A Fading Champ, But A Champ Still: Muhammad Ali Former boxing phenomenon Muhammad Ali is hobbled by age and illness, but he continues to make public appearances. While some people find these appearances sad and unsettling, Frank Deford says many more have come to embrace him.
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A Fading Champ, But A Champ Still: Muhammad Ali

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A Fading Champ, But A Champ Still: Muhammad Ali

A Fading Champ, But A Champ Still: Muhammad Ali

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Muhammad Ali was in Ireland yesterday, there to visit the western Irish town of Ennis. That was the home of his great grandfather, who emigrated to the United States in the 1860s. Thousands turned out to welcome Ali, including veteran Irish boxers who sparred with him years ago. He went to Ireland after a visit to England. Commentator Frank Deford says reactions there in general to the boxing legend were mixed.

FRANK DEFORD: Muhammad Ali flew to England last week, there to make appearances in soccer stadiums. He said it would probably be his last time in the U.K. He can barely move on his own now. One London newspaper called Ali: He who was once a butterfly, little more than a zombie. And a great many people find it upsetting as it is sad that the old champ continues to make personal appearances.

Maybe it would've been best if our last image of him had been in '96, when he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and — already shaking terribly from Parkinson's — he still managed to light the Olympic flame. There was a nobility to that scene, as if once more he'd gotten off the canvas, managed somehow to win another fight. But Ali wouldn't retire from the ring when he should have, and now he refuses to comfort us and slip away from public view.

Perhaps there's a bolder statement in that, that the man who once so immodestly enjoyed standing before us, the laird of his realm proclaiming his beauty to the heavens, is now unafraid to let us see him when his great body is slumped, in shambles.

But might we be too tender with our memories? The athlete dying young has always seemed so shocking, so unfair, but I suspect that it upsets us even more to actually see our heroes, those physical marvels, grown old and infirm, as vulnerable to age and disease as we ordinary folk are. We want to remember the paragon, not the mere human. Ah, but in contradiction, Ali's wife, Lonnie, speaks for her husband, saying that for as long as he can manage to travel and make silent appearances, it is not just his living, it is his life. There must, for Ali, be as much in satisfaction as in remuneration that he can still command up to $100,000 just for showing up.

The busted old pug was long a stereotype in our athletic cavalcade. That Ali is broken, but not broke, is a certain revenge. And he who was once so reviled by so many Americans has become quite a beloved figure in his dotage. Complicated as he has been, he won the fight for our affection too.

I can so vividly remember a few years ago when a photographer posed him before the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I thought that was insane. Who, after all, was more identified with opposition to that war? But when the people there — searching for the names of their loved ones, those who had died for what Ali opposed — when they spotted him, they rushed to him, even handed me their little cameras to take snapshots with him, embraced him. It was dear.

Even as boxing as a sport fades to the fringes, Muhammad Ali still retains some kind of hold on us. If he yet wants to present his present, lesser self to us, it is not for us to feel pity for him.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Frank Deford joins us each week from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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