Mike Zielinski

Mike Zielinski

They said time is fleeting. They didn’t commit perjury.

It’s difficult to fathom that Muhammad Ali has been dead for three years this month.

Then again, three years is a mere blink of the eye when you consider that even 55 years can zip by quicker than a hiccup.

The clock is as fleet as Cassius Marcellus Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, was 55 years ago when he shook up the world with an astonishing stoppage of the feared and seemingly invincible Sonny Liston.

I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school back then, a kid who grew up watching boxing on television with my father.

Who knew that a decade or so later Ali and my paths would cross?

Muhammad moved his training camp to Deer Lake in Schuylkill County and as a young sports columnist for the then Reading Times, I interviewed Ali multiple times over the years.

I absolutely loved writing about Ali.

As Wilfrid Sheed once wrote: "Why write about Ali? Why paint the Mona Lisa? Because he is pure subject: A Mona Lisa that talks and becomes more mysterious with every word."

Which is why Ali magnetically attracted writers like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who couldn't resist capturing him in prose of ebullience.

He hardly was the bombastic public Ali in his quiet, personal moments. He often would chat in soft-spoken tones with me in his Deer Lake dressing room, giving me a singular audience as if I were the star columnist for the New York Times.

To Ali, a reporter’s note-taking pen was pure magic, no matter how big his market.

I so remember those memorable days at Deer Lake when the multitudes flocked to Ali's mountain to pay homage as he sparred, rattled the small bag like a stenographer and reigned as both king and court jester.

How things have changed. The Reading Times is dead. Liston is dead. Ali is dead after being locked into the prison of Parkinson’s disease for three decades, the loquacious Louisville Lip silenced. Boxing, once such a big deal that Mailer compared being the heavyweight champion of the world to being like the big toe of God, has become marginalized.

Years earlier, I had loved the swagger of Clay with charisma as crisp as a freshly ironed shirt during his young professional career as he, excessively brash and sassy, literally talked his way into a bout with Liston, who had a left jab as concussive as a shotgun blast and a right cross that detonated like an atomic bomb.

Liston swatted away challengers as if they were mere moths.

He won the title by dispatching champion Floyd Patterson in the first round and then also starched poor Floyd in the first round in their return bout.

Clay nicknamed Liston “The Big Bear” and stalked him as if the crazy challenger was indeed bear hunting. On one occasion Cassius was literally carrying a bear trap as he baited Liston.

When fight night arrived in Miami Beach, Clay was a 7-1 underdog. There were many people who actually thought Liston would kill him.

Besides being endowed with historic punching power in both hands, Liston was a classically skilled heavyweight with a killer’s instinct for blood.

Clay back then to boxing purists was a caricature of a contender, a clown who did everything wrong.

Clay carried his left hand illogically low, which was considered to be an invitation to be murdered by a crushing Liston right hand. Clay often punched while moving backward, a tactic generally deemed to be pure suicide.

Who then knew that Ali indeed was as much of an artist as a fighter, a man blessed with extraordinary hand speed, foot speed, hand-eye coordination and reflexes — not to mention having the flexibility of a limbo dancer?

The young Ali was pure poetry in motion in the ring, putting percussive punctuation on ballet as he danced on his toes.

Ali created a whole new style of boxing and he painted one magnificent portrait on Feb. 25, 1964.

The red tassels on his boxing shoes made his fleet feet seem even faster and were the perfect accompaniment to the pop … pop … pop of his flashing, stinging jabs.

Liston kept charging like an angry bull after Clay in a desperate, flailing, futile attempt to gore the cocky challenger.

But Clay was a classic matador who totally controlled the fight, dancing and pivoting and firing a constant blur of punches that streaked faster than bullets.

It ended when a humbled Liston, suddenly aged by a decade or so and definitely now a defanged, shell of a bear, quit on his stool before the seventh round and with Clay racing toward the ropes and bellowing at the ringside reporters: “I fooled you … and you … and you … and you. I must be the greatest!”

Cassius Clay, who the next day would evolve into Muhammad Ali, indeed was the greatest then.

And would become the greatest of all time.

Many Ali epic fights with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton would ensue.

Once reviled as a notorious draft dodger for refusing induction during the Vietnam War, in the twisted shadow of that malformed war and with so many cultural crosscurrents at play, he morphed from the militant separatism of the Black Muslim to a beloved global Muslim ambassador of peace.

Ali remarkably had toggled between the yin and yang of extreme emotion — hatred and love. Once a pariah for his polarizing act of draft defiance and a lightning rod for social change, he became revered for sacrificing the heart of his boxing career over principle and evolved into a transcendent figure of colossal cultural significance.

For me, the most memorable, magical fight of Ali’s career was the shocking dismantling of Liston.

I listened to the fight on my transistor radio in my bedroom, transfixed and mesmerized … my mind somehow translating the words I was hearing into images dancing across my mind’s eye.

Those images were remarkably similar to what I saw days later when I caught a replay of the transcendent title fight at a local movie theater on Penn Street.

In retrospect, one other aspect of that historic evening strikes me with melodramatic force.

Excited over the enormity of Clay’s victory, I literally jumped down almost an entire flight of stairs to proclaim the news to my astonished father.

If tonight at 69 I tried that, I undoubtedly would end up in traction.

Damn that Father Time!

I shall choose to remember Ali as the lithe poet in the ring, the incandescent personality — a mass of energy, charm and fame on the loose — who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

I shall choose to forget his notorious womanizing as well as when he limped to the finish of his boxing career as if he were straggling home from the Russian front — only to become imprisoned in his once magnificent body that truly had been a marvelous piece of machinery.

Boxing is a primeval sport played without balls or bats or other draperies, like a chess match played with naked brain waves, and brain waves chronically assaulted by punches over decades have been known to scramble into Parkinson's.

Nobody, not even the greatest of all time, is invincible or eternal. But Muhammad Ali, like other titans of the ages, is an immortal in the annals of history.

If they ever tell my story, let them say that I walked with giants. I walked with Muhammad Ali. 

Mike Zielinski, a resident of Berks County, is a columnist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

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