Happy birthday Muhammad Ali; the genius with a big heart
The whole world will mourn Muhammad Ali when he goes, it will lament the once fierce light that has been extinguished, but for those who know him best, and have loved him most intensely, there will be along with the sadness a degree of relief that the most poignant assignment of their lives is finally over.
There will be relief, certainly, but also a terrible sense of emptiness.
It is apparent even as celebrations were under way for the great man's 70th birthday today.
On 18 February, President Clinton flies into Las Vegas, where a spectacular tribute is being planned at the MGM Grand Casino.
Joyful occasions, no doubt, if Ali, who was perilously ill last month after returning from the funeral of his great adversary Joe Frazier, fills the big rooms with his presence, if he can reproduce one or two of those moments of needle-sharp awareness that he showed when rising to his feet and applauding the life of his old opponent in the funeral chapel in Philadelphia.
But if there is pride and idolisation, there is also a kind of agony and no one captures such ambivalence more deeply than Gene Kilroy, the man who of all Ali's inner circle has most passionately celebrated those little pinpricks of light that over the years have from time to time illuminated the enveloping darkness which has accompanied the Parkinson's syndrome so cruelly accelerated by those last brutal years in the ring.
Kilroy, a lawyer and one of the most familiar denizens of the fight jungle, was a young army officer when he first encountered the young Ali at the Rome Olympics.
He has rarely been long or far from his side ever since.
Kilroy travelled to Philadelphia with Ali and noted the herculean effort required from the man who once seemed to embody physical grace even under the most extreme pressure.
When Ali was found unconscious in his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, soon after his return from the East, Kilroy, the ultimate boxing retainer, wondered if it was indeed the end and, if it was, what astonishing symmetry in the possibility that he had given the last ounces of his will and energy in saluting the man with whom he had, in his own view, been locked in a “near death” experience in the ring in Manila all those years before.
“You know this Parkinson's thing is really kicking his butt,” said Kilroy, “but as long as he has breath in his body you know that he will never hide away... he will always come to face the world, to be acknowledged and try to give something back. Will he make it to Vegas again?
“I know he will if it is humanly possible.
“You have your coronations in London and we have inaugurals in Washington, well this will be our version of a combination of the two.”
For Kilroy, it will be something rather more personal, something that will carry him through all the days of glory and pain, all the riotous affirmation of a talent and a competitive character and personality that made Ali not only the world's greatest boxer and sportsman but someone who could stop the traffic anywhere in the world.
“Ali once said,” recalls Kilroy, “that he wasn't just born to be a great champion, that was what he did for a living, but he also wanted to touch the world, make it a better place. Fight injustice, racism.
“That seemed like a pretty tough task when people were saying he was a traitor when he refused to serve in Vietnam, when he was so unpopular when he joined the Black Muslims and he had to fight his way all the way to the Supreme Court to win back his livelihood, but I always knew he would make it through the worst of those days.
“You see, his heart was so big and then you put it beside genius, you have a very strong chance.”
Kilroy ignites so many memories because you put Ali into any of the scenes of his extraordinary life and the chances are that his friend will be at his shoulder.
You have to ask Kilroy which was the best moment of all, the most uplifting time in a life spent in the company of the greatest sports figure of all time.
He hesitates for scarcely a moment.
“It was walking with Ali through New York City on a winter morning after he had won the second Frazier fight in 1974,” he recalled.
“He had all of it back in that fight, all the footwork, the feinting, the wonderful timing.
“Ali won by a mile and he was full of life when he walked to the press conference.
“New York stopped. Cars honked.
“People rushed up to him and embraced him.
“He was no mere fighter, not that he had ever been that.
“No, he was the king of the world. Nobody, nothing could touch him.”
It might be be a little intrusive to ask Gene Kilroy what he would give to have that New York morning back again but he anticipates the question and says: “Sometimes it's hard seeing him as he is today.
“It takes huge effort for him to make the simplest communication now but so often from somewhere he finds what it takes.
“Then, when he does everything is worthwhile.”
It means, after all, that Greatest is still alive — and for quite some time, who wouldn't settle for that?
Ali in his own words
“At home I'm a nice guy but I don't want the world to know. Humble people don't get very far.”
“Twenty-six years after beating Sonny Liston in Miami I listened to a tape of me talking after the fight. I was great but, man, I was crazy.”
“I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. I'm not going to Vietnam to help bomb brown people when black people back home in Louisville are being treated like dogs.”
“A man whose views are the same at 50 as they were when he was 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”
“Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down and come up with the extra power it takes to win when the fight is even.”
“I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before it was dark.”
“I hated every minute of training but I said “don't quit — suffer now and then live the rest of your life as a champion.”
“I beat him so bad he will need a shoe-horn to get his hat on.”
“Jimmy Ellis (a former world champion who was a sparring partner before the Shavers fight in 1977) dreamed last night that he beat me. The first thing he did when he came in this morning was apologise.”
“Hating people because of the colour of their skin is wrong and it don't matter which colour is doing the hating. It's just plain wrong.”
“A big fight is just like chasing a pretty girl. You slap on the cologne and you get very excited. Then, when it's all over, you wonder what all the fuss was about.”