I am not easily impressed by public figures. There are few people in any field of endeavour that I would call 'elite', or to whom the word 'genius' feels appropriate to me. Ali was one.
He was an inspiration to me from the first time I saw him when he visited London to fight Henry Cooper in 1963. It was the early sixties, the adults hated him, the youngsters like me, loved him. He was a rebel's inspiration. I was 8 years old then and watched every fight he had from then on.
He responded to every letter he received. When he was too ill to read them himself, his family and his 'staff' replied on his behalf (He didn't really have 'staff' - everybody loved him). A note from him which came at the time of my 50th birthday, along with a signed photograph, is one of my most treasured possessions. It sits alongside a signed photo of Bob Dylan, my other 'rebel inspiration'. Of the two, it is Ali that means the most to me.
Anyone who ever saw him with children could not fail to be impressed. They would crawl all over him like puppies playing with their mom. He never turned any kids away, and often got into 'trouble' with Angelo Dundee for stopping his training to play with them and perform his magic tricks, which he delighted in...When Ken Norton, who he fought three times, was involved in a serious car crash, Ali was one of the first at his bedside, again performing his magic tricks to make Norton laugh.
Many of us remember the stand he took against the Vietnam war. I particularly remember the scene outside the courthouse where he had refused to step forward when his name was called for the draft. When the press asked him why he would not fight for America he said:
"Why should I travel half way round the world to kill some other brown person who never called me ni**er? It's wrong, we shouldn't be there"
By the time his case got to the Supreme Court the war was deeply unpopular and was the focus for demonstrations across the US, by young people of all colours. He had gone from being a deeply hated figure (people forget just how loathed he was by the mainstream in the sixties) to someone that was grudgingly admired, then finally someone that people 'love'.
Some will remember that after 9/11, when many hollywood and public figures were laying very low, Ali went on TV with Will Smith (who played Ali in 'Ali') to condemn the act, to say that the hijackers were not first and foremost Muslims, they were first and foremost terrorists - people who hate. He went on to ask the rest of America not to condemn US Muslims.
Finally, something that is not widely known it seems: 6 weeks before the commencement of Desert Storm, Ali persuaded President George H W Bush to send him to Iraq to ask for the release of some of the hostages. When the President asked him why this was a good idea, Ali's reply was that since Ali was the most famous Muslim on the planet, Saddam Hussein, although not a devout man, was nevertheless the Muslim head of a Muslim country, and was therefore obliged to offer him a 'gift'. I believe that Ali asked for 12 hostages. Not to appear 'churlish' Saddam gave him 15. In short Ali outranked him, and he knew it.
He was a one-off. I loved the man, and I still do.