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Billy Reed: Sportswriter reflects on decades-long friendship with legendary Ali

Published: Jun. 4, 2016 at 2:51 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 4, 2016 at 11:11 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The last time I saw Muhammad Ali, he was confined to a wheelchair and could barely speak. This was last fall, when the top editors at Sports Illustrated, where I worked for a long time, came to Louisville to name a legends award in honor of the three-time heavyweight boxing champion and worldwide symbol of, well, let's just say that Ali was different things to different people.

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For those of us who remembered Ali in the glory of his youth, it always was painful to see him in his latter years. It was obvious that, slowly but steadily, he was losing to Parkinson's disease. First the mischievous light vanished from his eyes. Then his mighty voice became a whisper. Then he reached that state where he could barely acknowledge even those he recognized.

So even though it was hardly a shock when he died Friday at age 74, it still caused waves of sadness to resonate throughout the world, from the steel-and-glass canyons of New York City to the smallest villages in Africa to the war-torn and strife-ridden Middle East. 
 
He was one of our own, born and reared in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., the son of a house painter, but he hadn't really belonged to us for a long time. He shocked the world not so much when he whipped Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title on Feb. 25, 1964 – although that was a huge upset – but when he used his platform as heavyweight champion to reject his Baptist upbringing and join the Black Muslim nation led by Elijah Muhammad. 
 
Unlike other Muslim sects, the group led by Elijah Muhammad preached violence to the point that they murdered Malcolm X when he left the group and strayed from Elijah's teachings. That gave pause to the former Cassius Clay, because he and Malcolm had become friends, but it didn't stop him from loudly and angrily challenging things in society that had never before been challenged.

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He was the epitome of "black is beautiful," a slogan of that time, and he was so charismatic that he become not only the most famous athlete in the world, but the most famous -- or infamous, as the case may be -- spokesman against racism, injustice and inequality wherever and however it existed. 
 
When he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army on April 28, 1967, on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister and a conscientious objector, many Americans, especially the veterans, regarded him as a coward and a draft-dodger. To this day, many have never forgiven him and refuse to acknowledge his vast accomplishments as a humanitarian. 
 
Stripped of his championship by the world organizations that sanction boxing, Ali didn't fight from March 22, 1967, when he knocked out Zora Folley in Madison Square Garden, to Oct. 3, 1970, when he knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round at Municipal Auditorium in Atlanta. 
 
On March 8, 1971, Ali fought Joe Frazier, the man who had taken over as heavyweight champion while Ali was in exile, and lost on a 15th-round decision. It was the first loss of his pro career and it led Ali to re-invent himself as both a boxer and a person. 
 
His chance to get his title back came on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinsasha, Zaire. His opponent was George Foreman, a hard-punching younger man who had taken the title from Frazier. He appeared to be every bit as menacing as Liston had been more than a decade earlier. Yet Ali shocked the world again, knocking him out in the eighth round after allowing Foreman to punch himself into weariness in the early rounds. Ali called his strategy of taking punches the "Rope-a-Dope." 
 
The win over Foreman showed that Ali was now relying more on his brains than his physical skills. He also had modified his behavior outside the ring. The Black Muslims were long gone from his life and so was the angry young man who did their bidding. The new Ali was kinder and gentler, a man who had come to believe in the power of peace and love. 
 
After his upset of Norman, he successfully defended his title 10 times, including a 14th-round knockout of Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975. Known as the "Thrilla in Manila," that fight was such a slugfest that neither man was ever the same afterward. Ali would say later that it was as close to death as he had ever felt. 
 
On Feb. 15, 1978, Ali faced Leon Spinks, a gap-toothed, converted light heavyweight, in Las Vegas. It was supposed to be an easy payday for the champ, and the jiggle around his middle showed that he hadn't bothered to get into top shape. Amazingly, Spinks won a 15th-round decision that led some experts to proclaim that Ali was too old and needed to retire. 
 
That night was special for me. 
 
After filing my column for the next-day's Courier-Journal, I wandered over to Ali's hotel in search of a follow-up column. He had rented the entire top floor, and soon as I stepped off the elevator, I was accosted by a couple of his bodyguards who told me to turn around and get lost. 
 
But then here came Ali's mother, Odessa Grady Clay. 
 
"You leave him alone," she boomed at the musclemen. "That's Billy Reed from our hometown paper in Louisville. Ali is going to want to see him." 
 
Five minutes later, I was seated next to Ali on his bed, scribbling notes as he told me how he was going to shock the world again by coming back to win the title a third time. Thanks to Mrs. Clay, as kind and gentle a soul as I've ever met, I got a "scoop" that was picked up by news outlets around the world. 
 
That summer, Ali trained for his rematch with Spinks at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa. Sensing that he had one more hurrah still in him, but that his career also was nearing its end, I went to Deer Lake to spend a few days with him. 
 
