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The grace with which he shared his fame was charming and he brought it to the farthest corners of the world. The causes to which he lent that fame -- even when he was reduced to little more than a shuffle and a murmur -- were endless.


To speak of Muhammad Ali without tears is not easily done, especially at this moment. But this is no mere player of games, hardly just another boxer or celebrity who after a meteoric run drifts off into myth. This is that rare athlete whose historical stature and consequence are genuine. Moreover, there were two Alis; one so different from the other. So, we shall try!

There were many contradictions. It always struck me as incongruous, if not downright odd, that when he adopted his Muslim name, Ali bitterly renounced his given name, which was famously of course, Cassius Clay. He said he did so on the grounds that moniker had been his "slave name". Did he not even vaguely consider what an historical slur such a statement was?

For you see Cassius Clay -- the 19th century Kentucky gentleman for whom Ali's parents named him -- had been pound for pound one of the most remarkable, brave, and principled men of his entire era; an abolitionist living not comfortably among the like-minded in Boston but among sworn enemies in the deep south, an early white-apostle of black-emancipation given to defending his gallant defiance with a bowie knife, an officer in the Union Army and politician who served Abraham Lincoln, a fiercely independent thinker who disdained conventional wisdom all his life seeking truth according to his own lights, oblivious to personal risk.

If the original Cassius Clay strikes you as the sort of man the ultimate Muhammad Ali strove mightily all his life to be you get my point. Perhaps he had been misinformed.

Not that Ali didn't have a perfect right to adopt all the traditions of his new faith; an extraordinarily courageous act hardly calculated to enhance his popularity in mid-sixties America. On the other hand, along the way he was obliged to renounce Malcolm X who'd been his dear friend and benefactor and was later murdered allegedly by Ali's new friends. Surveying all this, Martin Luther King sadly observed that Ali in his choices "had become a champion of separation." All of which, of course, has been long forgotten.

Equally bold and gutsy was Ali's opposition to the military-draft, eventually translating into colorful and highly popular opposition to the deeply unpopular war in Vietnam, although when the army first came calling he was mostly and understandably alarmed at having his career crushed at the height of his skills and earning-power.

But the young Ali was brilliant at reading the tea leaves of his times. By 1967 when the issue crested, anti-war sentiment had fully-blossomed. It was then that he uttered the near immortal line about having no gripe "with them Viet Cong" making him a folk hero with young Americans who'd never seen a boxing match, nor wished to. It cost him three years on the beach, roughly equal to the time Joe Louis lost serving in the Army in World War II.

Still, this was above all an athlete. So it's how he performed in his discipline that ultimately sets his measure. Indisputably, he was brilliant; creative, original, dramatic, lethal, very courageous. But "the Greatest," as he above all insisted? I won't go that far. He was the most flamboyant and entertaining, I'll happily agree; but "not the greatest."

For one thing and it's VERY important, he got hurt too much. The fine art of great boxing has everything to do with hurting the other guy more than he can bear while not getting yourself hurt too much. It's that simple. At that, Ali in the end failed. Yes, he could "sting" but he got stung much too much.

The "rope-a-dope" tactic he featured his last six to seven years by which he allowed opponents to wear themselves out punching him silly, was simply madness. He should have quit after the last Joe Frazier epic, the "Thrilla in Manilla"(1975), which Ali himself described as a "near-death experience." Instead he fought six more years taking terrible punishment even from veritable bums. Medical people who've commented seem convinced the Parkinson's Disease that made life hell on earth for him his last 30 years derived from those pummelings. Tragic!

So where does he rate among the great heavyweights? I give him little chance against either Marciano or Louis and wonder about Johnson, Dempsey, even Tunney.

Rocky was Joe Frazier times two, and Smoking Joe -- even while losing two of three -- gave Ali savage lickings. If Ali had gone "rope-a-dope," Marciano would have busted all his ribs by the seventh. Stylistically, Rocky could have handled Ali, taking whatever he had to hand out. I've even less doubt about a Joe Louis showdown; Louis being as quick, ring-wise, unflappable and even more gifted. That's the fight you'd most want to see. About Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, you're intrigued although legend confuses both issues. Equally clever and crafty, Gene Tunney would give away too much size but still be a test. A sly old warrior like Joe Walcott, might also be trouble. It's a great question, if unanswerable.

But it's foolish to quibble more about this. Ali was a great show. Simply electric! What more can you ask? But there was in my book an aspect that did seriously detract from his brilliance, mainly in the early years, and took time to redeem. And that was his bush behavior when he mocked opponents and clearly reached for cruel extremes to humiliate them.

The young Ali treated with embarrassing disdain the desperately thin canons of sportsmanship long intended to bring civility, meaning, even honor to an otherwise brutal and bloody business. At times, it was unforgiveable as when he systematically carried Floyd Patterson for the avowed purpose of making him suffer and -- most needless of all -- viciously denigrated Joe Frazier with patently racist insults. It was shameless. Joe Frazier was too good a man for that.

The young Ali needed to learn some humility and he did. The change was stunning. Methinks it really began after the Supreme Court rescued him from exile, with the pace quickening his last years in the ring even as he was paying the price, then flowering over a long and painful retirement. By all accounts, Muhammad Ali's boxing afterlife was the most remarkable chapter of a near-unbelievable life.

The grace with which he shared his fame was charming and he brought it to the farthest corners of the world. The causes to which he lent that fame -- even when he was reduced to little more than a shuffle and a murmur -- were endless.

They ranged from service to the International Olympics, famine and refugee relief, the United Nations, all the way to the tender needs of Boys and Girls Clubs, the local fund-raiser, the neighborhood gym. A learned friend who has studied the aging Ali has called what he brought to all such moments ''a sweet spirit.'' If it was redemption that he sought, he appears to have achieved it.

Fitzgerald was wrong. There can be second acts in great American lives. And if they may be less loud and rousing they can be even more fascinating. Case-in-point: Muhammad Ali!

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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