He was by all accounts amazing even if obnoxious and outrageous in his presentation. He came across as unbelievably arrogant and yet he could back up his words.
And yet he gave it all up because he refused to go to Vietnam.
Ali was the 'greatest' fighter because he was willing to put it all on the line for principle. He gave up his championship and was willing to face scorn because of what he believed was right. His greatest fight and 'victory' was not with Liston, Frazier or Foreman but with the American system. He won, but he paid a price.
There were many things he was wrong about, but Vietnam wasn't one of them.
He of course eventually returned to the ring but he wasn't the same fighter anymore. He had lost something of his edge. He was still a tremendous boxer and was involved in several very famous bouts but aficionados have always wondered... what if? What if he had not had that 4-year interlude? Would he have endured those incredible head-poundings in the 1970s? Before his title was stripped, he could barely be touched. He would have certainly slowed down at some point but would it have been the same?
In the 1980s my father (who was at the peak of his financial career) considered utilising Ali for some television commercials, even going so far as to meet with him. But by then Ali was already suffering the effects of all those hits to the head. My dad was thrilled to sit and talk with him for an hour or so but he also reported that it was kind of sad to see him deteriorating. The commercials never panned out and within a few years my father had lost all his 'fights' and wagers too.
Boxing of course doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. A modern day gladiatorial contest is hardly something to endorse or celebrate. It's actually pretty sick, something I realised when I was converted. But the fact that it's a poor man's sport gives it an interesting angle, at times.
I guess for me, it always reminds me of my father. Watching boxing matches was something we would do together and I don't think I've watched one since 1990. My last boxing memory was Mike Tyson getting knocked down by James 'Buster' Douglas. I remember my father was quite worked up over that. It was shocking, one of the great upsets in sports history.
When I heard Ali had died, I of course thought about my father who died in nearly destitute poverty some years ago.
As the years have progressed I've come to appreciate Ali not because of his arrogant presentation or boxing skills but because he's one of the rare public figures that was willing to give it all up and didn't care about what anyone else thought.
I can't help but admire that... at least a little.