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When Muhammad Ali revealed the secret of life to columnist Tom Sorensen

Former Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen loves boxing and often wrote about it. Tom especially loved and admired Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at 74. Here are excerpts from Tom’s pieces on Ali over the years:

One question

When Ali was in Charlotte (in 2003), I was told I could ask him one question, one-on-one. I considered at least 10, none of them good. Finally I asked, "What's the secret of life?" He paused, bent down and whispered in my ear, "Believe in God."

Most moving fight

The event that moved me most was one I heard.

Sonny Liston was Superman, but with a better jab, and I couldn't fathom his losing. Neither could Sports Illustrated, which wrote about the qualities a fighter would have to have - this guy's strength, this guy's speed, this guy's savvy - to beat Sonny.

None of the qualities was attributed to Cassius Clay, a 9-1 underdog when he and Liston fought in 1964. I sat on our living room floor and listened on the radio.

The announcer described how Clay was jabbing and moving and beating the unbeatable champ. I kept waiting for Liston to land the punch that would end the fight, but he never did, quitting after the sixth round. I was flabbergasted, mesmerized by a fighter I had never seen fight.

Changing the sport

In his prime, Ali was 6-3, weighed about 215 pounds and danced. Heavyweights set the standard. They were the biggest, toughest fighters in the world. And they weren't supposed to dance. Ali danced. And not only did he dance, but he jerked his head back to avoid punches. Boxers are taught not to jerk their heads back. Listen, kid, you can't jerk your head back because a punch moves faster than your head does. Idiot. But it was Ali's face at which the punches were directed, and he figured he was entitled to avoid them any way he could. To defend himself by dancing and jerking his head was as revolutionary as a shortstop saying he no longer would use a glove.

Ali, in person

Ali gets out of a white Suburban (in 2003) and walks up six steps into the Duke Mansion. No matter how you thought you would react, you are helpless. You stare. This is the most recognizable man in the world. He is 61 and still pretty, and he gets prettier the longer you're around him. His skin is smooth, and his dark hair somehow has little or no gray. Ali sometimes communicates with his hands, sometimes with a whisper and, when he feels strong, with the raspy, breathy voice of an ex-boxer.

His hands shake, and sometimes his entire body does. Those of us who remember his brilliance as a boxer, a big man who moved like a small one, feel as if we should run up and tell him this isn't fair. But we can't. Despite the shaking, Ali is the calmest man in the room. He chooses not to be embarrassed. So why should we be?

A chance encounter

The Suburban in which Ali rode stopped at a light near Midtown Square. In the car in the next lane was a woman talking on a cell phone. Ali asked for his window to be rolled down, and looked at her until she looked back. He smiled and waved. The woman looked at Ali. She looked. She looked. And then she screamed.

Work of art

(At a fundraiser in Charlotte) Ali draws on several napkins. On one, he draws the Thrilla in Manila, Ali versus Frazier, and uses dots to denote the thousands of fans around the ring. As others talk, he jabs, jabs, jabs the pen.The napkin instantly becomes the most expensive in Charlotte history. Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates buys it for $10,000.

Biggest fight

Ali had three huge fights against Joe Frazier and a big one against George Foreman. Let's be honest. The moment he slipped between the ropes, it was big. But his biggest fight was Feb. 25, 1964 against Sonny Liston. Ali was a 7-to-1 underdog against the champ. Liston, a menacing fighter who because of his mob connections never has been acknowledged as a great fighter, was considered unbeatable. He wasn't.

Most dazzling

Muhammad Ali's most dazzling performance was Nov. 14, 1966 against Cleveland Williams. Ali had never been faster. No big man had, regardless of the sport.

Always entertaining

I once saw Ali, as he entertained a group, pull a man out of the audience, ask him to hold up his hands, palms out, and tell him to move them before Ali popped them with a light jab. When Ali finished, he started to walk away. Then with a snarl he said, "You called me a -----? Get back here. And put your hands down. This time, we're going to use your face." As the volunteer cowered, Ali would feign a left jab. Then he'd laugh, slap the man on the shoulder and thank him.

Muhammad Ali’s stand

To me, he was a hero. To many of you, he was an anti-hero if not the anti-Christ. No matter what you thought about the man, however, you thought about him. Before Ali, sports did not seem part of the real world. Sports were the playground we ran to when we wanted to escape.

With Ali, there was no escape. He introduced a white kid growing up in a white neighborhood in a mostly white city to the Nation of Islam, Vietnam and trash talking.

... In the late 1960s the Vietnam War polarized the U.S., and in 1967 Ali moved to the epicenter of the controversy by refusing to step forward at his induction ceremony when his name was called. A step meant that he agreed to be inducted into the Armed Forces, and Ali refused to move. He was slapped with the maximum sentence - five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. (He appealed, and in 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction.)

He also was stripped of his heavyweight title. Had he gone into the Army, he almost certainly would have spent his war years jabbing and dancing at boxing exhibitions. He would have retained his championship and won back some of the fans that turned away when he evolved from Cassius Clay, Olympic champion, to Muhammad Ali. But he believed his religion dictated that he neither fight in Vietnam nor endorse the fighting by being a boxing soldier. So he refused to go.

When he returned to his sport after an exile of 3 1/2 years, he wasn't as good. His legs no longer were magic and now he could be hit. What would have been the best years of his boxing career were spent lecturing at colleges.

But boxing wasn't his career. Ali was a poet, a comedian and the best-known man in the world. And he dared to suffer the contempt of a country and the loss of millions of dollars by refusing to participate in a war in which he did not believe.

Who was the last superstar athlete who risked the loss of endorsements, the wrath of management and the enmity of fans to embrace an unpopular cause?

A naked argument

Voices came out of the room where people hang their towels next to the shower at the YMCA. The voice I recognized belonged to Neil Wallace, a good man and a Charlotte heavyweight back in the 1950s. Wallace was talking about Rocky Marciano, the fine heavyweight who retired undefeated.

A man asked Wallace how Marciano would have done against a variety of boxers, among them Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Wallace described how each fight would go and how the winner would be Marciano. Finally, the guy asked how Marciano would have done against Muhammad Ali.

"After the eighth round, Ali wouldn't have been able to lift his arms, " Wallace said. Rocky would have knocked him out.

I refuse to argue naked, but Marciano never would have touched Ali. Ali was too fast and too big, and he would have danced and jabbed and gone through Marciano like a swatter through a fly. I know that Wallace sparred with Marciano, so they've been in the same ring. But I've been in the same room with Ali. And I know Ali would beat the original Rocky.

There are things we know. We don't always know how we know. We just do. Personally, I believe such knowledge is derived through instinct, experience and the inalienable right to be stubborn.

I know that Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all time.

Continuing to fight

Think of Muhammad Ali. Do you remember the thickening, middle-aged boxer with the tired reflexes who kept coming back and getting whipped by Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and Trevor Berbick? Only if you're looking for a reason not to like him... Ali kept coming back because he believed the next fight would be the one in which he turned brilliant again.

Getting it right

On the way to a fundraising event in Charlotte, 61-year-old Ali autographed boxing cards. (His hands shook as he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease). Sometimes Ali would stop to rip one in half. Why'd you do that? he was asked. "Because they weren't good enough, " Ali said. "I want people to have the best of me."

As a fan of Ali all my life, I am certain we did.

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