Part 1: Our 2001 interview with Muhammad Ali

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comThe hands of Muhammad Ali are now at peace. No more boxing gloves, no more punching as he walks on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comThe hands of Muhammad Ali are now at peace. No more boxing gloves, no more punching as he walks on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali walks on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comMuhammad Ali walks on his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 
 
Updated 6/4/2016 11:52 PM
This Muhammad Ali story by Lindsey Willhite first ran in May 2001.

First of two parts.

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich.-- Muhammad Ali lowers himself into a kitchen chair and stares at the lunch placed before him by Mike, his informal sneakers-and-shorts-wearing executive chef.

 

"Everything all right, Mr. A?" Mike asks.

Ordinarily, Mr. A's answer would be no. The 59-year-old Ali prefers McDonald's cheeseburgers with mustard and onions, a delicacy he frequently secures a mile up the narrow road from his gorgeous 88-acre estate in southwest Michigan.

But fast food isn't what Ali gets on this early May day.

What he sees on his plate are asparagus stalks arranged like an exaggerated clown's mouth. Strips of grilled chicken lined alongside a heaping assortment of leafy greens, cucumber slices and tomato cubes. Raspberries complete what is surely a health nut's dream.

No sugar, no salt, no cheese, no burger, no hint of the things Ali loves to eat most.

Yet he digs in with a vengeance.

After several minutes of dining -- a process made a little longer and sloppier by the consistent shaking of his arms caused by Parkinson's disease -- Ali suddenly looks up from his plate and begins to speak in that rhythmic whisper the world knows so well.

"60! That's all I'm going to say. Fellas, all I have to say is 60! People are going to go to the streets (yelling) '60!' Kids in the schools? '60!'"

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Suddenly, Ali's health kick has a context.

Now it makes sense why he and his wife, Lonnie, have just returned from a week at a southern California "health camp," where they removed toxins from their bodies and replaced them with the nutrients supplied by salads and juices.

All in the name of Ali dropping 50 pounds from his 6-foot-2 frame before his 60th birthday, which comes on Jan. 17.

"From 270 to 220," Ali says between bites of bread. "In one week, I lost 8 pounds. Eat this for lunch every day. Eat this for dinner. No desserts ... maybe a little taste."

If his beloved ice cream doesn't stop him from reaching his goal, Ali will be 1 pound lighter than he was in 1978 when he avenged a loss to Leon Spinks and became the heavyweight champion of the world for the third and final time.

Or was it the final time?

"I'm making a comeback," Ali hisses as his eyes grow large. "Been off 20 years. I'm still in demand. This'll be so big, I can name the price, the place we're going to fight and who I'm going to fight.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Dancin' and shufflin' ... '60!' Uppercuttin' ... '60!' No football players are 60. No basketball players are 60. No tennis players are 60. Are you going to tell the people I'm going to come back?"

Assured this will be the case, Ali confirms he'd like to fight at New York City's Madison Square Garden on his 60th birthday.

And who would he like to face?

"Lennox Lewis," Ali replies.

Why not Hasim Rahman, the man who took Lewis' heavyweight titles on April 22?

"Can't fight no Muslim," he says.

When Lonnie walks into the kitchen and is apprised of these grand plans, she turns toward her husband of 14 years and issues that universal but untranslatable noise spouses utter when they want to convey bemusement and disapproval.

You realize Lonnie has heard all this before and expects to hear it all again. Ali broached the idea of a comeback in a first-person column he wrote for Newsweek near the end of last year. His written words sparked interest but quickly died as few would take him seriously.

After all, Ali has Parkinson's, right? Hardly has the coordination or energy to walk, right? Surely his current musings prove his brain took too many punches, correct?

Well, not exactly.

As always with Ali, 41 years after he leaped onto the world's stage to stay by winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, there's more to him than meets the eye or fills the ear.

Just maybe not enough to get him into the ring one last time. After all, he'd have to fight his family and closest friends first.

Kim Vidt, Ali's personal assistant in the sumptuous GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) offices that occupy a building on his estate, refutes any and all talk of a comeback.

"No," Vidt declares in a tone equally friendly and firm. "I think all of us here would kill him before he could get in there."

So why does Ali persist?

"Just imagine me coming back at 60," he coos. "Even with Parkinson's disease."

Left hook; Jab, jab, jab

For years, Ali's doctors were adamant that their prized patient did not suffer from Parkinson's.

Rather, they concurred that he had parkinsonism, the umbrella term for the degenerative disorder that affects the particular part of the brain that controls movement. Parkinson's disease is one member of the parkinsonism family.

