LOUISVILLE (Reuters) - He may no longer float like a butterfly or sting like a bee but memories of Muhammad Ali remain vivid more than a quarter-century after his last fight.
Holder of the self-proclaimed title, “The Greatest,” the former heavyweight champion turns 65 Wednesday, no longer fleet afoot but still revered by anyone who witnessed the magic he created in the ring.
“What makes him the greatest fighter is that he simply had skills that exceeded anyone’s expectations,” Sylvester Stallone, who created and starred in the epic “Rocky” films, told Reuters.
Stallone’s Rocky character was based on a 1975 opponent of Ali’s, journeyman Chuck Wepner, a liquor salesman who lost a technical knockout to the champion in the 15th round.
“He was the fastest, the best, the most positive and they’ll never see the likes of him ever again,” Stallone said of Ali. “Maybe the greatest athlete of all time.”
Ali was a remarkably gifted athlete during his years in the ring but Parkinson’s disease has slowed his gait considerably. Ironically, the most outspoken sports figure of his generation now has trouble talking.
“He still kind of echoes in the culture somehow, he’s still kind of out there,” said Stephen Brunt, award winning columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail who has written several books on boxing including best seller “Facing Ali.”
“In a lot of ways, for better or worse you see him in the modern athlete,” he said. “He was the first guy to go out there and tout his own horn to the degree that he did and of course now everyone does it, without the wit and the smile with Ali.”
What Ali did outside the ring is as memorable, to many, as his career inside of it.
STRIPPED OF TITLE
At the height of his career, Ali refused to serve in the U.S. Army because of his Nation of Islam faith and in 1967, while the Vietnam war was raging, was stripped of his title.
“Well I think Muhammad Ali had the hearts and minds of most of the people in America with some of the issues he got involved in,” basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Reuters.
"Especially the Vietnam war, he went against the grain very early on and in a way that did not make him popular but after a while they realized he was speaking the truth on those issues.
“I have a lot of respect for him for taking the courageous stand that he did.”
The Louisville-born Ali resumed his career in 1970 and recaptured the heavyweight crown. His brutal fights against Joe Frazier and George Foreman remain emblazoned on the minds of boxing fans throughout the world.
Bernard Hopkins, 41, regarded by many to be one of the best middleweight fighters of all time, calls Ali an “icon.”
“What Ali did was change the thinking of a lot of people back in the 60s,” he said.
POET IN RING
"And in the ring he was so much of a poet. He started a new era of being able to speak boldly and loudly and come across cocky and arrogant.
“Here was a nice, tall handsome guy who knew how to talk, how to rhyme. He was first one in sports that came out with the raps and the soundbites.”
Ali’s career concluded in 1981 with a 56-5 record, including 37 knockouts. Like many boxers, he fought too long, losing three of his last four fights.
But most people remember the glory days.
Hopkins singled out Ali’s famed fight with Foreman in Zaire and his three epic clashes with Frazier as highlights of the champion’s ring career.
“Those three (Frazier) fights were like 80 fights in terms of the punishment, trauma and spirit,” he said.
There is no birthday celebration planned in Louisville, although he remains a hero in the city also known for bourbon, bluegrass and horse racing.