For Muhammad Ali…the struggle continues

MUHAMMAD Ali is the Greatest survivor… he will celebrates his 73rd birthday on Saturday, 30 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

  America will awake this Saturday morning marvelling at how The Greatest boxer of all time has fought off Parkinson’s for so long to reach the grand old age of 73.

  The most powerful nation on Earth will then hope to celebrate Muhammad Ali’s birthday by finally reclaiming a major portion of the world heavyweight title, which it was once accustomed to brandishing as the symbol of its manhood.

  Ali, having emerged miraculously from yet another hospital scare, is expected to spend his evening watching on television as the latest American contender for his throne strives to bring home the most cherished of the heavyweight belts.

  Deontay Wilder, another black Adonis of the prize ring, will be in Las Vegas challenging Bermane Stiverne for the WBC title having vowed: ‘Ali’s crown is coming back where it belongs.’

  Since the boy from Tuscaloosa, Alabama has flattened all his 32 professional opponents thus far inside four rounds, the US is agog that he will deliver on that promise.

  That sense of impending destiny is encouraged by the return to the boxing big time of the larger-than-life promoter who staged Ali’s epic Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman.

  Don King is back in electrified business as the Svengali of Stiverne, the first Haitian-born heavyweight champion of the world. But his presence in the MGM Grand Garden Arena will be seen as a key piece in the jigsaw of American fight history slipping into place.

  King has promoted 12 of America’s 13 US-born WBC heavyweight champions. The only exception was the first to wear that belt, Sonny Liston, who was sensationally knocked out 41 years ago next month by Ali in his first incarnation as a brash young man called Cassius Clay.

  Although he hopes that Stiverne, who now fights out of Canada, will withstand Wilder’s all-American hammer blows, King’s real achievement at this moment is his re-emergence from the boxing shadows in his 80s.

  The nostalgia which will accompany him at ringside in Vegas will be all the more profound given the coincidence of a birthday which Ali was not widely expected to reach.

  This is an occasion awash with statistics, starting with that of no American having held so much as a particle of the heavyweight championship for almost a decade.

  Yet the most remarkable figure is 30, the number of years since Ali was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

  The average survival span while suffering from this pernicious affliction is 16 years. By that estimation it is extraordinary that Ali has lived beyond his late 50s.

  Thirty years, going on 31 now, is a monumental tribute to the fighting spirit which continues to infuse Ali’s life so long after it galvanised the hardest game of all, nerved him to champion civil rights in America, steeled him to oppose the Vietnam War and even now rouses him to condemn the violent extremists who pervert the religion to which he converted.

  Parkinson’s has virtually silenced what was once the most loquacious tongue in sport but it has not dulled a kaleidoscopic mind as dazzlingly brilliant as his footwork and handiwork in the ring.

  To sit with him, as I did at his 70th birthday dinner in his home town Louisville and during his visit to the London Olympics, is to see the lights in those penetrating eyes fully switched on. Far from surrendering to the ravages of disease, or even complaining of it, he has used its restrictions as a cocoon for quiet reflection on his life and times.

  Much of the energy he husbands is expended on the many charities which benefit from his thriving foundation, for which he often travels to Louisville from his latest home in the soothing warmth of Arizona.

  Yes, he looks frail at times. No, he does not look enfeebled.

Concern for his well-being is at its most acute at times of medical alarm. The most recent emergency admission to hospital came amid reports that he had contracted pneumonia, one of the most frequently fatal conditions for Parkinson’s sufferers.

  By the time he was discharged, last week, after a fortnight much of which was spent in intensive care, that diagnosis had been revised to a urinary tract infection.

  That is not always good news, either, but he has rebuffed it with the fortitude with which he resisted the sledgehammer punches of Liston, Foreman and so many others in a golden era for heavyweight boxing.

  Of course, having the resources to finance the finest and most expensive specialist treatment helps prolong life expectancy in cases like his.

  Thus it is by protecting her husband’s finances and maximising his income potential that his devoted fourth wife Lonnie confounds those, mostly among Ali’s old guard, who frown upon the public appearances to which she gives her approval, be they glittering social functions or the funerals of old rivals such as Joe Frazier who were expected to outlive him.

  And no-one knows better than she how much he still relishes being in the spotlight of public attention. This is one of the world’s greatest showmen, lest we forget, and had he been confined to a rocking chair on his porch we would surely have mourned his passing years ago.

  As it is, Ali will be watching intently as Wilder goes in Bronze Bomber pursuit of the one heavyweight belt not in possession of Wladimir Klitschko. 

  The WBC title slipped from the grasp of that Ukrainian family, which put down 16 years ago its first marker in what has become virtual world heavyweight domination, when elder brother Vitali retired.

  A reunification fight with Wladimir is envisaged, one of giant proportions if Wilder, also 6ft 7in tall, beats Stiverne.

If Wilder were to go on and usurp Klitschko, America would have its first superhero heavyweight since Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson back in the hey-day.

  For the moment it will settle for is first winner of a heavyweight title by any alphabelt since Shannon Briggs in 2007, its first of the hallowed WBC championship since Hasim Rahman one year before that.

  And that would be the best birthday present The Greatest of them all could receive.

 Happy birthday, champ.

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