He was The Greatest. Not just of his era, but – as he proclaimed – "of all time!"
And I got to meet him, at Snoqualmie Ridge in July 2000.
Heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali was my all-time favorite athlete.That's saying a lot considering how much I've admired winners like Steve Largent, Russell Wilson, Edgar Martinez, Gus Williams, and Sonny Sixkiller. Not to mention hydro champs Ron Musson and Dean Chenoweth.
But Ali was so much more than just an incomparable boxer. No need to explain, in light of all that's been written about him since his passing Friday at age 74.
But I'll explain anyway, from my perspective.
I became aware of Cassius Clay at age 9, while at the P-X Supermarket near my Lake Hills home. I overheard two men discussing that night's fight between Clay and heavyweight champ Sonny Liston.
"Liston will shut that guy up," said one guy, his face contorted with disgust. "Clay's nothing but a loudmouth."
But Clay floated, danced, stung like a bee, and Liston failed to answer the bell for the 8th round. After the fight, Clay renounced what he called his "slave name" and became Muhammad Ali.
I really took notice as Ali's knockouts, boasting, and poetic predictions mounted. TV news showed him knock out opponents with ease, fluidity, and efficiency: Floyd Patterson, Henry Cooper, Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley.
Ali looked like no other heavyweight. His left jabs and right hand were lightning fast. He didn't block punches, he jerked his head backward and slipped them. He danced. He shuffled.
He famously stated, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," and in April 1967 he refused induction into the U.S. Army, which got him stripped of his heavyweight title. For nearly four years, in forced exile during his prime, Ali was unable to fight.
He was exonerated of draft evasion by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. That March I anguished over his comeback loss to champ Joe Frazier in the "Fight of the Century," a 15-round split decision.
Over the next few years of young adulthood, I followed Ali closely. My bedroom wall bore newspaper and magazine photos of his victories over Jimmy Ellis, George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry, and Ken Norton. Now slower than before, Ali still showed his old form in flurries.
But Ali's wit and mischief never waned, and that accounted for much of his charm. I'd intuitively sensed from the start that his conceit was all showmanship. To me, Ali was a lovable rascal, though one with an iron will and lethal fists.
Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell formed an odd couple. Ali pretended to pluck Cosell's hairpiece on TV and said, "Cosell, you're a phony, and that thing on your head comes from the tail of a pony." Cosell retorted, "You're being extremely truculent," to which Ali replied, "Whatever 'truculent' means, if that's good, I'm that."
Ali won a 1974 rematch with Joe Frazier, earning him a shot at undefeated champ George Foreman. I feared that underdog Ali could lose the "Rumble in the Jungle" and perhaps even be injured by this brute of a man who literally had knocked Frazier off his feet with a crushing blow.
My roommate Gene and I paid $20 each to watch Ali-Foreman via closed-circuit TV at the John Danz Theater in Bellevue. At about 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 24, 1974, a tiny black and white image flickered onto the huge movie screen. We watched dumbfounded and alarmed as Ali unveiled his "Rope-a-Dope" strategy, letting Foreman pound Ali's midsection with crushing roundhouse blows.
But five or six rounds into the fight, Gene and I noticed something: Foreman seemed tired. His punches dwindled and lost steam.
You know the rest. Ali exploded off the ropes in round eight and flattened Foreman's face with a flurry of lefts and rights. Foreman spun crazily to the canvas and failed to get up before the ref counted to 10.
It seemed as if Ali had won by magic.
Two days before my 21st birthday, Gene and I again bought closed-circuit tickets and watched at Seattle Center Arena as Ali toyed with Joe Bugner, the "Bayonne Bleeder," while earning a 15-round decision.
The epic battle came Sept. 30, 1975, when we watched the Ali-Frazier rubber match, the "Thrilla In Manilla," via closed circuit at the Seattle Center Coliseum. It was a fight in three acts: Early rounds, all Ali. Middle rounds, all Frazier. Late rounds, just when hope seemed lost, Ali tapped his hidden reserve and surged to a round 14 TKO.
That was the last great Ali fight. Sure, he fought on, beating journeymen and the always-dangerous Ken Norton. But in hindsight, perhaps Ali-Frazier III took a toll and started The Champ's decline.
I was on a California business trip and watched the hotel TV in horror as Ali lost a 15-round decision to greenhorn Leon Spinks in February 1978. But seven months later, watching TV at home as I recall, I saw Ali reclaim the title over Spinks and become the first-ever three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
The Ali that was pounded by Larry Holmes in 1980 and beaten by lightly regarded Trevor Berbick in 1981 was not The Greatest we knew and loved. Already his speed and speech had slowed. How I wish Ali had called it a career after beating Spinks.
In July 2000, Muhammad Ali came to Snoqualmie Ridge to meet and encourage inner-city kids from Seattle's Boys & Girls Clubs. I was there to take photos because PEMCO had a role, being a Boys & Girls Clubs supporter.
A limo pulled up into a sea of people, and slowly, Ali stepped out and shuffled toward a group of beaming kids. Good Lord, I was staring at The Greatest in the flesh!
Ali didn't linger long, but I shot many pics of perhaps the most recognizable face in the world. Despite his slow, deliberate Parkinson's-hindered movements, Ali's eyes were bright and full of mischief as he screwed his face into a mock snarl and slowly lifted his fist beneath one kid's chin. The kid giggled with glee.
Muhammad Ali may have been the best fighter of his generation – any generation – but that moment confirmed to me that Ali certainly was a lover of people.
May his legacy endure. Rest in peace, Champ.