the monument to lay green and yellow wreaths of roses and lilies. Ron DiNicola, Ali's lawyer and agent, said: "It's a terrific honour for him to be in England, a country he loves and a country he has had a warm, long-standing relationship with."
Vera, a middle-aged Brixton housewife, said simply: "He is a good man. And he's not looking bad at all considering the sickness he has been through. I used to sit up overnight to watch his fights."
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