LAS VEGAS — They gathered in the bowels of the arena where most of the great fights of the past two decades have taken place, old men now all sharing one shining moment from years gone by. They had come to honor The Greatest, though whether Muhammad Ali remembered who they were or knew what it was all about was a matter of speculation that on this night would go unanswered.
Some, like Chuck Wepner, couldn’t stop talking about the night they won their own personal lottery – a spot across the ring from Ali. Nothing new there, since the Bayonne Bleeder has been talking about it to anyone else who will listen almost every day since.
Others, like Leon Spinks, weren’t able to talk much at all.
“Leon Spinks is here and he needs help,” Wepner said. “There are a lot of fighters who need help.”
This was a night supposed to bring that help, both to fighters like Spinks and those fighting today. Millions would be raised in Ali’s name for the Cleveland Clinic’s new Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in downtown Las Vegas, where researchers are already busy trying to unlock the puzzles of damage to the human brain.
A seat for dinner and the show at the MGM Grand hotel started at $1,500.
At the center of it all was an elderly man, mute and his face seemingly frozen as he sat at a table with his wife, Lonnie, and several other family members. Whether boxing caused Ali’s Parkinson’s is the subject of debate, but it was clear on this night the disease he has fought for three decades has taken a terrible toll on him.
He was once a magnificent man with a sculptured body and a mouth that wouldn’t stay shut. He’s still magnificent in the way that his very presence envelopes and engulfs an arena like it did Saturday night, hushing high-rollers and the elite of this gambling town in a way no other man could – and all without saying a word.
“I’m not sad about him, just proud to know him,” George Foreman said. “When people ask me if he’s the greatest boxer ever, it’s an insult. He was the greatest everything, just a great man.”
Doctors say not many people survive 30 years of Parkinson’s, a debilitating brain disease for which there is no cure. That Ali has lasted this long is, perhaps, a tribute to the great athleticism that served him so well in the ring. Still, the death of his trainer, Angelo Dundee, a few weeks ago and Joe Frazier a few months before that is a reminder that even The Greatest has a limited time on Earth.