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Randy Hollis: In and out of the ring, Ali earned his title of 'The Greatest"

He could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

He's the greatest of ’em all, he's Muhammad Ali.

Indeed, Ali was the colorful character who brought us "The Rumble in the Jungle," "The Thrilla in Manilla" and the "Rope-A-Dope."

He had a rare combination of size, speed, strength and stamina. He was sneaky smart, extremely graceful, awfully good-looking (especially for a fighter) and unbelievably charismatic. He had a mouth that could go non-stop a mile a minute, making up poems and rhymes that made us smile and laugh.

And if he wasn't the man who invented trash-talking, he certainly took it to a whole ’nother level.

And now the great one is gone.

Ali, who built his reputation as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers and most flamboyant sports showmen of all time, then went on to become a much-beloved humanitarian known around the world, died Friday night in a Phoenix hospital.

His health was ravaged by years of fighting a losing battle with Parkinson's disease, which was believed to be brought on by the thousands of punches he took to the head during his lengthy boxing career. Ali was 74 years old.

He became a household name in the early 1960s, at a time when there were "Friday Night Fights" every week and professional boxing was still among the most popular sports in America. It was long, long before today's popular acronyms like MMA, UFC or WWE had ever even been thought of.

And as a young kid growing up in the ’60s, a kid who had his share of fist fights (OK, maybe more than my share), I learned to greatly admire the man, the myth and the legend known as Muhammad Ali. I admired him not just for his amazing prowess in the ring, which was indeed incredible, but perhaps even more so for the worldwide humanitarian work he accomplished after his boxing days were done.

Born Cassius Clay, he won an Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1960 and became the world heavyweight champion in 1964 with a stunning victory over Sonny Liston, an opponent he repeatedly taunted as a "big ugly bear."

At that time, Clay seemed like such an arrogant big mouth with his shouts of "I am the greatest! I am the king!" that I hoped Liston would whup him in their rematch. He didn't, losing on a "phantom punch" that had some observers screaming that the fight was fixed. It's since become part of boxing legend.

But one of the great things everyone learned about Clay/Ali back then was that, when he said "It ain't bragging if you can back it up," in his case it was usually true. Within time, he won me over, because he kept backing it up with his great performances in the ring.

He then joined to the Nation of Islam, changing his name to Muhammad Ali. He lost almost four prime years of his boxing career for being a conscientious objector — some called him a "draft dodger" — who refused to report for military service during the Vietnam War.

However, as that war became increasingly unpopular in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Ali's bold, controversial anti-war stance eventually made him an iconic figure for the counterculture generation of that time.

I remember a famous comedian's funny "punch" line at the time: "Muhammad Ali doesn't mind going in the ring and beating people up but, when you ask him to start shooting at people, hey, that's where he draws the line."

Ali had three classic fights with Joe Frazier, including the "Fight of the Century" in 1971 when they were both still undefeated, and later "The Thrilla in Manilla" in 1975, an intense and exhausting battle Ali said "was the closest thing to dying that I know." It capped a bitter rivalry-turned-hatred that "Smokin' Joe" took with him to the grave. Ali also fought Ken Norton three times, losing one of them after valiantly getting back off the canvas to finish the fight after Norton broke his jaw.

And then there was the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Africa in 1974, when an aging Ali used his "Rope-A-Dope" strategy to outsmart and eventually knock out a much younger, stronger and seemingly unbeatable George Foreman.

But while boxing gave him fame and fortune and made him a household name, it was his efforts as a social activist, lending his name and financial support to numerous humanitarian endeavors over the last 35 years since his retirement from the ring, that has made him an even more iconic figure.

He journeyed to Iraq in 1990 to negotiate the release of 15 hostages, he donated millions of dollars to organizations that helped break down racial and social barriers and, as the United Nations' Messenger of Peace, he traveled around the globe helping to deliver life-saving food and medical supplies to poor and war-torn communities.

Indeed, he used his status and charismatic personality to help effect positive change in so many ways around the world long after his reign as heavyweight champ was over.

In the end, Muhammad Ali became "The Greatest" for all the tremendous things he did outside the boxing ring, and not just for his glorious accomplishments inside it.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com