Stephen Brunt visits Muhammad Ali in Berien Springs, Mich.

                            BOXING THE GREATEST

(Toronto Globe and Mail, September 7, 1991)

By Stephen Brunt

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. -- The most famous man in the world chases my son
around the driveway, catches him and lifts him high into the air.

The boy is laughing, squealing the way that three-and-a-half-year-olds do in
their many moments of ecstasy. Muhammad Ali is laughing too, though it is
obvious only in his eyes, and only if you look into them long and hard. It's
difficult at first to see beyond the mask, beyond a 49-year-old who seems
older, a physical shell once so elegant, so beautiful, made rigid and clumsy
and mortal.

But his eyes can still dance the way they did, when he was young, when I 
was a boy. Sometimes they danced with genius, sometimes with cruelty, with
courage, with a conman's ego. He was poetry and energy and brutality and 
brilliance. "He dreams himself anew each morning," wrote Hugh McIlvanney, 
The Observer's great boxing writer.

Ali embodied his time, shaped his time like no other athlete before or
since. He was no philosopher, no intellectual, but still he was at the eye 
of the storm for nearly 20 years.

It is different now. Ali speaks infrequently and in a hoarse whisper.
Occasionally, when sitting, he'll drift off to sleep for a moment, even
begin snoring. His hands shake slightly. He is strong and reasonably fit, 
but restricted in his movements by Parkinson's syndrome (the technical label 
for symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease) caused in all likelihood
by boxing-related brain damage. He is not, however, "punch- drunk." There is 
no sign that he is intellectually impaired.

Ali remains a celebrity and is mobbed wherever he goes, but ironically, the
man who was once famous for his gift of gab has been rendered all but mute.
Boxing gave Ali a stage and took much in return, and now he has become an
object of pity. Reformers look at him and curse the game that made him so.
The nostalgists, even those who hated him when he first arrived to shock the
world, now smile soft, fuzzy, patronizing smiles at the sight of The Greatest.

Brain damage has rendered him benign, the way hawking barbecue recipes made
Black Panther Bobby Seale benign, the way becoming a confirmed capitalist
made Jerry Rubin benign. Now, although it's hard to find anyone who won't 
profess their love and admiration for Ali , there's a sense of pathos that 
tends to go with that affection, as though the subject were a formerly 
difficult, now passively senile, uncle.

Muhammed Ali lives in this small, old-fashioned, prosperous, quintessentially
Middle American town surrounded by vineyards and orchards, not far from the
shores of Lake Michigan, about 100 kilometres east of Chicago. His farm is
at the end of a dead-end street, and anyone in town can direct you there. The
sign that once proclaimed Muhammad Ali Farms at the entrance is gone. Now
there is just a fence and a gate with a security intercom and the label "M.
Ali ." Once the gate was always kept open when Ali was in town. Today it is

But even in a world that spawned Mark David Chapman, the metal bars and the
barbed wire atop the fence are misleading. Anyone can arrive from anywhere,
dial the code provided, ask for an audience and be granted admission. After
the gate swings open, you follow a long, tree-lined lane that ends at a
modest white frame house. Nearby is a small barn that houses a gym. A huge 
doberman rises to greet the arriving car, but it is not an attack dog.

"Don't worry," says a tall, strong woman who opens the screen door at the
back of the house. "He's friendly."

She is Lonnie Ali , the champion's fourth wife. She was a little girl when
he first won the world championship from Sonny Liston, growing up across the
street from the Clay family home in Louisville. They were married in 1985
after Lonnie completed her MBA, and she is said to look after his well-being
and his finances a lot better than most of those from the glory days

By most measures, Ali is still a rich man, but by most accounts not nearly
as rich as he should be. Money wasn't one of the things that Muhammad Ali 
paid much attention to, and for the leeches and the truly needy, he was the
easiest mark in the world.

We walk in through the kitchen -- my son and I, later followed by my wife
and our baby -- past Lonnie and her mother, Marguerite Williams, as they 
prepare lunch, cleaning freshly picked vegetables. The next room is a study, 
where Ali sits at a large table, signing the Islamic tracts that he 
distributes by the thousands. He rises to shake hands, asks my name, where 
I'm from. He lifts my son, who is still shy at the sight of the enormous, 
whispering man, and slowly, gently, kisses him on the cheek. Then he sits 
down in an easy chair beside a silent, giant-screen television set.

