Muhammad Ali continues to inspire boxing's next generation

Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest," served as an inspiration for millions of people around the world for many reasons.

He inspired because of his exploits in the ring, where he fought all comers during the golden age of heavyweights in the 1970s and became the first three-time heavyweight world champion. His fights were so famous that they were identifiable simply by a title that did not even include his or his opponent's name: "The Fight," "The Rumble in the Jungle," "The Thrilla in Manila."

He inspired because of his fearlessness in speaking out as a young, black man at a time when young, black men did not have much of a voice in our society.

As a devout Muslim, he inspired with the courage of his convictions, refusing to be inducted into the armed services as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, a decision that was met by ridicule and condemnation by many. It cost him nearly four years -- between 1967 and 1970 -- of what should have been the prime of his glorious career.

Ali, who was 74 when he died on Friday in the Phoenix area from respiratory issues connected to the Parkinson's disease he fought for more than three decades, inspired with his humanity. He spent the final decades of his life working for charitable causes around the globe, where he was one of its most famous and beloved people.

Although robbed by Parkinson's of his ability to speak, Ali could inspire with a smile or a pat on the back or a hug. I didn't know Ali well, but I was in awe the first time I met him, albeit briefly.

I was only 11 when he had his last fight in 1981, and I have some memories of his last few bouts: the two with Leon Spinks, the sad beating at the hands of Larry Holmes and the finale against Trevor Berbick. I had never seen Ali at his best, but I became a fan when I got a bit older and developed a sincere interest in boxing. I watched videos of his fights and read up on his importance to the social fabric of America that began in the late 1960s and '70s.

I had been on the boxing beat for all of about four months when I was at one of Laila Ali's fights in Los Angeles in June 2000 and met her father backstage. Honestly, I do not recall who it was specifically that introduced us, but Ali put his hand on my shoulder, smiled and nodded to acknowledge me. I'm not generally a star-struck kind of person but, yes, I was star-struck. Ali whispered something to me, but I never knew what he said. I couldn't hear him but was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it. It was a brief but memorable moment.

I was honored to meet him and remember thinking about all the huge events he had starred in. That got me thinking about all the great writers -- Larry Merchant, Jerry Izenberg, Ed Schuyler, Mark Kram and others -- who had chronicled his career so beautifully with their words. Although there would never be another Muhammad Ali, I thought to myself that if I was fortunate enough to stick around on the boxing beat for any length of time, I would have a chance to chronicle the careers of my era's great fighters. That was inspiring to me, and 17 years later, I've had that opportunity.

Although Ali's public appearances became rarer as the years went by, he did still make it out to some major fights, and one of the things I will always remember was the explosion of electricity when the crowd realized he had entered the arena. As he would make his way to ringside, the chants of "Ali! Ali! Ali!" would fill the building and send shivers down my spine. Those were cool moments.

I have covered and interviewed hundreds of fighters, and it is remarkable how many of them idolized Ali, even though most of them were not even born when he threw his last punch.

Yet, through their fathers or grandfathers or trainers, or perhaps just because of their own curiosity about the past greats of their profession, they found Ali. Many, even in their early 20s, have told me how they have watched his fights (usually over and over), read books and articles about him and his career, and have tried to model their style after his in-ring brilliance.

So many young fighters today I have covered talk about emulating six fighters: Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Ali -- but none is mentioned more than Ali.

Before Tyson's induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, he told me a fantastic story about how he had been inspired by Ali. Tyson was telling me about some of the fights that meant the most to him in his career. One he singled out was his heavyweight title defense against the faded Holmes, whom he knocked out in the fourth round in 1988.

"Cus had wanted me to beat him so bad," Tyson said, referring to his original trainer and adoptive father Cus D'Amato, who had died a few years earlier, before Tyson won the title.

Tyson explained that he was 14 when D'Amato took him and Jay Bright, a longtime member of Tyson's inner circle, from their home in Catskill, New York, on the hour's drive to Albany to watch on closed circuit as Holmes retained the title in his destruction of the faded Ali. Tyson even recalled the exact date: Oct. 2, 1980.

"I was offended by how bad he beat up Ali," Tyson said. "When we drove home to Catskill, nobody in the car said a word, we were all so upset. The next morning, Cus was on the phone with Muhammad Ali after taking this shellacking from Holmes. He said to Ali, 'I have this young, black kid who is going to be heavyweight champion someday and I want you to talk to him.'"

Tyson said he got on the phone and told Ali, "'When I grow up, I'll fight Holmes and I'll get him back for you.' I was 14 at the time." Incredibly, Tyson did fight Holmes seven years later and Ali was a guest at the fight. Tyson said Ali whispered to him beforehand, "Remember what you said -- get him for me."

Tyson choked up telling the story, but how's that for inspiration?

After Ali's death was announced on Friday night, I scrolled through Twitter and read what people were saying about Ali's passing.

I was struck by tweets from lightweight Robert Easter, a very talented up-and-comer who I think will win a world title someday, and middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez. They are both 25. They were both born a decade after Ali retired. Yet, like so many other young fighters, they were inspired by Ali.

"R.I.P Muhammad Ali. I thank you for everything you've done for the sport of boxing and making [me] believe I can be one of the greatest as well," Easter wrote.

Alvarez's tweet said, "My idol has left us. I will always remember you as the best & will follow ur example. Your legend will live forever."

It surely will. As long as there are boxers, they will undoubtedly discover "The Greatest" and continue to be inspired by him, just like the generation of fighters that came long before them and the ones who will come long after they are gone.