By Thomas Gerbasi
For those of us of a certain age, boxing began and ended with Muhammad Ali, who passed away at 74 Friday night from a respiratory issue, according to a family spokesman.
He was our gateway drug, impossible to ignore or turn away from, and with that personality, he opened up a whole new world unlike any other.
Yet while we would soon learn about other legends like Sugar Ray Robinson, historic figures like Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, superstars like Mike Tyson, action heroes like Arturo Gatti and slick boxers like Pernell Whitaker, it always, inevitably, came back to Ali.
If you walked through that door he opened and became a diehard fan of the sport, you learned his origin story like you did for any other superhero. He wasn't Superman, who he famously "fought" in a 1978 comic book. Instead, he was like Batman or Spider Man, heroic and capable of great deeds, but not perfect.
It's why the world related to him like no other athlete. Yes, he did things on fight night that no one could at times, he was more handsome than the rest of us, and his gift of gab could captivate even the toughest crowds. But it was his courage against adversity, his willingness to realize his wrongs and right them, and his ability to fight when most would have quit that made him "The Greatest."
He was great. He was also human. And no more compelling combination has ever graced the prize ring.
If I'm jealous of anything over my last two decades of covering this sport, it's that I was born too late, that I wasn't around when Ali was fighting and opening his training camp in Deer Park to anyone and everyone who wanted to talk to him.
Think about it, this was the most famous person on Earth, and he didn't sequester himself from the world or sit behind an army of handlers whose job it was to keep him away from "regular" folk. Talk to anyone from that era - guys like Michael Katz or Ed Schuyler - and you hear in their voice how special it was to cover Ali or just be in his presence.
Before his passing in 2011, I was fortunate enough to speak to another one of those who covered the Ali beat for years, the New York Daily News' legendary cartoonist and columnist Bill Gallo, who told me what it was like during those days when the kid from Louisville ruled the world.
“He was exceptional for the press,” Gallo said. “To follow him around was like nothing I ever did in the boxing field. I covered Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, (Floyd) Patterson, and all those guys. This guy gave you more to write about than any of them. And he was aware of it. That was the greatest thing. He was just a phenomenal guy to be around. The only guy I could compare him to is Casey Stengel. He was an original, a one of a kind. Nobody like him before, or ever.”
The year we spoke was 2002. And as soon as he said the above quote, he looked across Gallagher's Steakhouse in New York City at the man still holding court with a bunch of reporters.
Parkinson's disease had taken Ali in its grip by then, but his spirit and wit was as strong as ever. Still, Gallo's face changed.
“What I miss is the real Ali, the energetic one. You should have seen him. Just bubbly all the time, kidding you, playing jokes, acting mad when he wasn’t. He had great energy and was a great fighter."
No, it wasn't the Ali who filled endless notebooks over the years, but I didn't care. He was still the icon who could reduce grown men - like myself - to wide-eyed fanboys who lost the power of speech.
Eventually, I did manage some words, and if you've heard this story a hundred times, that should tell you what it meant to me.
I made my way to Ali's longtime friend and photographer Howard Bingham and began asking him to ask the former heavyweight champion a question for me. Bingham stopped me and said, "You can ask him yourself."
So I did, asking The Greatest what it was like to still draw a crowd more than two decades after his last fight.
He leaned over without hesitation and said "This crowd ain't big enough."
If he had a mic, he could have dropped it right there, his timing as sharp as it was when he knocked out Cleveland Williams in 1966. And he wasn't done. Someone asked about his condition and whether he regretted fighting as long as he did.
“I’d do it exactly the same,” said Ali. “Everything turned out perfect.”
In so many ways it did, even it wasn't what we expected. Then again, Ali never did what was expected of him. He did better. He fought the system, he made peace in the midst of war, and when necessary, he slugged with some of the most fearsome punchers of his - or any other - era.
Perhaps the most fearsome was the big man from Houston, Texas, George Foreman. Back in 1974, Ali scored his greatest victory while Foreman suffered his most devastating defeat. Yet over the years, Foreman's respect and love for his rival only grew.
A couple years back, I spoke to Foreman and the topic of the great heavyweights of the 70s came up. More specifically how that out of that spectacular group of fighters that included Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry and Ron Lyle, only he and Ali were still here.
“I never did visualize a world without them and when they started passing, it hurt,” Foreman said. “It’s like a part of me died. And that’s the one thing I do understand; nobody’s got a monopoly on life and death. And it’s not how long you live, it’s the quality of the life you live, and I’m thankful for the quality of life. I get up and I go fish, I walk my dogs in the morning, and I’m already in the happily ever after now. I’m happy now. And I would like to live for a long time, and I’m going to the doctor like everybody else, and whenever they tell me they have a new pill for something, I say ‘doctor, give me one.’ (Laughs) I really want to live. And I’ve made new friends, and I like Twitter and Facebook because I meet new people every day, become friends and chat with them so I don’t feel like I’ve lost all of my friends.”
More poignant words were never spoken, and yes, Parkinson's stole away some of Ali's quality of life, but who lived a more meaningful and impactful life for 74 years?
Few, if any. And even in those later years, Ali still owned whatever room he walked into. I spoke to UFC middleweight Kevin Casey about his first meeting with the man who would eventually become his father-in-law.
“It was this unbelievable feeling,” Casey said. “It was hard to even look directly at him. I literally felt the energy coming off of him.”
That was Muhammad Ali. There was only one, and there will never be another.
Rest in peace, Champ.