"How old were you when you first heard about me?" Ali asks.
I was seven. It was his second fight with the brave British Bleeder Henry
Cooper on a flickering black-and-white screen. It is the first boxing, or
any other sport, I remember watching. I was too young to have seen the Friday
Night Fights on my father's knee. I can't remember a world when there was no
Cassius Clay.

My dad was a Joe Louis man, a Sugar Ray Robinson man, and was two boxing
generations removed from understanding what the young heavyweight with the
big mouth was all about. Even those who had doted on Rocky Marciano just 10
years before were hopelessly out of touch.

The generation gap had something to do with the anger, and fear, that
greeted Ali 's appearance on the sporting scene. Looking back, it's also 
clear there was so much more than that. Why couldn't those who were willing 
to let Walker Smith take the name of Robinson and Arnold Cream become Jersey 
Joe Walcott, let Clay become Ali?

It didn't start out that way. When Cassius Clay turned professional after
winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, he was managed by a group of
white businessmen from Louisville and was widely regarded as a clown because 
of his penchant for loud, long monologues, for reciting his own verse, for
predicting the round of his opponent's demise.

He had borrowed some of the shtick from the wrestler, Gorgeous George, but
was the first athlete in a "legitimate" sport to perform that way. The
Louisville Lip was easy enough to dismiss. His histrionics were such that at 
the weigh-in before his 1964 fight with Liston for the heavyweight championship, 
some of the press corps were convinced he wouldn't show up for the bout.

A big-talking but harmless, grinning and inherently cowardly black man was
the kind of stereotype with which White America could get comfortable.
By beating Liston, Ali demonstrated that he was no flash-in-the-pan, that he
was possessed of extraordinary talent (although many refused to believe the
result at the time, or the result of the controversial rematch, when Liston
fell from a phantom punch).

And by joining the Black Muslims soon afterwards, by changing his name and
associating with Malcolm X, putting his career in the hands of Herbert
Muhammad (son of his spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad) after the Louisville
syndicate's contract expired, he immediately ceased to be regarded as a
clown, and came to be regarded as a threat.

The rhetoric of the Black Muslims, filled with reference to black
nationalism, "white devils," and spaceships circling the Earth poised to 
destroy white civilization, seemed just a touch more dangerous than "Archie
Moore will fall in four."

"People are always telling me what a good example I could set for my people
if I just wasn't a Muslim," Ali said in 1964. "I've heard over and over, how
come I couldn't be like Joe Louis or Sugar Ray. Well, they're gone now, and 
the black man's condition is just the same, ain't it? We're still catching

Ali became the most hated black athlete since Jack Johnson insisted on
socializing with white women. The hatred found a focus and haters were
handed a weapon when Ali announced after being drafted that he would not 
serve in the U.S. armed forces. As a Muslim, he was a conscientious objector 
and had "no quarrel with them Viet Cong."

Immediately after refusing induction, before going to trial, Ali was
stripped of his title. Those who ran the sport made it impossible for him 
to fight.

He would be convicted and sentenced to prison. Eventually that conviction
would be overturned by the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, Ali
was prevented from boxing for three-and-a-half years, in the prime of his
athletic life. If you watch a fight like his masterful knockout of Cleveland
Williams in 1966 -- arguably the finest performance of his career -- then
watch any of the fights after his return, the contrast is striking.

The older Ali was still a great fighter, and some of his most spectacular
moments lay ahead -- the mystical victory over George Foreman in Zaire, the
Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier in 1975. But the young Ali was something
else again.

For most people, the time in exile defined Ali's heroism. He wouldn't have
been sent to the front lines in Vietnam - the army would have used him as it
did Joe Louis during the Second World War, as a propaganda weapon, a
recruiting tool. By boxing exhibitions and appearing in uniform, he would
have had a huge symbolic impact, especially on young black men.

Instead he stayed behind, speaking on college campuses, watching Frazier
claim his title, watching the anti-war protests grow and ghettos erupt in 

The world changed between 1967 and 1971. Ali , without question, helped to
change it.

By the time he returned to the ring, his allies outnumbered his enemies.
There were some who were overjoyed when Frazier beat him in 1971 in the Fight 
of the Century, who exulted in seeing him humbled, seeing him knocked down. 
It was a moment they had long awaited.

