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One-time foes of Muhammad Ali explain the magic of facing ‘The Greatest’

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Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner (Getty)

Few athletes in history have had the impact upon their sport, and the world, that Muhammad Ali has had upon his. Once Ali became the world heavyweight champion, pretty much every fight he had for the rest of his illustrious career became an event, not just a sporting contest.

Leon Spinks, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist who is the only man to have beaten Ali when Ali entered the bout as the defending champion, told Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review-Journal that "it was an honor to fight" Ali. Hard-hitting Earnie Shavers called Ali "the nice guy in the world," but said fighting him was different than fighting anyone else.

Shavers said he respected Ali so much that he wasn't 100 percent committed to winning.

"Ali was the nicest guy in the world. When I fought Ali, I had mixed feelings. I wanted to win. But there was a small part of me that didn't want to beat him. That's how much respect I had for Ali."

Many boxing dignitaries, including former opponents Spinks, Shavers, George Foreman, Chuck Wepner, Ken Norton and George Chuvalo attended a gala at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to raise money for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. It was at that gala, which was to celebrate Ali's 70th birthday, that UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta bid $1.1 million to buy the gloves Ali wore when he first met Floyd Patterson. He outbid Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Wepner, who was the inspiration for the "Rocky" movies, told Carp "I love the guy."

"I'll always remember just getting in the ring with him. I'm walking from my dressing room to the ring, and when Ali got into the ring, it really hit me -- I'm about to fight the most famous person in the world."

Ali is now muted by his Parkinson's, but Foreman said he's still jealous of him. Foreman said Ali is "still tall, handsome and beautiful."

Not everyone loves -- or loved -- Ali, though. Las Vegan Bill Anton, a retired Army Ranger who served in Vietnam from 1969 until 1971, expressed bitterness over Ali's refusal to be inducted into the military service.

He said Ali's decision, which has been widely described as courageous, was nothing of the sort.

"But for him to not go into the service and not even report, I still find it deplorable. When your nation calls on you, you should serve."

Ali, though, was a man of convictions and he stood up for them. He was one of the greatest athletes of his day and he touched the lives of millions of people. For that, he'll always be "The Greatest."

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