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 locked. 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 hell." 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 riots. 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 connotations. 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 Factory. 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 bodies. 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 period. "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 nicely." 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 wrestling. 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.