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Muhammad Ali: Losing the Real Title

What Shalit Be?

By Nevin I. Shalit

The referee steps between the combatants and announces the fight will not continue. Larry Holmes, champion, has defeated Scott Ledoux, challenger. The Ledoux partisans express their disapproval of the referee's decision with a torrent of boos and a barrage of debris. A large man moves quickly from his ring-side seat to the ring apron, careful to place himself in line with the television cameras.

The camera catches the man, whose lips are moving frantically, but the microphone is pointed in the wrong direction. Still, with a little work one can make out the words: "He ain't no champ! I'm the champ! He wouldn't last but three rounds with me!" The man has to scream because he has left his starched-white shirt buttoned right to the collar. The man, of course, is Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali used to be the People's Champion. He even had a white satin robe with words to that effect written on the back. He gained that most important of titles through a series of remarkable events, some of which were beyond his control. Yes, he did work for the title. Started at 12 when someone stole his bike; went to a gym to learn how to kill the kid when he found him.

Made a name for himself--he was Cassius Clay then--in the amateurs. Won the light-heavy gold at the 1960 games in Rome. Won the world heavyweight championship in 1964 from the then invincible Sonny Liston. Made a name for himself as champ, now choosing to call himself Muhammad Ali, by successfully defending his crown against all comers with whirlwind hand and foot speed. And mouth speed.

Ali received a lot of hate mail back then, letters from the deep south...and north, east, and west. "Braggart" was as nice as the letters got; "Uppity nigger" was the epithet written by others. The worst were, of course, unsigned. Anonymous. Ali never feared the signed letters. "A signed letter, that's one man. Anonymous, he's a million men," he once explained.

Ali raises his right fist and brings it down gently. Up, down, up down. He is trying to lead the crowd in a chant of "Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali". Muhammad wants to drum up interest for his upcoming bout with Larry Holmes. The crowd continues to boo. Ali continues to pump that right hand. Up, down, up, down. Muhammad Ali is chanting alone. "Ali, Ali, Ali," he cries.

Ali refused to enter the armed forces in 1967, saying, "I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger." The hate mail poured in, heavier and more violent than ever. Somebody once sent him a dead chihuaha for Christmas.

New York was the first state to strip Ali of his crown. Illinois and other followed. When Ali ran out of states to fight in he tried to leave the country for a bout. "No go," said the State Department, and suddenly Muhammad Ali was a man without a profession. For three years he had to abstain from punching men into oblivion.

During this enforced idleness Ali toured the country, speaking at colleges, preaching the word of Elija Muhammad. Preaching The Word of Muhammad Ali. He ended all his rallies the same way. "Who's the heavyweight champion of the world?" he would ask, smile on his face, hands cupped over his ears to better hear the crowd's response. "Ali! Ali!" the multitudes would roar frenetically.

Ali is sweating. "I want you Larry Holmes, I want you!" The words are forced. Thinking hard, trying to keep the attention of the man who controls the cameras for ABC, Ali moves towards Holmes for a direct confrontation. The ring apron is only 18 inches wide; Ali is awkward in his attempts to draw nearer to his ex-sparring partner. He continues to shout, but the words are slurred. Brain damage, a British physician has speculated. Ali almost slips and has to grab the top tope of the ring. He frowns. He knows ten million television watchers have seen him lose his balance. Ten million anonymous television viewers.

Yes, even without the heavyweight title Ali was the champion. The People's Champion. The right people's champion. Ali was the symbol. The martyr. "I am God," Ali once told Joe Frazier. Frazier didn't believe Him.

Ali got his chance against Frazier in 1971, and lost. "A message from Allah to quit clowning, he said. "I'm big now, got more important things to do than beat people up. Got to spread the word."

But Ali kept fighting. Won the title from George Foreman, then invincible, in Africa. Only the second man to regain the crown. Seven years it took, but right triumphed. Now Ali held two titles, the heavyweight championship and the People's Championship. Ali risked his second heavyweight crown ten times, but he never had to defend the People's title. That was his. Ali lost to Leon Spinks--lost the heavyweight championship, that is. Then won it back, for the third time. Never before had that been done. Retired, heavyweight and People's crowns intact.

Ali is talking with Howard Cosell. "Sure they should have stopped it. Should have been stopped in round two." And then he tries to explode. "I'll kill Larry Holmes. He warn't nothing but my sparring partner. Four times, four times I'll be champ. $20 million. Biggest thing ever. $30 million. I'm the champ, he ain't nothin' but a chump!" The man at ABC has had enough. With Ali still screaming in the backround, the slur won't go away, the scene shifts to Scott Ledoux, who is complaining about absorbing a thumb in the eye.

It's hard to believe that the man screaming from the ring apron is the same man who had 50 million people chanting his name when he finally conquered Joe Frazier in the Philippines.

There is a new Muhammad Ali. Gone is the gentle smirk, the I-know-this-is-all-a-game look he would flash when reciting one of his poems. The words no longer flow. Instead, Ali forces them out. You can almost hear him thinking, "Got to sell this fight, got to...sell...this...fight." Ali now waves both arms like a broken wind-mill when he rants and raves. He has become a professional wrestler. He is Gorilla Monsoon.

Muhammad Ali will fight Larry Holmes sometime this fall. Each man will be paid in excess of $10 million. It will be the biggest thing ever. Muhammad Ali will win. He will hold the heavy-weight championship for the fourth time.

But Muhammad Ali has lost the People's Championship. He has abdicated. And that is one title he will never regain.

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