How my dad and I learned to love Muhammad Ali

We made a little triangle there in our living room -- me on the couch, my daddy in his green recliner, Muhammad Ali on the TV.

We didn't watch a lot of TV together. Daddy didn't care for ball games. He'd go outside and fix the lawn mower or clean out his tackle box. I didn't care for Billy Graham crusades or "Hee Haw" reruns. I'd go to my room and turn up my Molly Hatchet records.

He was 48 when I was born. By the time I was a teenager he was in his 60s. We loved each other, desperately, but for some reason it was hard as hell to say it.

He and my mama had grown up as sharecroppers in south Georgia, picking cotton from the time they could walk. They clawed their way out of the fields and into factory jobs and eventually made enough for a little cinderblock house with a garden in back and a used bass boat. They had one son, who would never have to work a tenth as hard as they did.

It took me far too long to understand that and longer to appreciate it.

We bonded over two or three things. We loved to fish. We loved Mama's biscuits. And we loved to watch Ali fight.

This did not mean we wanted to see Ali win.

We both rooted against him, for different reasons. Daddy hated braggarts, and he couldn't stand it when Ali ran his mouth. The only person he hated more than Ali was Ric Flair, who talked even more than Ali -- and cheated to boot.

I wanted Ali to lose because, even then, I had developed a terminal case of love for the underdog. This is what happens when you grow up with the Atlanta Braves of the 1970s.

Most of Ali's fights we saw were replays on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" -- the big fights back then were on closed-circuit TV, which was like pay-per-view, except you had to go to a theater to see it. Nobody in Brunswick, Georgia, was showing those fights, and we didn't have the money either way. So we knew Ali had rope-a-doped George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle and outlasted Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. But we watched the replays anyway, rooting for Ali to lose, in the way you watch an old movie where you know the sad ending but think somehow, this time, you might be able to will it to change.

Every time, after the fight, Howard Cosell would step in the ring and Ali would spit fire about how he told everybody he would win, how nobody was better than him, how he had once again proved he was the GREATEST. OF. ALL. TIME!

And SO PRETTY, too.

Daddy would get a sour look on his face and cut the TV off.

Then, when I was 14, Ali fought a young Olympic champion, a kid named Leon Spinks. Ali was such a huge favorite that it wasn't even worth closed-circuit -- it ran on live TV. Daddy sat in his chair and I sat on the couch and we figured it would be over in three. But Spinks jolted Ali with left jabs and right uppercuts. Ali rope-a-doped and Spinks punched through the gaps. Ali attacked and Spinks dodged every punch that could hurt him. Between rounds, Daddy and I just stared at each other. This wasn't possible.

It went the full 15 rounds. One judge scored the fight for Ali. The other two scored it for Spinks. A guy with seven pro fights had beaten the heavyweight champion of the world. It was the perfect underdog story, what I always rooted for. It shut Ali's mouth -- what Daddy had always hoped for.

And within seconds of it happening, we felt empty. We both wished Ali had won.

You almost never get to see pure greatness. It always arrives smudged and stained, covered with barnacles, trailing debris. If you look too closely at the artist you might never see the beauty in the art.

By now I've learned to love the poetry in Ali's patter, the courage in his beliefs, the miracle in his story. He pulled himself up out of the Kentucky dirt the same way my people pulled themselves out of the cotton fields -- except his climb was even harder because he was black. My daddy couldn't see all that back then. All he could hear was the yappity-yap. But part of why we watch sports is to see the best a human being can be. Daddy knew, despite it all, that he had never seen a better boxer than Muhammad Ali.

I still root for underdogs. But not against the very best.

Seven months later, Ali fought Spinks again. I will not lie to you and say we stomped and cheered for Ali. But he beat Spinks easily and we were not sad to see it.

Daddy died in 1990 at age 74. Ali died Friday at age 74. They will always be my two favorite fighters.

Tommy Tomlinson is a contributing writer for ESPN and a former Pulitzer Prize finalist in commentary.