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Remembering 'The Champ'

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By Moreland Jeff

 

Muhammad Ali was not only a boxing legend, he was a legendary Kentuckian, and perhaps the most famous and recognizable American of his time.

Sadly, the man known by people around the world as “The Greatest” lost his final fight last week, the one he had been waging against Parkinson’s Disease for years.

Ali is well known as a boxer, but also for his stance against serving in the military, his conversion to the Muslim faith and his work as a humanitarian, among other things. Some folks like him, others clearly don’t, but regardless of how you may feel, you can’t deny that he was one of those people who was almost larger than life.

Personally, I remember him as the center of attention.

From the first time I can recall seeing him on TV when I was a young kid, until his death last week, almost anything Muhammad Ali did was at the center of everyone’s attention.

Ali’s last fight took place when I was barely 10 years old, and of course I never saw him fight, but I did have the opportunity to see him in person one time, and I remember that night as one in which he was the center of attention without even trying to be.

I was working a college football game between Florida State and Louisville in 2014, and before the game began, the members of the media were doing their normal pregame preparation. As a photographer, I was getting my gear together, plotting my spots for the game and heading back to the press box for a few last-minute things before heading out to the field for kickoff.

There seemed to be a buzz around the elevator where the media normally enters, and with my things already upstairs, I just needed to hop on the elevator and make a quick trip. I tried to get to the elevator, but a large crowd began to form around the narrow space that led to the elevator, and security stopped letting anyone enter.

That buzz quickly grew, and before long, almost everyone in the area was whispering the name “Muhammad Ali.”

The former champ, who is a Louisville native, was on his way to the game to see the Cardinals host the No. 2 team in the nation, Florida State.

I’ve worked around a lot of professional athletes, but I’ll admit there are times when I find myself a bit starstruck. When photographing Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Peyton Manning and other athletes I’ve admired over the years, I’ve caught myself in awe. This was clearly  another of those cases.

I knew Ali was not well, even at that time, but I was surprised and saddened when I saw him being helped out of a vehicle, placed in a wheelchair and taken into the stadium.

For some reason, and knowing better, I was expecting to see The Champ, the one who had won 56 boxing matches; the one who stood tall in the boxing ring after those wins, and who stood tall outside that ring as he taunted his next opponent and told them why he was going to beat them before he went out and actually did it. I expected to see the man who stood up for what he believed, even if others didn’t agree with those beliefs, not a man who couldn’t stand at all.

This man was much older, and he was much sicker and weaker than I had realized. It made me sad, because it made me see all too clearly that life goes on after athletics, and for some, it doesn’t go well.

After hearing of Ali’s death, I immediately thought about the experience of seeing him in such a frail condition, and that, along with the news, made me sad. After all, nobody likes to remember a legend in their final days, but instead in their prime.

As area and national TV stations have paid countless tributes to him in the past few days, I’ve seen some videos that I hadn’t seen in years, while others I had never seen at all of The Champ when he was The Champ.

It was a Muhammad Ali who loved being a boxer, loved being a talker, and who appeared to just love being alive. And that made me smile. I also realized that I did see that man, it was just a later version of him, after time and illness had taken a toll on his body, and he could no longer stand on his own.

Still, he was The Champ, and he always will be.