January 18, 2012 | 9:49am
Sadly, many of us who followed Muhammad Ali's (aka Cassius Clay) boxing career and life for about a half-century suspected that he wouldn't see a 70th birthday.
Surely, we told ourselves privately, he never would outlast his nemesis, Smokin' Joe Frazier, the Philadelphia fury who died late last year.
Ali fought 41 memorable three-minute rounds with Frazier over their classic early 1970s trilogy that culminated with the Thrilla In Manila--a frightening clash of wills and ability that took more out of both men than any of us realized at the time.
The ravages of the terrible brain disorder known as Parkinson's disease have been evident for a few decades by now, and have almost totally stolen Ali's motor skills and, probably just as awful to this once-garrulous man, his ability to speak.
Plainly put, Ali took far too many punches in his glorious career and has paid a brutal price not uncommon to his line of work.
But he has refused to shrink into the twilight. He seems utterly unafraid to allow folks to see him as he is today, the polar opposite of the lightning-fast-on-his-feet (literally and figuratively), handsome and overpowering personality that made him the world's most popular athlete--probably ever.
These days, Ali and his very cool wife Lonnie (we've met her) live in a gated Paradise Valley home, and are frequent guests at Phoenix Suns games and other Valley sporting events. He seems to bask in the unabashed love he gets every time he enters an arena, in the form of inevitable standing ovations and chants of "Ali, Ali!"
It's lousy that his illness doesn't allow him to smile, but he always musters a royal wave.
We have had the privilege of meeting Ali several times, but we prefer to remember a May 1976 chat up in Springerville as our favorite by far.
Ali was preparing to fight the underrated Ken Norton, who in the end gave the fading champ all he could handle (39 rounds in three fights, with Norton winning one--and busting Ali's jaw in the process--and losing two disputed split decisions).
Ali was sitting alone outside a cabin in the woodsy spot his people had chosen for him to train, a large and extremely fit-looking man then in his mid 30s. Seeing him there was almost surreal.
It was dusk, and the day's work was done. The dizzying aroma of food cooking spread throughout the camp.
We walked up to the great man, then just a year or so removed from perhaps his greatest moment, the epic victory of Frazier in Manila (though 1974's stunning destruction of the thought-to-be-invincible George Foreman sure is up there).
He looked exhausted in his sweats and wasn't all that keen on socializing at the moment.
Champ, just want to wish you luck against Norton, we were able to spit out.
You from up here, he asked us.
No, drove up here from Tucson just to take a look.
Tucson! What's Tucson? Ali shot back. Tucson!
We all laughed.
Someone came by to tell Ali that dinner was ready.
He immediately asked us if we were hungry.
Yes, sir, we said.
Come on, he said. Get some food.
So we did, sitting with about 15 members of the Ali camp and eating chicken, yams and an okra dish of some sort. Ali performed a magic trick for a little girl who was sitting on his lap, and everyone cracked up.
We were ecstatic, and couldn't stop smiling.
He asked us if we going out to Los Angeles for the Norton fight.
Nope, we said. But we'll be watching on closed-circuit TV somewhere (man, those were the days).
Before we split, we asked him to pose with us for the obligatory fist-clenched shot. Towering over us, Ali chose to make a goofy face instead of the usual fierce warrior's pose.
We look giddy with joy.
It is a treasured photo.