Although I'm not sure Ali could ever call me by name, he knew my face and that I worked for his hometown newspaper. So he let me get up in the dark of early morning and pray with him in his small mosque. He allowed me to go on runs with him, Ali in his heavy Army boots and me in my sneakers. He allowed me to watch him spar and interview him on a wide range of topics. 
 
The only member of his entourage who wasn't there was trainer Angelo Dundee. That didn't bother me because I knew Angelo from other fights. But at Deer Lake, I got to know Gene Kilroy, Ali's longtime friend and go-fer; Luis Sarrera, his personal masseur; and Lana Shabaaz, his cook. It was fascinating to watch them work and to see how much they loved the champ. 
 
When Ali arrived in New Orleans for the Spinks rematch, he was a different man from the one who had lost in Las Vegas. His condition was the best it had been in years. He was engaged, his agile mind focused on getting his belt back. As it turned out, it was Ali's last hurrah. 
 
He carried Spinks for 15 rounds, seeming to revel in the noise and adulation emanating from the huge Superdome Crowd. At the end, he was the first man to claim the championship three times. It would have been the perfect time to walk away, but Ali – like many great athletes and entertainers – couldn't bring himself to do it.

He waited more than a year before defending his title against Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner, in Las Vegas. Although Ali looked healthy on the outside, it was an illusion, like the magic tricks he loved to perform. Unknown to anybody, he had been taking pills that deprived his body of water and energy. 
 
Had he wanted, Holmes could have beaten Ali to a pulp. Instead, he let his idol retain his dignity as best he could. The fight went down in the books as an 10th-round knockout for Holmes, but it was over long before that. 
 
When I ran into Holmes last fall at the Sports Illustrated event honoring Ali, I thanked him for not embarrassing the champ that night. Replied Holmes, "There's more important things to me than money." 
 
The final fight of Ali's career was a travesty. It was held on Dec. 11, 1981, in the Queen Elizabeth II Sports Center in Nassau, The Bahamas. His opponent, the Canadian Trevor Berbick, was no better than a journeyman who wouldn't have lasted more than a couple of rounds against Ali in his prime. 
 
The surroundings were unbelievably humbling for a man who had filled the great arenas of the world. The ring was a creaky old thing set up in the middle of a baseball field. A cow bell signaled the beginning and end of the rounds. There was no glitz or glamour, no women in long fur coats or men in velvet suits. But Dick Young of the New York Daily News and other prominent boxing writers were present, no doubt sensing the end, finally, for a man who would be remembered as far more than one of the fight game's all-time greats. 
 
To the surprise of nobody, probably including Ali, Berbick won a 10-round decision. The next day, Ali refused to say that he was retiring. But he had to know it was over. He had to know that he would never again lace on a pair of Everlast gloves and light up an arena unlike any athlete ever. 
 
The night he lit the torch to open the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, I had my heart in my throat as he mounted the steps in the stadium. I prayed he wouldn't fall. But then there he was, holding out the torch in a shaking hand for all the world to see. It turned out to be his last major appearance on a public stage. 
 
Over the last 35 years, I've run into him here and there. He always had to show me a magic trick. Sometimes he told a joke. When I served on the board of the Ali Center for a couple of years, I'd see him from time to time. But as time wore on, he let his wife Lonnie become his spokesman and guardian. 
 
I've often marveled over the fact that a black kid from Louisville, one who learned to fight only because his bicycle had been stolen, could become one of the most beloved – and hated – people in the world. I don't think the young Cassius Clay ever imagined being a symbol of hope and justice to people around the world. He just wanted to be The Champ, that's all. 
 
But then he got swept up by a current of events and emotions that took him to places, physically and spiritually, that nobody could have envisioned when the young Cassius Clay was devoting his Saturdays to fighting on "Tomorrow's Champions," the show on WAVE 3 News that was a showcase for the city's aspiring young fighters. 
 
After his last fight, he used his role as the world's most famous Muslim to promote peace and love. He served several U.S. Presidents as an ambassador for one cause or another. He always had time for young people. As recently as a few months ago, he issued a statement deploring Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump's desire to ban Muslims from the U.S. 
 
He will be remembered and eulogized not only as a boxing champion, but as the champion of the poor, the underprivileged, and the disenfranchised around the world. Brash in his youth, he became humble as he aged. He prayed to Allah every day he was able. Thank heaven we have a museum in Louisville that will preserve his life, the controversial as well as the transcendent, for future generations. 
 
Whether he knew my name or not doesn't matter. He recognized me and I always will feel blessed that I sort of grew up with him, from the "Tomorrow's Champions" days through the Berbick fiasco. Most times I watched him from afar, but other times I sat on the edge of his bed or prayed with him in his mosque. He touched me unlike any other public figure ever has. 
 
So I guess that's why I kissed him on the little bald spot on the back of his head. It happened when he and his entourage attended a University of Louisville football game last fall. I was talking with Lonnie behind his wheelchair, and when she turned away to speak to somebody else, I just leaned over, kissed him on the back of his head and whispered, "God bless you, champ." 
 
I don't know why I did that. It just felt right. But now I know I was saying good-bye. May he rest in peace.