Age and Parkinson’s disease may have physically slowed the man, but Muhammad Ali can still put on a show. The 60-year-old boxing icon was honoured at SkyDome yesterday during the Toronto Argonauts home game against the Ottawa Renegades.
Ali was in town to kick off a national fundraising campaign for Parkinson Society Canada and Parkinson’s research at U of T. The game, which was attended by an entourage of celebrities, raised over $200,000 and attracted international media coverage.
Lou Gossett Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Mats Sundin and Elvis Stojko were just some of the luminaries on hand to show respect to the man who shook the world, both through his actions in the ring and his battles outside of it.
“[Ali] is one of the most influential people in the world and one of the biggest athletes, so it’s great that he would [come to Toronto] and raise money for Parkinson’s,” said Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin. He presented Ali with a Leafs jersey during a special halftime ceremony, which included a speech by Bill Clinton and was broadcast via satellite.
A loud and appreciative crowd of about 25,000 made the halftime ceremony a nostalgic one, reminding those in attendance of Ali’s popularity around the world. Chants of “Ali, Ali” resonated throughout SkyDome when he was introduced, with the crowd giving Ali a five-minute standing ovation.
Boxing greats Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes and George Chuvalo, each relating their experiences with Ali, also made speeches. Finally, the anxious crowd got to hear from Ali himself. His speech brought a rare admission that the icon is no longer what he used to be.
“I am not the greatest,” said Ali to a stunned crowd. “He is the greatest,” he said, pointing to current world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. His emotional statement brought tears to many faces in the stands as well as on the field.
George Chuvalo, who fought Ali at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1966, said in his speech that Ali’s legacy of greatness lives on today and always will.
“My friend Muhammad Ali was a champ and still is a champ,” he said. Chuvalo was one of a handful of boxers whom Ali was unable to knock out. He beat Chuvalo on points.
After the half-time ceremony, Ali addressed the media during a brief press conference at the SkyDome Hotel. He spoke about dealing with Parkinson’s and gave hope to all those who suffer from it.
“God has a way of testing people. That’s why we all have trials in life, even the greatest boxer in the world,” he said. “What you [Parkinson’s patients] need to do is to continue to pray, and continue to do anything necessary,” he said.
Oscar-winning actor Lou Gossett Jr. also expressed his admiration for Ali’s fight to find a cure for Parkinson’s. “With the technologies we have today, we can cure many people, especially with the help of a great man like [Ali].”
U of T’s Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases is one of the beneficiaries of the fundraising campaign. More than 300 U of T students volunteered at yesterday’s game, collecting donations from fans and handing out Ali posters.
U of T student volunteer Rocco Coluccio believes Ali is a living testament to what determination can do. “[Ali] is showing that even through the disease you can persevere and help a lot of people by going on with your life, like travelling here,” said Coluccio.
Ali hasn’t stepped in a boxing ring in over 20 years, but his popularity has not diminished, according to world middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. “Ali is still the greatest, especially if you’re from the inner streets, where people still want to have the white shoes and the white shorts, and talk a lot of stuff,” he said, of Ali’s trademark uniform.
Photograph by Kara Dillon