While doctors have changed their stance in recent years and concluded Ali suffers from Parkinson's disease -- a presently incurable ailment he holds in check by taking several pills three times per day -- Ali's family and friends know the public has never been as interested in splitting hairs over that as much as they are another topic: whether Ali's problems are a matter of being "punch-drunk."

Absolutely not, Vidt says. To a visitor, she points out the obvious, which is that Ali hears all and comprehends all that goes on around him. He just can't always comment on everything in real time due to Parkinson's.

"He's very sharp," Vidt says. "People don't realize he's a very healthy, viable individual with a regimen most of us can't keep up with."

Since Jan. 1, Ali has spent barely half of his days at home in his seeming quest to become the world's greatest collector of frequent-flier miles. He has made trips to Washington. To London. Back to Washington. To Frankfort, Ky. New York City. Atlanta. Louisville, Ky. New Jersey. The Bahamas. New York City again. Phoenix, for his annual Ali Care Center fundraiser. New York City again. Louisville again. Palm Beach, Fla., and Miami.

This list doesn't count three two-hour car rides to Chicago, including Muhammad and Lonnie's appearance at Grant Park on Mother's Day to lend their support to the annual "Y-ME" run that raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.

Does this sound like a man who's slowing down?

"It is absolutely exhausting," says Lonnie, who splits the trips with Kim Vidt. "And we've scaled back his schedule for 2001 and 2002."

True, Ali doesn't move or talk as well as your ordinary 59-year-old man. Like some people afflicted with Parkinson's, when Ali walks he usually carries his arms in front of his stomach as if trying to hold the reins of a horse. In order to maintain his balance, he takes half-strides like a hiker descending a slight grade. And whether he's walking or sitting, his arms frequently shake as if he were holding a pencil and trying to cross a name off a list.

His speech is occasionally inaudible, but not when he's in a quiet room. And he calls on his ability to shout ("BE!!" "BE!!") when performing one of his favorite magic tricks -- transforming a flimsy pink scarf into a sturdy pointing stick in the blink of an eye.

Using these standards, it would seem inconceivable Ali would be interested in fighting again.

But as a tour of his farm shifts from GOAT offices down the driveway to his sparkling 2-year-old Triple Crown Gym, Ali's gait gains a little steam. His eyes reflect much of their old gleam.

While a visitor inspects the framed black-and-white photos along the immaculate white walls -- Ali meeting with Malcolm X, Ali punching out the Beatles, Ali pretending to land a right hand to Michael Jordan's chin, Ali talking to Howard Cosell -- the man himself stops in front of a rack of boxing gloves. He asks his young assistant, Andy, to help him slip a pair of black Everlasts over his thick fists.

With his sparring gloves secured, Ali turns and walks toward the heavy bag a few feet away.

Will he or won't he? Oh, yes.

Tentatively at first, but then Ali begins to move his feet and deliver some quick combinations. Left hook, jab, jab, jab, a big right, jab, left hook.

After a couple minutes, Ali takes a break to catch his breath.

"He doesn't get in here as much as he should," Andy says. "When we first had the gym, he'd do this almost every day. Now, it's once or twice a week at best. He's going to start coming in more."

Soon, Ali takes another turn at the heavy bag. No blows big enough to deck Frazier or Foreman or Liston, but hard enough to make you glad your rib cage isn't taking the pounding.

Now Ali moves to the gym's showpiece -- the regulation ring with the "No Shoes In The Ring" signs attached to each corner.

Ali ignores the orders and climbs gingerly through the ropes. Again, he starts slowly while Andy disappears into a closet for a moment.

Suddenly, the unmistakable introduction to the "Theme from Rocky" begins blasting from the speakers -- an oddly fitting thing since Ali's 15-round fight with Chuck Wepner in 1975 is what inspired Sylvester Stallone to write "Rocky."

The inspirational horn riff sends Ali into another gear. He's shuffling and moving, shadowboxing and uppercutting. His considerable forearms glisten as they cut through the air. The grimace on his face suggests this is no show.

If he's not lightning and thunder, he's at least an impending storm -- particularly by the standards of mortal 59-year-olds.

When the song fades out, Ali takes a seat on a stool in the corner and relaxes.

He teases Andy, makes funny faces for the camera, tells a politically incorrect joke and generally acts as if he's at home.

But, really, a comeback? Why? Is it the promise of a giant purse?

"The Center would get a good piece of the money," Ali says later.

Ah, yes, the Ali Center.

Advertised with the catchy phrase "The Greatest is Yet to Come," the Alis and an all-star board of directors are in the process of raising $60 million to build the Muhammad Ali Center on a prime piece of riverfront property in his hometown of Louisville.

It will be the lasting testament to Ali's career and ideals and spirit -- his way to inspire generations of children long after he's gone.

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