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Famous at his peak, Muhammad Ali remained beloved till the last

Sometimes dreams do come true. Mine reached fruition on January 4th, 1990, when as a sports reporter with a Madras (now Chennai) daily I got the golden opportunity to interview my sporting hero, the great and now late Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali (right) signs an autograph for the writer (centre) as Ali’s aide Jabir Mohammed looks on in Madras, 1990. Pic/Gulu Ezekiel
Muhammad Ali (right) signs an autograph for the writer (centre) as Ali’s aide Jabir Mohammed looks on in Madras, 1990. Pic/Gulu Ezekiel

At his peak, the most famous sportsperson on the planet, Ali, till the last, remained the most beloved too. In fact, the once-in-a-lifetime assignment landed in my lap by twist of fate.

The assigned reporter developed cold feet. Yes, Ali had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and it was a heart-rending sight. His shambling gait and trembling hands did choke me up and I had to fight off both a wave of emotion and awe as I sought to get some quotes from the 47-year-old.

Sharp mind
Though his voice slurred, his mind was still sharp, Ali never wavered from his lifelong contention that he was the one and only 'Greatest.' He quietly pointed out that the American boxing authorities had recently chosen him as "The greatest in all history, greater than Jack Johnson and greater than Joe Louis…" End of discussion!

He was also rather dismissive of Mike Tyson, who was at his peak back in 1990. "Tyson is not scientific. He hits much harder than I did, but I was faster. He should hold the title for at least another five years. But he's still so young [24 years-old at the time]. How can you compare him with me when I fought for 20 years?" I was particularly moved after I presented him with some historic photos from his career and requested him to autograph them.

It was obviously a struggle and it must have taken him nearly 15 minutes to sign the photos, struggling to keep his trembling hand steady while clutching the pen. I still have those photos in my possession and will treasure them more than ever now that the Greatest is gone. But the memories will remain forever.

The writer is a veteran sports journalist and New Delhi-based author of several sports books

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