Word of Muhammad Ali’s death started to trickle out late Friday night, at an hour when few people were glued to their social media streams or tuned into mainstream media channels. The timing made it almost inevitable that there would be some unexpected bearers of the sad news. One such messenger, it turned out, was Paul Simon, who was performing at Berkeley, California’s Greek Theatre at the time.
Simon had just gotten through the penultimate verse of “The Boxer” when the rest of the band quieted down and the spotlight closed in on him at center stage. He picked softly at his guitar for a few measures before stopping altogether to gently deliver the news: “I’m sorry to tell you this in this way, but Muhammad Ali passed away.” The announcement drew loud sighs from the crowd, and Simon then offered the only salve he could, diving into the song’s wistful, fitting final verse:
In the clearing stands a boxer/ And a fighter by his trade/ And he carries the reminders/ Of ev’ry glove that laid him down/ And cut him ‘til he cried out/ In his anger and his shame/ “I am leaving, I am leaving.”/ But the fighter still remains.