If Muhammad Ali has kept regrets at bay, he's still the greatest fighter of all time


FOR DAYS, I watched the "60 Minutes" promos of the show's interview with Muhammad Ali. Even now, Ali can dependably draw an audience. But when it came time, well, I just couldn't bring myself to tune in.

Sundays can be sad enough without watching one of your few remaining heroes losing his struggle with Parkinson's syndrome.

What's sadder still is that his condition is apparently the result, in his post-float-like-a-butterfly years, of taking too many punches to the head.

As he used to remind us, he was the greatest. He was the prettiest. Once he shouted it for all to hear, and now he can barely mumble the words. No, thanks. I've seen what they used to call punch-drunk fighters. And I've seen Ali doing his new kind of Ali shuffle. I've seen more than enough.

But a friend of mine who watched the show told me a remarkable thing. Ali's wife said we shouldn't feel sorry for him. She said he is surrounded by people who love him. She said Ali, a deeply religious man, is at peace with himself. All this I can buy.

Then she added the kicker: Ali has no regrets.

I wondered if that could be true. I wondered if he could be that generous. I know people who deeply regret their choice of breakfast cereal.

I know people who can become bitter when a traffic light doesn't change quickly enough.

No regrets?

Most of us who live long enough undergo a mid-life crisis that's what I read in the magazines, anyway during which we question whether or not we've done all we could with our lives. Many of us resolve this crisis by buying a sports utility vehicle.

It doesn't matter how successful you are, either. I recently read an interview with Jack Nicholson, who was on his way to being a failed-actor-turned-writer-and-director before he made "Easy Rider" and became a star. There was a time, he said, when he could have walked away from stardom, but didn't.

"That's the moment, all right," he said. "That's my Rosebud. I could have gone either way at that point. And the day hardly goes by in which I don't think that, hey, maybe I took the wrong path."

No regrets?

I couldn't help asking myself this question: If I were Muhammad Ali, knowing what I know, would I do it all over again?

That isn't a choice many of us have to face. We make smaller, less stark choices, but still important choices.

When my daughter was small, I was a sportswriter and spent many weeks away from her that I'll never get back.

That's a huge regret. I wouldn't do it the same way again.

Do you take a job for money instead of the low-paying job you love? Do you put your kid in day care so you can have two incomes?

What would Ali have chosen to do if he had never picked up a pair of boxing gloves as a kid in Louisville? It's unlikely that poor, undereducated Cassius Clay maybe he never would have become Ali would have found a forum to showcase his many charms.

What if fighting had been outlawed? I'm a huge fight fan, but I feel sure that a hundred years from now people will look back on prize fighting in which two men pummel one other in order to satisfy the crowd's lust for blood as we do cock-fighting today. Look at the tragic story of Jerry Quarry, a fighter from the Ali era, who is now in a near-vegetative state.

Ali was not just a fighter, of course. He became a world figure, and more than that, too. He came to be a dividing line on issues of race, religion and the war. Your views on Ali depended on which side you were on.

For those of us who clung to our student deferments as if they were our mother's skirts, Ali was a hero who gave up a title and was ready to go to prison for his beliefs.

Just the other day, a friend and I were discussing the 25th anniversary of the first Ali-Frazier fight. That was a defining moment of my youth, like the first time I heard Dylan or when I read "The Grapes of Wrath."

I know why we enjoy fighting, despite its brutality: It's a test of man at his most elemental. We want to know if we, too, could somehow measure up.

Ali, by any measure, did.

And now look at him. We can see his physical problems, but a slow walk and halting speech don't determine a person's worth. We must hope, and maybe against hope, that deep inside Ali is still recognizably Ali.

But knowing what he knows, would he do it over again? Would he keep those years if it meant living as he does today?

Would he really?

Would you?

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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