Well, what can I say?
Was Muhammad Ali (above at his second fight with Sonny Liston in 1965) the greatest boxer of all time? I wouldn't agree with that assessment - not as long as an argument can be made for Rocky Marciano, who won all 49 of his bouts as heavyweight champion of the world, 43 of them knockouts (heads up, I'm half-Italian). Was Ali the greatest athlete of all time? Yes, without a doubt. I loved the guy, especially his poems. And he had a stellar war record. In all seriousness, though, the accolades he's gotten in death as well as in life have been well-deserved. Never before had an athlete been as graceful, inspiring and as socially conscious as Muhammad Ali, and not too many athletes have been so since. The writer Joyce Carol Oates said it best when she said that he was one of a very small number of athletes who could "define the terms of his public reputation."
Back when he was still Cassius Clay, Ali recognized the role of athletes as being a subservient one, and he saw that they were to simply perform their feats of strength, smile for the cameras, make perfunctory statements to press, and pretend not to be aware of anything. Ali would have none of that. He spoke out against racism, refused to conform to racial or athletic stereotypes, and resisted being packaged and presented in anyone else's image. His conversion to Islam (first the controversial Nation of Islam sect, then to the Sunni branch) offended conservatives who thought of America as a Judeo-Christian nation, his refusal to be drafted into service fight in Vietnam at a time on the grounds that the Viet Cong was not the enemy ("a scandal," Paul Fussell called the Vietnam War) offended almost everyone else, and his pride in his own being transcended race and culture . . . and his generosity and his love for people ultimately inspired and touched everyone. Always ready to lend a helping hand, always advocating peace and justice, and at one point barred from boxing in standing up for his anti-war principles while fighting induction into the military, Muhammad Ali expanded everyone's consciousness about the world.
And he got to meet the Beatles.
Yes, Marciano was undefeated, and Joe Frazier had more wins over all (and by the way, I dug Smokin' Joe; heads up, my father's family is from Philadelphia). But while they were great boxers, Ali was also a great man. RIP.