As a relatively peaceful grownup, I hold no truck with boxing. I prefer my violence more ritualized and dressed up as American football, or as soccer played by Italian persons. It's more easily rationalized that way.
As a kid sports generalist, though, I didn't mind it so much, and back then, a boxing title fight was much more of an event than it is now; I can't name a single professional boxer who currently competes. Back in the day, though, Fraziers (now a broken-down fight trainer in Philly) and Foremans (now an appliance-hawking father of five sons named George Foreman) certainly captured the imagination.
Of course, no boxer captured the imagination as well as Muhammad Ali, who celebrates his 65th birthday today (yet another date missed by Ilse's Fucking Smartass Calendar of Morbid Weepiness, which also recently failed to notify me of Alexander Hamilton's 252nd birthday, thus depriving me of a prime ranting opportunity). I'm not one to celebrate, or even suffer, a lack of humility (other than my own). But I calmly accept the notion that Ali truly was The Greatest. Coots older and crankier than me are entitled to opinions on the superiority of Joe Louis or various bareknuckled contemporaries of Ty Cobb; I'll stick with what I saw.
While Ali has done some weird shit in his time (let's just summarize by referencing any fight after his 1978 title loss to Leon Spinks), and the stories about him that ring most true highlight him as a playful but genuinely chauvinistic egocentric, it's hard to argue about the run of his greatness--in boxing and otherwise--from 1960 through about 1975. After storming through the 1960 Rome Olympics and capturing a gold medal, Ali embarked on a professional career, first shocking the world with his 1964 title win over Sonny Liston and continuing through his conversion to Islam and legal troubles over his conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. His willingness to stand up for principle--a willingness mocked to this day by racist detractors--was probably the most prominent example of civil disobedience in the war years.
Ali's illness, probably induced by a career taking head shots, is truly sad. His lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games was one of the few times I've been truly moved since I graduated to cranky old cootdom (somewhere between the ages of 28 and 35, depending on whose account you wish to credit). While it's a fucking shame that he had to be portrayed by Will Smith--who really isn't pretty enough--in the movie, I'll buy it. The man was The Greatest. Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali.