In this age of boastful, self-promoting, showoff, see-me athletes, they all come in second to The Greatest ... of ALL time.
He was Cassius Marcellus Clay when he first began telling the world how great he was. For the last 50 years, we've known him as Muhammad Ali.
He made us laugh when he was young and such a braggart, such a popoff. He also teed off a lot of us with his loud mouth, his arrogance, his newly found Muslim faith (thus, the name change) and -- mostly -- when he refused to join the U.S. Army.
He was the most polarizing athlete in my lifetime.
Beloved by millions, known all over the world, arguably the most popular athlete on earth; only Pele, soccer's superhero, was in his class world-wide, I think.
Despised by so many people: A black man raising hell in the early 1960s, calling out the white racists and then wanting no part of a war that many -- initially -- supported.
And if you supported him, if you thought he was right, you might be called a "n----- lover."
Look, I'm not here to debate the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Like many, I thought the U.S. government -- the President and Congress -- knew what they were doing. We thought we had to stop the Communist surge in that faraway place, in the rice paddies and the funny-sounding cities and villages.
We all found out how duplicitous our elected officials and our military leaders could be, or at least how badly they miscalculated that war. But that's another story. This is about Ali.
So he didn't want to join the military, basing it on his religious beliefs. Honestly, I wish he'd joined the Army; surely, they would have given him a ceremonial job and encouraged him to take a "feel-good" role.
But he didn't choose that and he was willing to give up his heavyweight championship to follow his principles. So the boxing powers-that-be -- those patriots -- took away his title and refused to sanction his fights. And for three years, he was banned from boxing, forced to make his living doing speeches, mostly on college campuses.
The shame of that was, from an athletic standpoint, is we missed him at his very best, when he was -- as he often told us -- "young and pretty" and practically untouchable in his fights.
It wasn't his politics or his religious beliefs that interested me. Like my good friend Ken Liberto, who in our junior year in high school (fall 1963) started talking about "this Cassius Clay guy" as the young professional began winning every fight and also predicting the round in which he would win, we loved his pure athletic ability -- how damn good he was, and how much fun.
The young Cassius, the young Ali and then the older one. Whether he was boxing or talking, he was always The Greatest.
This piece came about after the televised rant by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman moments after the NFC Championship Game last month when he disparaged an opposing receiver and the opposing team.
That made Sherman the focus of the national media and the NFL-watching public for the next two weeks. His trash talk was the talk of the country.
When I mentioned to my wife -- the non-football fan -- how outrageous Sherman was, how angry he sounded, she said, "And what about Ali?"
Good point. Ali really started it all, didn't he?
Well, actually he copied his act from a 1950s wrestler/self-promoter named Gorgeous George, whose bragging and platinum blond "good looks" -- ha! -- made the public laugh and pay attention to him.
The young Cassius Clay was a smooth-looking, talkative kid and as he turned pro, he caught the media's attention -- and found fans -- by promoting himself, making up rhymes in predicting the round he would win in, belittling opponents ... and then backing it all up by winning every fight, often in the designated round.
The boy could talk, and punch, and move. "The Louisville Lip" -- from Louisville, Ky. -- danced in the ring, and he was the fastest heavyweight anyone had ever seen -- with his quick hands and his feet, and his unconventional style (he didn't try to cover up; he simply slipped punches by moving his head and his feet).
Can't forget: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
He beat some no-name chumps and one big name past his prime (Archie Moore). Few knew how good he was or could be. But because he talked and talked and maybe some people wanted to shut him up, he was matched up with the fearsome heavyweight champion, Charles "Sonny" Liston.
Never before -- maybe never since -- has a challenger badgered the champ more than Clay did Liston. Called him "The Big Ugly Bear," invaded his camp several times, called him out at every opportunity, made up poems and rhymes and insults ... and, really, made Liston think he was crazy. And maybe he was crazy ... like a fox.
Think Richard Sherman was loud and obnoxious? He was a mouse compared to the young Clay.
And, of course, the fight in Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964, is history -- the absolute lesson Clay gave Liston, the pounding Sonny's face took, the "ointment" in his eyes that blinded Clay for almost a round, the absolute shock of the upset in the making, the over-the-top, dancing, screaming celebration by the new champ when Liston sat on his stool and didn't come out for the seventh round.
I listened to the fight on radio at my house. The next morning, when I got in the car for the ride to school, Liberto was so excited, yelling, "I told you! I told you!"
Over the next few years, Ken re-enacted the fight ... like hundreds of times. He was Clay/Ali; I was Liston. He'd dance and jab -- "movin' and stickin' -- and we always wound up laughing.
We laughed, too, so often at Ali's interviews. He was so unpredictable, such a clown, you never knew what he'd say, how he would make fun of his opponent-to-be. One of my favorites was against a guy he only talked about fighting, basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 mountain of a man.
Chamberlain towering over Ali; they're talking about signing for a fight; they're both jabbering (Ali more than Wilt, of course); comparing the huge reach advantage Wilt would have over Ali (a big guy himself), and the perturbed Ali saying, " ... and cut that beard off because I'm not fighting billy-goats." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuX7FlddCRg
Best of all, he could be a verbal match for the pompous, verbose, self-proclaimed best announcer in boxing, Howard Cosell.
Those Ali-Cosell interviews, dozens of them, brought laugh after laugh. Anyone who could make fun of Howard (like Dandy Don Meredith also could) was good enough for us. Best of all, Ali repeatedly threatened to pull off Cosell's toupee.
Here is a link to one of the classic interviews: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hXF-ule0pw
But Cosell always -- always -- defended Ali's right to his religious views and criticized boxing's banishment from boxing. And he was one of the few media people to do so.
When the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in Ali's favor, Cosell was vindicated. And years later, Cosell memorably told Ali, "You are exactly what you said you were."
We liked the nicknames Ali made up for opponents -- Floyd Patterson was "The Rabbit," Ernie Terrell "The Octupus," George Chuvalo "The Washer Woman," Oscar Bonavena "The Beast," and, of course, the best of all (other than Liston) Joe Frazier "The Gorilla."
Ali and Frazier -- three great fights, two of them classics. So many people were so happy when Frazier handed Ali his first pro loss -- and knocked him down in the 15th round -- in their title fight on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Finally, Ali couldn't brag.
It was, and I've written this before, the most anticipated and the most exciting sports event I remember.
Ali found a way to brag about it anyway, about how Frazier ended up in the hospital in intensive care. And Ali kept talking, kept the public interested for every fight ... and he had one more big surprise for us -- like the first Liston fight -- when he knocked out another "awesome" heavyweight champ, the unbeaten and fearsome young George Foreman in 1974 and regain his title.
"The Rumble in the Jungle" -- fought in far-off Zaire -- was when Ali invented the "rope-a-dope," standing against the ropes for several rounds and letting Foreman pound him ... and wear himself out, until Ali knocked him down and out. Liberto and I went to Monroe to watch that one on closed-circuit television -- it wasn't on in Shreveport -- and again were wildly and pleasantly surprised.
A year later, we also saw the third Ali-Frazier fight -- "The Thrilla in Manila" -- and it was the greatest fight I've ever seen, two courageous, talented men slugging it out, both totally exhausted near the end. Frazier couldn't make it for the 15th round, but Ali admitted he had been ready to quit, too.
Ali should have retired right there, but he kept fighting, losing and regained the title one more (two bouts with clumsy, spacy Leon Spinks). He fought twice more after that, both terrible losses in which he took beatings -- and he paid dearly for it.
He paid for it with Parkinson's disease. It is difficult to see him now in his increasingly rare public appearances. You can see the tremors and the frozen facial expression. After some years, he could only mumble. Now he doesn't talk at all publicly; his sweet fourth wife, Lonnie, speaks for him.
And yet, when you do see him, he's still the center of attention. One of the great Olympic moments ever was Ali emerging from the shadows to -- shakily -- light the flame beginning the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. That was 18 years ago, and he was already much afflicted with Parkinson's.
Was he the greatest boxer ever? Hard to say. Some would say Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano (who never lost a pro fight) or, pound for pound, Sugar Ray Robinson or the still-going Floyd Mayweather.
But, for showmanship, for generating publicity, for making his fights an "event" and for multi-million dollar attractions, Ali had no equal.
The Mouth That Roared is a distant memory, one for us older folks. The trash talkers of today -- and the kids who are their fans -- should know, though, about The Greatest. His talk wasn't cheap.