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Poliquin: Muhammad Ali once graced the village of Canastota with his presence


Bud Poliquin | [email protected] May 28, 2013, 6:00:00 PM EDT


Joe Frazer, Muhammad Ali


Syracuse, N.Y. -- This is that time in the BudBlog week (sort of) when we give in to memories that are jogged and recollections that are triggered by visiting the archives and grabbing snippets from the past.

I was there to chronicle Ali's visit. It will be a while yet before I forget it . . .


Canastota, N.Y. -- He'd been asked to coat his right hand in Vaseline, ball it up, and jam it into a little plastic bucket filled with some kind of goop that would eventually yield a plaster cast of his fist.

This, Muhammad Ali could do. His face was fixed in a mopey stare Sunday afternoon as he looked not through eyes but rather through windows of a body that had long ago become a kind of prison from which there was no escape.

But Ali nevertheless was able to trudge right along in line -- Jose Napoles in front of him, Bob Foster behind -- with his shirtsleeve rolled up to his elbow, just as he'd been asked by the folks who run the International Boxing Hall of Fame Museum.

"Mr. Ali," they were calling him here throughout the day. "Mr. Ali." Men and women older than his 48 years, folks who once may have refused to recognize him as anything other than his long-ago name of Cassius Clay, were addressing him as "Mister."

"Mr. Ali." In Canastota. Imagine.

He'd descended upon this leafy village just off the New York Thruway to officially become a legend. To join 52 others in the first induction class of the Hall of Fame. To leave behind a little bit of himself, which in this case meant an imprint of his fist in a plastic bucket on which his name had been mindlessly spelled, "Mohammed."

But now, the goop had begun to harden, and Ali had slipped his fist free . . . and . . . and . . . trouble. See, the button on his right shirtsleeve needed fastening, and yet another of life's little struggles, such as knotting his necktie, was on for the great man.

The hands that had moved so quickly for so long -- "I'll hit you twice, " Ali used to brag, "before you blink once." -- now helplessly fumbled over a lousy button. A sleeve that in days gone by might have unrolled itself and slid down his forearm on a mere stare from Ali, was now held hostage because Muhammad's fingers just would not work.

Finally, however -- after working the thing as if it'd been a stubborn lock to which he did not have the proper combination -- The Champ wrestled the button through its hole.

"Let's get him into a corner booth," said a man whose job was to be a buffer for Ali. "Let's let him breathe."

And so, with shirtsleeve in place, Muhammad Ali, once a mischievous man of magic but now a museum piece in a trance, was ready to be moved. This, as if on a dolly.

You think of Ali, and you think of what he was. You think of the bounce and the lights and the pizzazz and the brass. You think of the man who walked with the pope and put kings on hold and winked at every lady in the house. Ali? He was the boxer of our time, the three-time heavyweight champion. That, and a poet. And he made so many of us laugh, and think a bit, too.

But Sunday, when the fighting dinosaurs got themselves anointed as artifacts, today's puffy Ali showed up. That is, the one who boxed long after the doctors begged him to quit, the one who took too many beatings down the stretch of a magnificent career, the one who currently suffers and shakes from Parkinson's syndrome.

And some in the crowd that was to grow beyond 2,000 were forced to look away.

"You married?" Howard Bingham, an Ali friend, asked a newspaper guy Sunday. "For 11 years? Ask your wife if you've changed since the day you got married. Go ahead. Ask her. It happens. People change. Ali is healthy. He's just tired, and he doesn't move as fast as he once did."

Now, there were flashes Sunday. Flashes of the Ali who used to show up in our lives a half-dozen times a year back in the '60s and '70s when he took his splendor around the world:

Ali kissed babies and Ali bit his bottom lip while looking into cameras and Ali threw a few hands into the air and Ali dusted off the famed "Shuffle" for a couple quick steps and Ali teased a few children. But it all appeared to take so darn much out of him. Weary. The man just seemed so very weary.

Did Muhammad Ali put on a show Sunday afternoon for those who'd chanted his name? Why, of course he did. But this, he was able to accomplish on the strength of his mere presence, even if he did at times remind one of a cardboard cutout.

"Mr. Ali," a lady asked. "May I get a picture taken with you?"

A nod. An uninterested gaze into the camera. A click.

"Thank you so much."

Another nod. More eerie gazing.

And the scene was repeated. A photo here, a labored autograph there. Somebody touching him for the sake of touching him. Maybe, a wink. Over and over. Again and again. And all with Ali looking somewhere . . . out there.

"I don't know," said one fellow to another Sunday. "He's got an aura about him. You can feel it."

At the time of those words, Ali was sitting in his corner booth . . . not talking, not moving, not doing much of anything. It was Muhammad Ali, 1990, and not the one of '70 or '60. Yet people were still whispering in reverence. As, one would suppose, they probably should have.

He lives with his fourth wife, Yolanda, on a farm once owned by Al Capone -- an 88-acre spread in Berrien Springs, Mich. And it is from there, not far from the campus of Notre Dame, that Ali is these days summoned.

"Oh, when he gets excited, he'll talk," Bingham said of The Champ. "He'll start yelling, 'I'm going to kick your butt!' And, 'I'll knock him out in five!' Things like that. But he travels a lot and enjoys his fans, and that wears him down."

They say there are good days for Muhammad Ali. Or, at least, that there are good parts in the day for him. These are the times, his friends will tell you, when Muhammad takes his medication and becomes young once more and talks as if being interviewed by Howard Cosell all over again.

To that end, he spoke in a raspy slur beneath unfriendly skies for some 15 minutes Sunday in an acceptance speech filled with old themes.

"Angel food is white cake," Ali said, "and devil's-food cake is black. Now, why is that?"

And so on and so forth. But before sitting down, he tricked the affair's master of ceremonies into mispronouncing the word, "two," and labeled himself "The Greatest" for having done so.

The crowd howled and applauded, and the noble Ali smiled. Soon, he would be staring again. Staring at something the rest of us just cannot see.


Here is the usual weekly “schedule of events” in Bud Poliquin’s corner of

MONDAY -- By 8 a.m.: The daily column/commentary. By 11:30 a.m.:“How’d I Do?” By 6 p.m.: “Ask Me Anything” by submitting questions (to which I’ll give answers) on any sports-related topic to [email protected]. (Please include your name and the identity of your hometown.)

WEDNESDAY -- By 8 a.m.: The daily column/commentary. By 11:30 a.m.:“The List.” By 6 p.m.: “E-Mail Of The Week,” wherein readers can submit legitimate essays/open letters/observations for purposes of posting to [email protected]. (Please include name and hometown.)

THURSDAY -- By 8 a.m.: The daily column/commentary. By 11:30 a.m.:“The Bud & Brent Show.” By 6 p.m.: “The Poli-Quip.”

FRIDAY -- By 8 a.m.: The daily column/commentary. By 11:30 a.m.: “A Look Ahead.” By 6 p.m.: “Bud & The Manchild.”