John McGrath

Ali was The Greatest, but that title came at an enormous price

During one of those late-career fights that hastened Muhammad Ali’s transformation from majestic athlete to enfeebled legend, CBS broadcaster Brent Musberger marveled at the boxer’s combination of size, strength and quickness.

“Sometimes I wonder,” Musberger said, “how good Ali would have been if he’d taken up football, at a position like tight end.”

The question with an easy answer — Ali had the skill to play tight end at an All-Pro level — posed a broader, more vexing hypothetical: What if Muhammad Ali never took up the sport that made him the most recognized man on the planet before turning the last half of his life into a death sentence?

Ali insisted he had no regrets.

“What I suffered physically was worth what I accomplished in life,” he said in 1984, the year the public learned of his struggle with Parkinson’s syndrome. “A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.”

But the physical suffering of combatants who exchange several hundred punches in a single match is among the many reasons boxing, once a mainstream American sport more popular than football or basketball, appears doomed for extinction. The notion of a heavyweight champ as international royalty already seems quaint.

And yet, if not for boxing, it’s likely the world wouldn’t be mourning the death of a 74-year-old man who graduated from high school with a grade-point average that ranked 376 in a class of 391.

“I said I was the greatest, not the smartest,” joked Ali.

His timing, so impeccable inside the ring, was uncanny out of it, too. He had the chops of the stand-up nightclub comedian who thrives on feedback from a contentious audience.

Before a 1967 bout, Howard Cosell put a microphone to Ali, then the undisputed champion of both the heavyweight division and the genre of communication we know now as the trash talk.

“You are being extremely truculent,” Cosell told Ali.

Responded Ali: “I don’t know what truculent means, Howard, but if it’s good, I’m it!”

That was Ali in his prime: A defiantly confident motormouth who not only predicted knockout punches, but the precise round his foe would fall. The sheer brashness polarized fans, and when the brashness went cruel — Joe Frazier and Ernie Terrell were two notable recipients of Ali’s verbal daggers — the polarization intensified.

Ali’s refusal to acknowledge his military draft status during the Vietnam War made him even more of a 1960s generation-gap icon. He wasn’t moving to Canada, and he was willing to do time in prison on behalf of his convictions. Your move, Supreme Court.

Upon Ali’s exoneration, three years after his banishment from the ring, he returned with a veneer of nobility, participant in some of the most savage fights in boxing history.

Ali should have quit after his third showdown with Frazier, the 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla.” He plied on for six more years, finally retiring a month before his 40th birthday. Ali was a shot fighter by then, but not a polarizing one, which set him up for his second career as a goodwill ambassador.

“Life begins at 40,” he said in 1981. “And I’m only 39. Boxing was my pass to center stage. Now I want to help folks who have no money and no hope.”

Boxing put Ali on center stage. Boxing, a competition so vicious it silenced a fresh-prince mouth that roared, provided an indifferent high-school student with the ticket he used in his determination to make the world a better place.

Muhammad Ali left the world Friday night amid conjecture he might have been the greatest athlete of the 20th century, a beloved figure whose impact on society was unparalleled.

In his next life, if there’s a next life, he’ll be a nightmare to cover as tight end.