​The life of "The Greatest"

Muhammad Ali died Friday night at the age of 74. Boxer, civil rights leader, wartime dissident, religious convert ... Ali will always be remembered by the title he bestowed on himself, "The Greatest." Our remembrance is by Jim Axelrod:

"I am the king of the world! I am pretty!"

He was the "boldest" of our bold-face names. But as audaciously self-confident as Muhammad Ali was ("I must be the greatest!"), you can't really argue his point -- not as we consider the life of "The Greatest."

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

The brash 18-year old from Louisville named Cassius Clay, who won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (just three months out of high school), flipped a switch on our culture four years later, in Miami Beach, shocking the boxing world by dethroning Sonny Liston as heavyweight champ.

Cassius Clay had gone into the ring ... Muhammad Ali came out.

Reporter: "Cassius Clay is your name no more?"
Ali: "Yes, sir, it is Muhammad Ali. Muhammad means 'worthy of all praises,' and Ali means 'most high.'"

He held the heavyweight title three more years until 1967, when he refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, citing his status as a conscientious objector. He was stripped of his title, and was convicted of draft evasion.

"I'm not allowed to fight in America. I'm not allowed to leave America. I've been persecuted before prosecuted."

He lost three-and-a-half prime years of his career. The Supreme Court would ultimately overturn his draft evasion conviction.

And the Ali who climbed back into the ring in 1970 was now not just a sports hero, but a cultural one, at least to many who had never seen an athlete take a stand like this.

"He made people brave," said journalist Robert Lipsyte, who covered Ali for 52 years. "He gave people courage. Whether it was black kids in the '60s who saw somebody standing up for principle, whether it was anti-war protesters who saw the heavyweight champion of the world at a time when that was Mr. Man, it meant something."

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Referee John LoBianco directs champion Muhammad Ali to a neutral corner before starting the knockout count over prostrate challenger Zora Folley in the seventh round of the heavyweight little fight, in New York's Madison Square Garden, March 22, 1967. AP

He would lose the "Fight of the Century" to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, but three years -- and several more bruising fights later -- Ali regained the title, using his "rope-a-dope" to knock out George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

You could go through all the fights of Muhammad Ali's career -- losing, then winning the title for a third time from Leon Spinks, for instance ("You all thought I was gone, didn't you? But you still have me to reckon with"). But that would miss the larger meaning of his life.

At 42, a few years into retirement, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

In a 1996 interview with Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes," it's clear just how hard it had become for Ali to walk, and even harder to speak.

Ali walked away from the interview, he told Bradley later, because he did not want to be pitied.

"Can you imagine, you know, the gods striking down the most mobile and garrulous person on the planet?" said Lipsyte. "I wonder what was going on inside his mind and his soul.

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Muhammad Ali holds the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, July 19, 1996. Michael Cooper/Getty Images

"I cried in '96 when he lit the Olympic torch," Lipsyte recalled.

"What were those tears about?" Axelrod asked.

"About who he once was, about the hope that he had given us, and about this beautiful creature who really kind of epitomized the mortality of all of us."

Yes, his fierceness and determination had allowed him to define himself -- right down to his name.

But it was not without a price.

Axelrod asked, "I'm just wondering how you are processing the fact that he's gone."

"Well, he's not gone, for me. He'll never die," said Lipsyte. "And I don't think he'll ever die as long as his pictures and his memory exist."

Muhammad Ali may have been the first one to call himself "The Greatest," but it didn't take long for so many of us to join him.

"When we needed it, at this turbulent time in our lives, in American lives, he was the greatest," said Lipsyte. "He was there for us."


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