He was, as he never stopped reminding us, The Greatest.
Of course, we'll never know how great he could have been because he was still approaching the height of his physical powers when he was exiled from boxing in 1967. By the time he returned to the ring three and a half years later, he had clearly passed his prime. But that was still good enough to beat two of the greatest heavyweights of all time, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
But for all his prowess inside the ring, his true greatness lay in what he did outside it. By refusing fight in Vietnam – "No Viet Cong ever called me (the N-word)," he explained – he incurred the wrath of what we used to call "the establishment."
White male sportswriters – and there were no other kind in those days - exploded in vituperation. Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, "Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war." (Note the refusal to call him Muhammad Ali.)
Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times accused him of ingratitude for the Civil War: "Muffle the guns at Vicksburg. Spike the guns of Sumter. Burn the banners of the noblest cause man ever fought for. Cassius Marcellus Clay has decided to secede from the Union. After 103 years of freedom, he sulks."
The only prominent national leader who sent him a telegram of support was Martin Luther King. And the only white sportswriter to defend his right to be himself – to his everlasting credit - was Howard Cosell, who said of his colleagues, "They wanted another Joe Louis, a white man's idea of a black man. Instead, they got Ali, who was unafraid to speak his mind no matter what the consequences."
It's probably hard for younger people to understand what Ali meant to people my age. Vietnam was the defining issue of our generation, dividing American families every night over the dinner table. By refusing to go to war, Ali became our hero, our champion, our beau ideal.
I only saw him in person twice. The first time was in 1967, shortly after he was stripped of his title, at an anti-war March in Los Angeles. He was the most handsome man I ever saw, and one of the most articulate. He gave us a short, thoughtful talk urging us to think carefully about what we were about to do because we were likely be beaten and arrested - prophetic words, because that's exactly what happened when the L.A. cops, who were a law unto themselves, staged a police riot.
The second time was in 1990, when he appeared at Cody's Books in Berkeley on a book tour. I stood in line to meet him with everyone else; and when it was my turn, I was so star struck I could only babble incoherently about how much I loved him.
Parkinson's had already robbed him of his speech by then, so he held up his hand to stop me and, with infinite dignity and grace, lifted himself up out of his chair and shook my hand.
He was a great man. He was a good man. God bless his memory.