I watched his truly great fights on ESPN Classic, and I read about his spiritual conversion and antiwar stance in books. For me, Ali was at first that mythical being called the Heavyweight Champion of the World, the toughest man alive in my second grade imagination. And then he was inexplicably dethroned by a guy named Leon Spinks. I still remember trying to comprehend that after I heard it on the radio during a long family vacation drive. The newscasters seemed absolutely stunned, and I felt stunned, too.

I was older and a huge Larry Holmes fan when Ali tried to win the title again. That was a fight that never should have been allowed, and it can’t have done Ali’s brain any favors.

I have to get the youngster off to soccer soon, so it’s not possible for me to even scratch the surface of Ali’s impact on me or on the country and the world.

Clearly, what he did outside the ring will be remembered the most, and rightly so. But he was the most courageous fighter I’ve ever seen. His will to win was unlike any anything I’ve ever seen in an athlete, and I include folks like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird who were mind-boggling in their inhuman competitiveness. The Thrilla in Manila is still the best fight ever because no other mere mortal could have beaten Joe Frazier that night. No one but Ali could have possibly wanted to win that fight more than Frazier wanted to win it.

Boxing is a brutal and controversial sport, and we can all see what it did to Muhammed Ali. But he made the sport something more. He used it to inspire people from all walks of life. He inspired people to believe in themselves and he showed everyone what craftsmanship can do, and what heart can achieve.

He wasn’t the biggest puncher or the most electrifying boxer, but he was the greatest.

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