What made Muhammad Ali a hero to so many

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

Muhammad Ali was a hero to many, for many reasons. He was adored by some because of his wonderful talents as a boxer. At his peak, from 1964 through 1967, there may never have been anyone remotely as good.

He was fast, strong and precise, the very definition of a boxer. He died Friday at 74 in a Phoenix hospital due to a respiratory ailment, but his impact on the world will never be forgotten.

He was a hero to others because of his stand on the Vietnam War. He was a conscientious objector and gave up virtually everything – his career, his title, most of his income – to stand up for what he believed in.

Muhammad Ali is greeted in Zaire in 1974. (AP)
Muhammad Ali is greeted in Zaire in 1974. (AP)

Many called him a draft dodger. Others thought he was crazy. But his beliefs were so deeply held that none of it mattered. Not long after Ali was convicted of draft evasion in 1967, public support for the war began to erode.

Originally a pariah, Ali suddenly became the face, the voice, the very heart of the anti-war movement that would shape a generation.

To others, he was a hero for his quick wit and clever ways. He is in many ways the man that introduced trash talk to sports. He and a cornerman/friend, came up with a poem that many young people today know word for word, more than half a century since they first uttered them before his 1964 heavyweight title bout with Sonny Liston.

"I'm going to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."

[Slideshow: Muhammad Ali's life in photos]

He was a kind and charitable man who for most of his life gave away his fortune. His close friend of more than 50 years, Gene Kilroy, told of the time Ali went to visit a child in a leper colony in Kuala Lumpur in 1975.

"This lady came up to me in the lobby because she had seen me with Ali, and she told me her son was very sick and that he loved Ali," Kilroy said. "I said, 'Well, come on up to the room and let's tell him.' She was a poor woman who didn't have much. She tells Ali, 'My son is very sick and he loves you so much. Do you think you can visit him?' Ali said, 'Well, I do road work tomorrow at 4:30 in the morning. Can you be in the lobby at 7?'

"The next morning, she takes us to him and it's a leper colony. The people were giving them the food and sliding it under and getting away. Ali said, 'Where is he?' and he walks right up to him. He hugged him and sat with him and talked with him and he didn't care anything about the leprosy. He just wanted to make this sick kid happy."

Many people loved Ali for many reasons. I fell in love with boxing in the mid-1960s as a young boy just as Ali was blooming into "The Greatest." He was a larger-than-life figure who infiltrated so many aspects of society.

But I loved Ali for many of those reasons, all of them and more. He made you laugh. He awed you. He inspired you. He motivated you.

I didn't start covering boxing until after he'd retired. The first time I met him, Kilroy introduced us. By that point, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In those days, he would only occasionally speak.

On this day, he spoke more in a low murmur. He was seated when Kilroy introduced us. I leaned in to hear him, so he reached for my head and pulled it toward his mouth.

"I hear you're the greatest, because you've been nice to my friend here," he said, beaming.

But I think the reason Ali was a hero to me is because of his answer to a little boy's question. He was appearing on a television show in England in the 1970s, and the boy asked, "I'd like to know what you're going to do when you retire from boxing."

After joking that he was snoring, Ali gave a mesmerizing answer that epitomizes the love that all those who idolized him believe about him.

"The important thing about life is what's going to happen when you die," Ali said. "Are you going to go to Heaven or hell? That's eternity. How long is eternity? Let's imagine. Take the Sahara Desert. There is a lot of sand over in the Sahara Desert, right? Imagine one grain of sand represents a thousand years. When you're in hell burning, when you die and go to hell, it's forever, for ever and ever, no end. How long is that?

"I'll tell you how long eternity is. Take the Sahara Desert. I told you to wait a thousand years. And every thousand years, I want you to pick up a grain of sand until the desert is empty. Wait a thousand years and pick up a grain. Wait another thousand years before you get the next grain. Keep that up until there is no sand in the desert. Do you know how long that is?

"America's not but 200 years old. We got 800 more years to get to a thousand. It scares me to think that I'm going to die one day and go to hell. I'm on an airplane that might blow up. I'm always traveling. I might go to hell and God is going to judge my soul. The police, I might kill people. I might rob people. The authorities might not catch me. The FBI, Scotland Yard might not catch me, but when I die, God is watching me and keeping count, and I can't get away. And I'm going to burn forever and ever. I want to go to Heaven.

"So what am I going to do when I'm through fighting? I only have 16 years to be productive and get ready to meet God and go to the best place."

Whether one is religious or not is beside the point.

Ali stood for something. He was a man of principle, of courage, a man of character. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy's words eulogizing his assassinated brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, come to mind upon Ali's passing.

"[He] need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

"Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world."

Those words speak of the life that the son of a painter from Louisville, Ky., lived.

Truly, Muhammad Ali was the greatest.