David Lutman/Getty Images
From Jawbreaker to Peacemaker: An aerial view of the Muhammad Ali Peace Center, which officially opened for visitors at the end of last year.
At dinner in our hotel's dining room, Ali feigned boredom with me. Or maybe it was real. He slipped off his shoes under the table and said, "If I had a lower IQ, I might enjoy your interview.'' It was a line from the old days. Then he pretended to take a nap. Or maybe he really was sleeping. I felt good. It was warm here; I had something to write about.
Every so often, he woke up happy to greet the reverent visitors who apologized for disturbing his meal but just had to tell him how much he had meant in their lives. He had had great effect, especially on those who questioned their own principles, fears and patriotism during the Vietnam War. How much better they had to feel about their decisions not to serve when the heavyweight champion of the world -- back when that was perceived as a true emblem of manhood, not a Don King/HBO/Showtime/Vegas reality program -- said he refused to "let the white man send a black man to kill a brown man."
By then, I had come to believe that Ali was best appreciated at face value. As a racial, religious, sexual or political model, he could be confusing, if not hypocritical. The word "flawed" was often used, but that connoted someone otherwise perfect. That he "betrayed expectations" was another concept that made no sense; examine your expectations, not his betrayals, I thought. Obviously, I was speaking for myself.
But I thought it was worth considering that once we were past the '60s and early '70s, when the Establishment still considered Ali a threatening force, he tended to get a bye on anything he said or did. He was associated with dozens of shady schemes, some for which people went to jail, while he was sentenced only to the label "too trusting" or "naive." He had been absolved of responsibility, a holy child. He joyfully accepted madcap diplomatic missions to free hostages or persuade African countries to shape up, but he never accomplished anything. After he became a shambling secular saint, the trembling fire-starter at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he was excused for refusing to get tough on al-Qaida. After all, he explained, he had business interests to protect.
But it was several years before 9/11 that I went to his hometown to watch him raise money for the Muhammad Ali Center, dedicated to respect, hope and understanding. It actually opened in 2005, although six years earlier that seemed impossible, especially when he would snap awake at a fundraising meeting, as he did throughout our hotel dinner, to ask: ''What did Abraham Lincoln say when he woke up from a two-day drunk?'' While his audience blinked and his wife winced, he would answer, ''I freed who?'' and reward himself with laughter.