The Greatest

The crowd is electric. Eyes move restlessly, excitedly taking it all in: large Budweiser sign beyond the centerfield fence, tacky near-psychedelic home run structure (so Miami), men in military uniforms parading on the infield dirt. The retractable roof softly opens, unleashing rays of sun, like a blanket spreading over the green lawn.

It is opening day at the new Marlins Park. The sold-out stadium inches towards the first pitch, while fans in the stands celebrate, a buzzing of anticipation drowning out the PA announcer.

And then it stops.

All eyes turn to the giant scoreboard. A golf cart moves slowly from the outfield fence towards the infield. We can see Jeffrey Loria, Marlins’ owner, sitting beside a frail, old man. The PA announcer welcomes Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight champion, who won his first title in Miami, who once laughed and shouted for all to hear: “I AM THE GREATEST FIGHTER OF ALL TIME!”

He has been ill for years. Parkinson’s has eaten away at his once classic physique, leaving behind a shadow of what once was.

Loria holds Ali’s left hand, preventing the uncontrollable shaking that has invaded the rest of his body. Many in the crowd look away. It is a difficult sight to behold.

The PA announcer urges fans to join in celebration of the man: “ALI! ALI!” he shouts. But few join in the chant, which is less celebration of life than wistful longing for a dead era.

I close my eyes and see him as he once was: strong, and brash, and young. He bounces gracefully around the ring, throwing jab jab jab, mixes left-right-left combination and then dances away. All the while taunting, boasting, talking – echoes of his voice like whispers through long-darkened arenas, like Ali himself ravaged by the passage of time.