Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
Outside the Muhammad Ali Center, fans from around the world were fashioning a makeshift memorial. Inside the center, crowds roamed the halls seeking inspiration and education.
But on the uppermost floor late Thursday afternoon sat a small group of mostly older men, quietly watching low-definition videos from comfy chairs.
There was Ali in his prime at age 24, knocking out Cleveland Williams in three rounds in a bout made famous by Neil Leifer’s overhead photograph of Williams flat on his back.
And there was Ali in his wily later years at 32, rope-a-doping George Foreman in eight rounds for his biggest victory of all.
The images were a reminder of something that got somewhat lost during a week that celebrated Ali the citizen of the world more so than Ali the boxer.
Without boxing, there would have been no Ali as we knew him. He clearly was a bright, charismatic man, so who knows? Maybe he still would have been floating and stinging in 2016, a beloved elder statesman as a politician or clergyman. But it was boxing that brought him to us, even as it eventually helped rob him of his physical health.
The disconnect is understandable. No one younger than 40 remembers him in the ring. No one under 50 remembers the Fight of the Century against Joe Frazier. No one under 60 remembers him winning a gold medal in Rome.
It’s more than that, though. It’s an illustration of what has become of boxing itself.
Jackie Robinson made history when Ali still was a child in the segregated South, and he last played 60 years ago.
But he did it in baseball, which has maintained its connective thread to him by, among other things, retiring his number throughout the majors.
Boxing has faded to the point that there is no modern context to what Ali was and did. And if Ali had been the same man born 50 years later, let’s just say his celebrity arc would not have played out the same way.
Ali drew broadcast TV ratings in the 1970s that nothing today other than the Super Bowl can challenge. Now boxing is a niche sport bereft of heavyweight star power and reliant on the occasional pay-per-view extravaganza.
One of the most poignant elements of Friday’s memorial was the who’s who of former boxers it attracted, including but not limited to Foreman, Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Bernard Hopkins and Randall “Tex’’ Cobb.
For fans, it was a gathering of stars unlikely to be seen again. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore. Which might be just as well, given the nature of the sport in an era more attuned to the dangers of head trauma.
Speaking of which, Cobb became a symbol of boxing’s brutality when Holmes beat him up so badly in 1982 that Ali’s friend Howard Cosell swore off the sport.
Cobb came to Louisville to pay tribute to Ali, calling him a “giant,” and visited his childhood home Thursday.
How is Cobb feeling these days after all those slugfests against more skilled fighters?
“Not bad for a white boy,” he said, laughing. Cobb said he is 63; Wikipedia says he is 66. Either way, he said, “It’s not the years, it’s the miles. And I have miles on me like a 747.”
Well, at least he’s still a character. There used to be a lot of them in the sport, with Ali as the master craftsman.
“Boasting and trash-talking, where do you think this comes from?” Hopkins said after Thursday’s Islamic service. “Ali made the path for all this stuff to happen, the things we call media hype, that we call pumping the fight up. Ali was one of the greats to have done that, without throwing a punch.
“When you start a fight without throwing a punch, that’s pretty good. And then you win it — without getting hit.”
Before he was, as Bill Clinton put it in his eulogy, “a universal soldier of our common humanity,” Ali was a boxer, pure and simple.
For those of us old enough to remember, that was something to behold, too.