But in losing that fight, Ali only grew in stature. He would regain his
title, lose it, regain it again. As he declined physically there was a 
perverse fascination in watching him and wondering when his skill and savvy 
would no longer compensate for his aging body. By then the world was on his 
side -- the whole world, especially the Third World, where he remains better 
known than any U.S. president. His victory over Foreman, even his victory 
in 1978 over Leon Spinks to win the title for the third and last time, were 
moments that all cheered.

It's surprising, then, when you stumble across the old animosity. Earlier
this year, I listened as an American sports historian explained in a lecture
that, according to his set of academic criteria, Ali didn't really qualify 
as a sports hero. Jackie Robinson was one - he had all the athletic,
intellectual, political and moral qualifications. Joe Louis wasn't one - 
he had those unfortunate problems with money, and though that was to some 
extent the fault of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, it apparently remained 
a blight on his life.

And Ali? Fine on all counts, except for that little matter of refusing to
serve his country in Vietnam. That, according to the professor, eliminated
him from the pantheon.

My younger son toddles to a coffee table, laughing as Ali throws his voice,
imitating the sound of a baby crying. The boy spies an automatic channel
changer, picks it up, points and flicks on Ali 's giant television, which
roars into life at full volume. It is tuned to CNN, and the first picture to
appear is a scowling Mike Tyson, preparing to face a grand jury that will
decide whether he will be charged with sexual assault. Ali is riveted to the
screen at the mention of Tyson's name. He is not an admirer of Iron Mike.
Privately, he has delighted in telling friends how he would have beaten him.

Tyson's current legal entanglement will not prevent him from attempting to
regain the heavyweight title in November in a fight that will pay him
$15-million. Should he be charged and convicted, the sport could face a
dilemma similar to the one it faced in 1967, though without the political

Everybody's biggest meal ticket may be bound for prison. A draft dodger
couldn't be heavyweight champion. How about a rapist?

When he is home, Ali spends his days signing pamphlets and greeting those
who turn up at the door. When he is away -- as he was 150 times last year,
including a pre-war visit to Iraq in an attempt to influence Saddam
Hussein -- he sees his mission as religious. There are still plenty of paid 
public appearances, there are still some usually inept and ill-chosen 
business ventures such as a failed signature shoe polish, cologne and an 
automobile. But those are just excuses to spread the word. Since the death 
of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the sect has followed a more conventional Islamic 
line. (Louis Farrakhan, militant leader of a splinter group, and a few others
perpetuate the original, separatist view.)

Ali is now a moderate. For him, the white devils disappeared long ago.
There is no pressure to leave Ali 's home. Others who have visited have been
fed, have stayed for hours. When we decide to depart, he rises and walks us
to our car.

Outside, he takes his boxing stance, flicks a few jabs and invites me to
flick a few in return. Then a woman appears from behind the house, a nanny 
holding Ali's recently adopted son, Assad, who is four-and-a-half months old 
and bearsa striking resemblance to his new father. It is his eighth child and 
the only one who lives at home.

He holds the baby, kisses him, then hands him gently, gingerly, to my wife.
Stepping back, Ali stumbles over the sleeping dog and nearly falls, as stiff
as the tin woods- man after a hard rain. Even as he appears about to crash,
only his eyes have expression.

Regaining his balance, Ali walks ahead a few steps and glances back over his
shoulder at my elder son and me.

"Watch my feet," he says.

Ali turns his back, stands with his feet slightly apart and steadies
himself. Then for an instant he seems to rise from the ground, levitating. 
My son stares in wonder.

I stare, too, and during the moments before reason kicks in, before the
rational ties which bind the rest of us to the earth expose the fakir's
trick, I believe with all my heart that Muhammad Ali has ascended.

"How did that man fly?" my son asks and asks and asks for days afterward.

"It was magic," I tell him. "It must be magic."

                      OLD-TIMERS HONOR ART ARAGON

(Los Angeles Daily News, Nov. 16, 1998)

By Michael Rosenthal

They came from a different age of boxing in Los Angeles.

In their time, the sport was the pro game in town, at least until the Rams
landed in L.A. in 1946. Even then, Angelenos loved a good fight and the men
who did the fighting.

