We never really knew Muhammad Ali, because, in his heyday, he never stopped talking long enough to let us. Most likely, that was not by chance.
In life, he was "the greatest." He told us that for so long that we eventually just shrugged and accepted it. In death, and with the benefit of quiet reflection, a more accurate label would be "the most complicated."
To say Ali, who passed Friday night at a hospital in Phoenix, was a boxer is to say John Wooden was a basketball coach. There is so much more.
Ali, then Cassius Clay, was No. 175 in a graduating class of 175 in his Louisville high school. Some 47 years later, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humanities from Princeton. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 for the United States, then later allowed the story to be retold for years that shortly after his return from the Rome Games, after being refused service at a restaurant because he was black, he threw the medal in a river. After he lit the torch at opening ceremony for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he was awarded a new gold medal, reportedly replacing the 1960 gold he had merely lost along the way.
He patterned his career after that of Gorgeous George Wagner, a pro wrestler. The flamboyant Wagner and his sport were all an act, and Ali saw inspiration in that. Some chroniclers of the Ali era saw him as a decent boxer, who, out of the ring, was mostly a "preening narcissist." Others saw him as a great boxer — Roger Kahn likened the quickness of his jab to "a lizard's tongue" — who helped break down racial barriers in the '60s and 70s.
He refused the military call during the Vietnam War, grabbing huge headlines with the reason for his refusal: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
The outrageous was Ali's calling card. He said at one point that the only way blacks would be free from the oppression of whites was if blacks "take 10 of the states and separate from America." Author Mark Kram wrote of one of Ali's favorite shock-value routines. He would tell a story about Abraham Lincoln, going on a three-day drinking binge. When Lincoln awoke, Ali said, the first thing he said was, "I freed whooooooooo?"
As quickly as Ali became famous, he became a man of the people. When he traveled, he attracted crowds rivaling the Vatican courtyard awaiting white smoke. He never missed a photo op, but he also never missed a chance to visit a prison or hospital or orphanage. Just as often as not at the orphanage, the child sitting on his lap was white.
He had 61 fights and that was probably 20 too many. He was heavyweight champion three times and his three battles with Joe Frazier and his "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 with George Foreman, while cementing his fame, probably contributed to his deteriorating neurological condition in recent years. Doctors labeled Ali's condition a form of Parkinson's disease, something suffered by many outside boxing. The boxing world heard that, looked around at examples nearby everywhere, and rolled its eyes. Like so many whose career canvas is a canvas, Ali got hit in the head a lot.
In the end, like most fighters, he stayed too long. Included in the five defeats he suffered was one to Trevor Berbick. It was held Dec. 11, 1981, was called Drama in the Bahamas, and it was hardly that. Berbick won a unanimous decision, Ali retired for the last time, and five weeks later turned 40.
His trilogy with Frazier produced riveting drama, a 2-1 record for Ali and some of the most brutal rounds in boxing history. In his battle with Foreman in Zaire, Foreman chased and battered him for seven rounds. Ali took it, Foreman punched himself out, and Ali knocked him out in the eighth.
"Near the end of the fight," Foreman says, "we were in a clinch. Ali whispers in my ear, 'George, is that all you got?' And, as a matter of fact, it was."
Foreman, who blessedly has escaped the ravages of his sport, said recently that he called Ali frequently at his home in the Phoenix area and learned that "if you get him early in the morning, you can understand him."
More recently, Ali had become unable to converse.
In early 1971, as a 20-something reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, I went to Ali's camp at Deer Lake, Pa. He was training for the first Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden. After sparring, he met a small group of reporters and talked. Nonstop. Notebooks filled until ink ran together. Hyperbole flowed. No question was unwelcome and no answer comprehensive. It wasn't a news conference, it was a circus.
But I loved it. All the reporters did. My story was as disjointed as Ali's answers. There was no new information, nothing particularly constructive. No diamonds, just rhinestones. But I was thrilled just being there, and I'm not sure that additional age and experience would have changed that.
Outside of Vietnam veterans who had every right to dislike him, Ali somehow became what he always told us he was. The greatest. After a while, few questioned that, though it remained difficult to define why or how. He was a carnival barker who somehow morphed into Socrates. He became a cultural icon, whatever that is.
He was famous beyond the ability of the word to define that; loved as an athlete, beloved as a person. His stature is global. His name appears on lists with Nelson Mandela, John Kennedy and Winston Churchill. He stopped boxing 35 years ago, but never stopped being a hit.
For years, his health has left him anything but the greatest, but we never stopped thinking it was so.