LONDON – Muhammad Ali moving people to tears by starring again, however briefly, at the Olympic opening ceremony — this time in London? That really would be something.
Only ceremony director Danny Boyle and a few well-informed others will know for certain if British newspapers are wrong with their speculation that Ali could play a role on Friday night.
He surely won't, as he did at the Atlanta Games, light the Olympic cauldron. Ali, 70 and imprisoned by Parkinson's disease, seems far too frail for that now. And one imagines that Boyle, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is clever enough to realize that it would be foolish and crass to try to recreate that Atlanta moment as poignant and powerful as anything that happened on the Olympic fields of play in 1996.
But even a glimpse of Ali in London's Olympic Stadium would be, well, just wow. The former heavyweight champion's presence this week in London — he attended an award ceremony on Tuesday — seemed to lend credence to the notion that he might somehow be involved on Friday.
Parkinson's has stolen away Ali's world-beating strength and quick reflexes and frozen his beautiful face into a mask. He was helped onto the stage, sat largely motionless and did not speak at the award ceremony. But he still inspires, and imaginations buzzed with hope that he might be well enough for another Olympic piece of magic.
"It's a beautiful idea. If you have one of the greatest sporting icons ever coming to the 2012 Games, what more can you ask for?" said Londoner Antonia Ugbaja. Her wait for Ali outside the hotel that hosted the award ceremony was rewarded with glimpses of him being wheeled in on a chair and later being helped out upright to a waiting van.
As an American, Ali may not seem an obvious choice to light up the British capital's Olympic opening spectacular for an estimated global television audience of 1 billion. But Ali, as he did almost everywhere, won many hearts in Britain during his career.
As a young fighter, Ali initially seemed less than impressed by Britain — "The cars are too small, the streets are too narrow — I like open spaces — and I haven't seen as many pretty girls like I do at home," the 1960 Olympic gold medalist said when he came to fight Henry Cooper in London in 1963. Yet he kept coming back. He defeated Cooper again in 1966 and, by 1971, on a promotional tour, was raving about how loved he felt here.
"I never realized how many people and followers of all ages, all races, religions and creeds I had following me," Ali said. "I've never had so many admirers."
And perhaps none so fervent as Paddy Monaghan. The bare-knuckle boxer mounted a one-man campaign in Britain against the decision in 1967 to ban Ali from boxing after he refused to fight in Vietnam. Before the days when the Internet made this easy, Monaghan collected 22,224 signatures, which he delivered to the U.S. Embassy in London; he also wrote to then-President Richard Nixon and spoke for Ali at Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park.
"The crowd would be forming and he'd be saying it's not right that a man's livelihood be taken away, that you shouldn't mix politics with sport," Monaghan's son, Tyrone, told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
Over the years, according to Tyrone, the two men became firm friends. Ali, in a televised chat show, once described Monaghan as "my No. 1 fan." Tyrone said Ali would regularly drop by the Monaghans' modest house in Abingdon, west of London, when visiting England.
"Dad would say to me, 'Muhammad's coming tomorrow' or 'Muhammad is coming next week.' I'd say, 'Oh, all right, Dad.'" Tyrone said. "I just thought it was no big deal."
Once, Ali pulled up in a white Lincoln Continental, quickly drawing a crowd. Another time, Tyrone came home to find Ali "just chilled on the sofa. My mum made him tea."
In 1974, after his "Rumble in the Jungle" defeat of George Foreman to reclaim the world heavyweight crown, Ali shadowboxed Tyrone in their front garden.
In 1983, he also sparred with Tyrone in their back garden, telling him: "There's no rounds. Whoever collapses last is going to be the winner." Ali was retired and would announce the following year he was suffering from Parkinson's. Even so, "I couldn't see his jab move. He was like sheet lightning," Tyrone said.
He said his father was in Ali's corner when he defeated Alvin Lewis at Dublin, Ireland, in 1972 and again, in 1974, for Ali's second fight against Joe Frazier.
"He was always phoning my dad and my dad was always phoning him."
They last saw Ali in his hotel when he visited Dublin in 2009.
"Muhammad just looked up and struggled out of his chair, and he shuffled over, and my dad and he just hugged each other," Tyrone said.
Paddy Monaghan, now 68, was taken ill eight weeks ago; in the hospital, his heart stopped four times, Tyrone said. He said his father is slowly recovering. Tyrone said he has told Ali's son-in-law about it and he's sure Ali would have visited his old friend on this trip, too, had he been in better health himself.
On Friday, if his father is well enough, Tyrone may put him in front of a TV if Ali is making an opening ceremony appearance.
"I'm sure my dad would love to see that," he said.
We all would.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester