Bernard Fernandez: The legacy of Ali continuously evolving

Muhammad Ali, since retiring 31 years ago, has gone from a despised to a sympathetic figure. Thursday, he will be honored with the Liberty Medal.

HISTORY, AND the interpretation of what is and what isn't, is like an amoeba, constantly changing shape due to time and circumstance.

Rarely has that description been truer than the evolving perception of Muhammad Ali, 52 of whose 70 years have been studied and analyzed with microscopic scrutiny.

On Thursday, Ali, the three-time former heavyweight titlist whose transformation from the polarizing figure of the 1960s and '70s into a generally beloved humanitarian marks perhaps the most remarkable shift ever in public opinion, will be in town to receive the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.

This latest homage to the self-proclaimed "Greatest of All Time" comes 7 years after Ali was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington, an honor conferred upon him by then-President George W. Bush.

When Ali's selection as the Liberty Medal recipient for 2012 was announced earlier this year, former President Bill Clinton gushingly said, "Ali embodies the spirit of the Liberty Medal by embracing the ideals of the Constitution - freedom, self-governance, equality and empowerment - and helping spread them across the globe."

But, as was the case in 2005 at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, which was met with indignation from several members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, there likely won't be unanimously positive reaction to the laying of another brick in the rising legend of perhaps the most recognizable individual of the second half of the 20th century. It would not be a shock if at least a few protesters - military veterans still bitter at Ali's refusal to be inducted into the armed forces at the height of the Vietnam War, or those resentful of his cruel taunting of Philadelphia boxing icon Joe Frazier - show up at the National Constitution Center to express their disapproval.

Still, it has been 31 years since Ali's retirement from boxing, and 28 since he announced he was suffering from Parkinson's disease, a neurological affliction doctors attribute to the accumulation of blows to the head that have affected his speech and motor skills. His unmistakable voice now all but silenced, and unable to walk unassisted - he has not driven a car in 21 years - Ali has become a sympathetic figure, in part because of his diminished physical presence and to a larger degree because of such good works as his various missions to deliver food and medical supplies to developing countries and as a fundraiser for Special Olympics and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix.

When he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November of 2005, even VFW spokesman Joe Davis, while admitting that his organization was far more vociferous in its opposition to Ali a couple of decades earlier, admitted that time, while maybe not healing all wounds, at least served to apply balm to several of them.

"He [refused to serve] for religious principles, and he paid the price . . . What he did in his later life, he was an excellent representative of the United States," Davis said at the time.

There is, of course, no disputing Ali's status as one of the finest heavyweights ever, and maybe even, as he so often opined, the best of the best. The Ali who defended his WBA championship by taking apart the dangerous Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams in three rounds on Nov. 14, 1966, in the Astrodome, the knockout sequence a rapid-fire combination that had the challenger's skull vibrating like a bobblehead doll, was a study in pugilistic perfection. I don't believe any big man before or since - not Jack Johnson, not Jack Dempsey, not Joe Louis, not Rocky Marciano, not Larry Holmes, not Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis - could have defeated that Ali, the 24-year-old model with the sleek physique, balletic movements and hands that were as blurringly quick as the flapping of a hummingbird's wings.

Ali was no less dominant two bouts later, a seventh-round stoppage of Zora Folley on March 22, 1967, in Madison Square Garden. But then came his refusal to be inducted into the Army, the stripping of his title and a 37-month enforced absence from the ring. A favorable ruling by the Supreme Court enabled him to resume his career with a third-round technical knockout of Jerry Quarry on Oct. 26, 1970, in Atlanta, but the Ali who was on display that night and thereafter, although still a superb fighter, was different - a bit heavier, a smidgen slower, more apt to absorb punishment and fight through it than to slip punches with almost casual ease.

"Ali before the layoff was a better fighter than Ali after," his late trainer, Angelo Dundee, said in 1995. "What a lot of people don't realize, and it's sad, is we never saw him at his peak.

"The Ali who fought Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley was the best he could be at that time, but he was getting bigger and stronger and more experienced in the ring. What was he, 25 years old when they made him stop? Those next 3 years would have been his peak. If he had continued getting better at the rate he was going, God only knows how great he would have been."

Curiously, the two Alis - the pre- and post-layoff versions - have inspired as much awe as, say, the young, gyrating Elvis and the older, chubbier, jumpsuited Las Vegas icon. Are we to be more impressed with the youthful phenom who destroyed "Big Cat" Williams, or the mature Ali who three times went to hell and back with Frazier, and who shocked George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle"?

The distinct stages of his career - taken separately or inclusively - don't really matter to Ali fans. They are moved not just to admiration, but to something more akin to worship.

"He is looked at almost like a Christ figure," HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman said a few years ago. "He was a guy who dedicated his entire life to helping people out. He sacrificed his flesh, so to speak, for all of us and for what he believed in. He was crucified by the establishment, he comes back from the dead a few years later, and is more popular now than ever. Now he's looked upon as being a saint."

But not everyone is so unstinting in his adulation, or at least not on every front. Boxing writer Eric Raskin observed that, as is often the case with legendary figures as they grow older, Ali's "sins are mostly forgotten, his triumphs exaggerated." Two books - "Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier," by Mark Kram (father of Daily News sports writer Mark Kram), and "Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King's Dream," by Jack Cashill - don't always depict Kellerman's idol in such a flattering light. They duly note Ali's serial infidelities, his denouncement of white people as "devils," and his possible manipulation by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.

So what is the absolute truth regarding the latest Liberty Medal recipient? That probably depends on one's point of view, and whether initial impressions have undergone alterations. It will be interesting to see how history treats Ali 20 or so years from now, as present perceptions possibly morph into different forms.

It should be noted, however, that there is still no statue of Joe Frazier in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, while Ali's birth city of Louisville, Ky., since 2005 has been the site of the $82 million Muhammad Ali Center, a six-story, 93,000-square-foot-edifice with 30-foot tile murals of its namesake on all sides.

Given that mound of evidence, it would appear that Ali, built to go the distance, has worn down not only a majority of his ring opponents, but most of his critics, too.


Former Daily News sports writer Bernard Fernandez has covered boxing for more than 25 years.