What separated Muhammad Ali from other champions in the brutal profession that eventually claimed his life was more than the style by which his greatness was defined.
He wasn't a plodding thug like Sonny Liston, whose title he lifted; or a plow horse like Joe Frazier, always moving forward one deliberate step at a time; or really like any of the other men he met in his 61 professional fights during a 21-year span.
Ali danced, sure, and his grace and charisma have been documented for decades, but it was something else, his utter differentness, that set him apart as the country was struggling with its own alterations.
He was different in the ring, but more different outside of it, a sports figure who spoke to the divisive issues of his time rather than one who parroted the comfortable platitudes of the past. There had been those in the 1950s who presaged the coming tide - whether Jack Kerouac or Elvis Presley or Allen Ginsberg - but as the next decade dawned and flowered, Ali became one of the large waves that crashed upon the shore demanding change.
Change came, and depending on one's point of view, it was either a catharsis or a calamity for the nation. Either way, Ali's voice in the maelstrom was impossible to ignore. Born a Methodist, raised a Baptist, he converted to the Nation of Islam in 1964, and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his championship for that alone. He didn't back down and didn't waver when the Selective Service chose him for induction during the Vietnam War.
"And shoot [the Vietnamese] for what?" Ali said. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me. . . . Shoot them for what?"
His stance, as he was convicted of draft evasion and as his appeal rose to the Supreme Court, kept him from the ring during 31/2 years in the prime of his career, from the age of 25 to nearly 29. From a sports standpoint, as Ali's athletic greatness is measured, that missing time is analogous to the gaps that pock the careers of athletes who served in World War II and the Korean War. Different wars, different sides of the same fence. He surrendered part of his career for what he thought was right.
People are allowed to define heroism in their own way. At that time, in those circumstances, with the roiling confusion that was everywhere, with the murder of leaders who stood for civil rights and stood against the war, to be a public figure taking those positions for the sake of one's beliefs was pretty close to the definition.
Not everyone agreed, and they still don't. Ali was polarizing, with his effect on people as different as two ends of the magnet. Whether you were attracted or repelled was a litmus test on where you stood regarding the divide that split the country. Choosing a side was not optional. I was with Ali.
It wasn't until much later, when the war was over, when his greatest days were behind him, when he was still trying to recover the time he lost, that I saw Ali fight in person. I saw him against Jimmy Young in 1976 and Alfredo Evangelista in 1977. He was chasing something he'd never catch again. After beating Evangelista on decision, he would have only five more fights, three of them losses. That minor-key ending came after he lost only twice in his first 56 fights.
He was still defiant when I saw him, though, still loud, still funny in the dressing rooms and hallways before and after those two fights. He spoke in quotes, great quotes, and every one could have been at the top of the story.
Until you are ringside for a professional fight, particularly one in which the fighters possess the sheer throw-weight of the heavier divisions, it is difficult to understand the real nature of their business. There is a toll, and by the time I saw Ali and felt the booming concussion of the blows and saw the halo of sweat that flew each time a punch landed on his head, that toll had begun to accumulate on him.
He was shrinking, and that continued, physically and mentally, until Friday night in Phoenix, when he was finally consumed by his life's work. I was around him a couple of times over the years, after his wars were all over except the one within. Ali had become a compelling curiosity from a bygone time to most, a mere reenactor of battles long stilled. He fought within a much smaller ring, the corners of which he could not escape.
There is no summing up the man in 800 words. Books and movies have made the attempt and missed things. What remains is his voice, which he lent to those who didn't have one. He spoke, and things changed. The connection wasn't quite that direct, but during an important time it certainly seemed that way.