LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- He called himself The Greatest, and if you followed the entire show, you understood it was the most understated thing that Muhammad Ali ever said.

The Greatest Heavyweight. Yes, sir.

The Greatest Looking. The Greatest Entertainer.

The Greatest Provocateur. The Greatest Con Man. The Greatest Braggart. The Greatest Social Conscience. Now you’re rolling.

The Greatest Celebrity Of the Twentieth Century. That works, too.

The Greatest … fill-in the blank with your favorite description.

It could be glowing or it could be harsh, according to what you thought about Ali’s motormouth, politics, behavior and stinging left jab.

Know this: He forced you to determine where you stood. Demanded it.

That was the essence of Ali, from the glorious moment he won that Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960 to the alarming days when Parkinson’s Syndrome began relentlessly draining the energy, wit and sizzle from Ali for the last three decades until his death from a respiratory illness. He was 74.

I get it. Some of you have watched Ali your entire life and likely wondered one thing:

What’s the big deal?

This guy was bigger than Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, FDR, JFK, MLK, Monroe, DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and the rest?

Yes. Yes, he was.

If you’re maybe 40 or younger, you didn’t see it. You haven’t seen anything spectacular from Ali since he left the ring, except for that summer night in 1996 when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta.

The constant sunglasses. The uneven gait. The silence. The crooked smile. The protective ring of friends and caretakers around him anywhere he went.

You haven’t seen him fight. You haven’t seen him dance. You haven’t seen him entertain. You haven’t seen him taunt. You haven’t seen him annoy. You haven't seen him force his way onto the front page.

You haven’t even heard him talk -- and talking was something Ali did better than anybody. Rhymes, boasts, opinions, jokes, stories. Muhammad Ali never followed a script written by a public relations guy. He was as fearless outside the ring as he was inside the ropes. Hit him with a Joe Frazier left hook or a Supreme Court opinion

Muhammad Ali kept coming. You didn't want to miss one second of the show.

Let me explain. Or try to explain because this is the most impossible column I’ll ever write, one I knew was inevitable. I thought about how challenging this topic would be for years because Muhammad Ali was so complex, so compelling, so much more than simply a terrific heavyweight champion who grew up in west Louisville, graduated from Central High School and started making his way to greatness as a local Golden Gloves boxer.

Forget the boxing -- and I say that while telling you that his bouts against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and even Trevor Berbick were among the most unforgettable the sport has seen.

Visit YouTube. See for yourself. Start with the Thrilla in Manilla, the final bout in the Joe Frazier trilogy. Jump to the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire. Ali didn't invent a strategy, he created a new sports term -- Rope A Dope.

Try to listen to the radio call of his first title bout with Sonny Liston, back in 1964 from Miami. I listened to it on a transistor radio with my father. I can still hear him screaming, "I SHOOK UP THE WORLD! I AM THE GREATEST!" Find that recording. You’ll be transfixed.

(I don’t save many sports tickets. I saved the two pay-per-view tickets from the Ali-Frazier fights I attended at the Hammond (Ind.) Civic Center in 1971 and Market Square Arena in 1975. I also don’t have many autographs. Two exceptions: UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and Ali on the Sports Illustrated cover featured in the picture that accompanies this story.)

If you grew up during the '60s, you could follow all the twists and tilts and turns of American culture by following Muhammad Ali. Or Cassius Marcellus Clay.

Ali howled about Viet Nam, annoying veterans while he became a powerful voice  to bring American involvement in the war to an end. He was stripped of his title and missed three years in the ring and millions of dollars. He never flinched. 

He spoke pointedly about civil rights. He demanded respect as an African-American athlete. He changed the way athletes sold themselves. He spoke with conscience and conviction. That lost him more money. He never flinched.

He sold tickets. He made enemies. He likely fought too long and accelerated his physical decline. He slowly disappeared from the public stage -- and it wasn't long before boxing disappeared with him.

Forget trying to summarize the man in a column or even a book – and Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Thomas Wolfe, Gay Talese, Red Smith, Jim Murray, David Remnick and so many other greats wrote about him. You needed a library or a downtown museum to capture the essence of The Greatest.

Even speaking his name in public sparked discussion, especially after he changed it from Clay to Ali when he converted to Islam and was stripped of his heavyweight championship and changed his name.

That was the thing about Muhammad Ali. He wasn’t sports. He was society. Culture. Politics. Religion. Heavyweight dynamo. The works.

So many things to so many people. The Greatest? Muhammad Ali left no doubt about that.

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