Boxing fans could go to the fights six days a week in venues throughout the
city at that time, they swear. And, as with the Shaquille O'Neals of today,
everyone knew who the top contenders were and treated them as they did the
biggest movie stars of the day.

This was the era in which George Latka and Art Aragon plied their trade.  On
Tuesday, about 100 former fighters -- spanning seven decades of boxing --
gathered with friends and family at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood
to honor Latka and Aragon on their birthdays, Latka's 84th, Aragon's 71st.

It was an opportunity for old friends in this tight fraternity to get
together, as many of them do every Tuesday afternoon at the Spaghetti

However, this was a special day, Latka's and Aragon's day, and the focus was
on them.

Latka, remarkably lucid and thrilled to be honored, believes he was the
first professional boxer to graduate from college (UCLA, '44). That, he said, 
was his greatest accomplishment.

The retired teacher, who now lives in Huntington Beach, wasn't bad inside
the ropes, either.  A master boxer who took few punches, he was one of the 
best featherweights in the world in the late 1930s and early '40s. He beat
several world champions in a time when titles were meaningful including 
L.A. legend Baby Arizmendi, who twice outpointed the great Henry Armstrong 
but fell just short of winning a title himself.

Still, he made a few dollars (a few thousand on a good night) and rubbed
elbows with the biggest names in Hollywood. He and his wife, Trudie, still
get Christmas cards from Bob Hope.

"I was very well known," said Latka, who was managed by actor George Raft.
"It got to the point where I didn't like to go out in Hollywood. I'd go to 
a restaurant or something and I'd get approached by all kinds of people.

"...In the day time, I couldn't even walk down the street. In retrospect, I
enjoyed it, I guess, but it got to be a pain."

Latka, who became a referee and judge after his career, follows boxing
closely and has his opinions, from his strong feelings that the Nevada 
State Athletic Commission was right to give Mike Tyson a license to the 
ridiculous notion that the sport is slowly dying.  However, he spoke most 
passionately about the proliferation of all-but-meaningless sanctioning 

Today, with a growing number of belts, Latka, as well as Aragon, probably
would've won at least one championship and reaped the rewards that go with
it. But Latka likes it the way it was, when there were eight champions 

"Today, television is fleecing the public," he said, an angry tone in his
voice as he discussed TV's insistence that its bouts be for one title or
another. "There are so many damn world champions. Who the hell knows who
they are? I don't even pay attention to who's champion anymore, I pay 
attention to INDIVIDUAL fighters.

"I pay attention to (Oscar) De La Hoya because he's going to be one of the
great fighters of all time," he added, slipping in another well-thought-out
opinion. "He's boxing better now, feinting, jabbing, counterpunching

Aragon was the first to be called "Golden Boy," the moniker De La Hoya has
adopted.  And in this town, he was at LEAST as well known as the latest
incarnation. Aragon wasn't necessarily loved, particularly after twice
beating L.A.'s beloved Enrique Bolanos. From then on, he was lustily booed by 
packed crowds at the Olympic Auditorium like the bad guy in professional 

The fans had to respect his ability, though. Aragon, one of the finest
lightweights of his time, came within a few punches of becoming world champ
when he lost a close decision to titleholder Jimmy Carter in 1951, his only
world-title shot.

Win, lose or draw, Aragon loved every minute of it, the cheers and jeers in
the ring, the never-ending attention in the media and on the street, the
countless women, the fun.

Thus, with those years long gone, Aragon, a successful bail bondsman in Van
Nuys, appreciated the best wishes of his friends but wasn't as excited as
Latka about visiting the past.

"There's a good and bad side," said Aragon, who normally spews a joke a
minute. "It reminds me of what was and what could've been. It also tells me
that it's over. That's the part that hurts.

"...It was so nice fighting. There's no feeling quite like walking into the
ring. Even the boos were fun."

Unlike Latka, Aragon doesn't have a problem with the number of alphabet-soup
championships. It gives more fighters opportunities to make names for
themselves, he reasons.

And although he insists there were more quality fighters in his day, he
doesn't believe fighters from his era were any better -- or worse -- than
today's fighters.

"What's the biggest difference in boxing? Actually, nothing," he said.
"...Boxing is really no different now than it was then."

Only the fighters change.