The Greatest, who would have turned 80 this week, lives on in fighters and gyms around the world almost six years after passing away
Muhammad Ali is gone but not forgotten and any talk about his death in 2016 is strangely ignored. It seems that Ali is alive and well.
“He’s the world’s greatest fighter and the world’s greatest person,” says his grandson, Nico Ali Walsh, who is now three and zero as a professional.
“I think about him every single day,” says Gene Kilroy, his friend and facilitator. “I see him everywhere and hear him everywhere.”
It was Kilroy who got Ali out of the ring after the Rumble in the Jungle. It was Kilroy who cried and was sick at ringside in the Bahamas at the very bitter end. Kilroy was there for every glorious and awful moment. It is Kilroy who keeps the tales alive, who tells the stories, who holds the truth and who dearly loves the man he called a friend. Kilroy is the last man standing.
Ali’s final fight was in late 1981, just a month before his 40th birthday; it was a bad, bad night for Ali and for boxing. It was a shameful exercise in greed and stupidity; the Ali in the ring was not even a shadow of the man from a decade earlier. He was a ghost fighter, numb and slurring his words far too often. Ali was beaten for 10 rounds by Trevor Berbick. There would be no more fights, just the legend growing with each generation and loop of fighting history. He would find his voice in the mouths of children and poets and men and women who fell in love with him.
The Ali files from the ring are simple; he won and lost the world heavyweight title three times, he was stripped of his right to fight because he refused to register for the Vietnam war, he won and lost the most iconic fights in boxing’s history and made people smile. He danced, he bled, he joked and he suffered in fight after fight after fight. He wore fake crowns, he was feted by kings, he was adored, he went on mercy missions to free hostages, he lit the Olympic flame. He was the Greatest. He finished his career with 56 wins and 5 defeats. Modern boxers can only dream of walking in his slipstream.
And at 80 he lives on, it seems.
On Kilroy’s wall there is a picture of Muhammad on a hill at daybreak, the sky blue, the fighter’s arms raised, distinctive white Everlast shorts. “I took that at camp,” Kilroy says. There are others with celebrities, politicians, in gyms and the big shot, taken at the very end of the Rumble in the Jungle. Surely it is one of the greatest boxing pictures in history.
Ali is standing in motion, looking down at George Foreman on the canvas; the referee, Zach Clayton, has nearly finished his count at 2:58 of round eight; at the edge of the ring, with his hand on the rope is Kilroy in a beige safari suit. Kilroy has started to climb the steps; Kilroy is there ready to clamber through the ropes and celebrate the miracle. Time stops in the picture; Ali is exhausted and would soon collapse in the ring and ask Gene to get him out of there; Foreman has a look of utter wonder on his face. That look returns whenever Big George talks about that night in 1974. He still has no idea what happened.
It is the Ali that modern boxing remembers. White Everlast shorts, the small brown gloves darkened by use, long white boots. Ali, Ali, Ali.
The picture is signed: ‘To Gene, we did it. Thanks. Muhammad Ali.’
There is another photograph, taken in retirement, of the pair in white tuxedos with black bowties. When the Ali boxing business was finished, Kilroy retired to Las Vegas and became that fabled city’s greatest executive host.
Ali was always a guest in the city, perhaps wheeled out too often to sit and nod consent from ringside. It was good when he stopped travelling.
And now Ali lives in every gym. I don’t think I have ever been to a gym anywhere in the world and not seen a picture of Ali on the wall. Kilroy has his shrine, the rest of us can just look at the pictures.
“He was just my grandfather, the legacy continues,” says Nico Ali Walsh.
His grandson will keep fighting and boxers all over the globe will keep the memory of what Ali did in the ring and, more importantly, how he did it. From Oleksandr Usyk to Floyd Mayweather, every fighter has a little bit of Ali homage in there somewhere.
“What? You think he’s gone?” adds Kilroy. “He’s here every day. Everywhere, every single day.”