I met him at the Forum in 1991. I had just turned 15, which means he had just turned 49. The entire packed arena stopped and stared with reverence, as he walked in. He passed out previously signed autographs, as he was already moving too slowly to sign them in real time. I took two of them from him (for the guy behind me as well), and said "Thank you, Champ." The autographs were on a Muslim propaganda pamphlet, as he was and is the only American that could get away with things like that. It angered no one when he did it. He'd earned it, with what he had been put through/put himself through.
He was a draft dodger, a serial womanizer, and had joined the Black Muslims when they were little more than a prison gang. To come back from where he was in our eyes, to being the most beloved athlete in the history of sports, was a feat never accomplished before, and will not likely happen again. In an age where the baby boomers were making "mine mine mine1" the modus operandi that still pervades today, Ali was the picture of "earned it". He could preach to anyone about anything, and we would listen. He was a brilliant orator, but few knew the reason for that was his severe dyslexia, making other forms of communication difficult.
In fact, after two decades of many Americans wishing the "Louisville Lip" would quit talking, we had just realized his genius, as it was being taken from us/him. We'd give anything to hear one of his interviews again. He was alive, but for the last 35 years, we could not hear from the man inside the way we once had. He was the only man Howard Cosell would let get the better of him in interviews. The only man to accurately predict which round in which he would stop opponents. He found ways to beat men that had his number: Norton, Frazier. He had fast hands, and the fastest feet in heavyweight history.
74 years might be riding a national average, but for a man who lived so many lives in one, and suffered the ravages from Parkinson's as early as 1980... he still outlived most of his contemporaries: Sonny Liston, Zora Folley, Jimmy Young, Joe Frazier, Oscar Bonavena, Eddie Machen, Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Bob Foster, etc. We were expecting this day for decades... but you are never really ready for it. RIP to the original G.O.A.T., Muhammad Ali. There will be no bigger name in sports in my lifetime.