My feelings toward Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali changed over the years, reflecting the predominant American opinion over those years.
My earliest memories are of the brash, loud-mouthed, seemingly "crazy" young man headed for a stomping at the hands of Sonny Liston, who was being touted as one of the greatest, most ferocious and unstoppable heavyweight champions of all time. Disbelief followed Liston's loss to the smaller, conceited, wild, younger challenger known as the "Louisville Lip." Then Ali, as he was known by that time, defeated Liston a second time.
His conversion to Islam, actually to an unconventional sect of Islam, made me uncomfortable. Like most American Protestants, I knew little about Islam, but what I knew about the Nation of Islam was that it considered white people devils, and that was scary. I knew that Christian armies halted the Islamic invasion of Europe some 500 years earlier and hoped that would be the last trouble that European and American Protestants experienced from Muslims.
Ali continued to fight and continued to brag. He belittled his opponents and humiliated at least one former champ who refused to call the new champ by his new name. But I also got to see clips of Ali boxing and found myself amazed by his speed, his footwork and his punching. He really was an amazing athlete. As for his braggadocio, I was reminded, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up," and Ali could.
When Ali refused induction into the military, like most draft-eligible males of my time, I found his action cowardly and unfair. The vast majority of Americans supported the war in Vietnam, though they knew little about it and had been misled by authorities. I was prepared to go if drafted.
A few years later, I understood Ali's logic about the draft. He had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, and, I realized, neither did I. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and to 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" he asked. Soon, the great majority of Americans come around to this line of thinking.
They would also realize that the denial of a boxing license to Ali because of his refusal to be drafted — before the case was adjudicated (and thrown out by the Supreme Court) — was an injustice that denied him the best years of his boxing career. He came back from forced retirement only to lose to Joe Frazier — a match that mesmerized my college buddies who were all convinced that Ali would "whoop" Frazier on the assumption that this was the old Ali, before the layoff, before age began to creep in.
Out of the ring, he became a humanitarian, a man almost universally respected, in part because he had been right about Vietnam and had the courage to stand by his convictions. He also left Nation of Islam with its hatred and corruption and embraced both conventional Islam and a universalist deism.
At Ali's memorial service, Billy Crystal provided an astounding eulogy that only he could do; it's worth 14 minutes of your time to watch it.