The fearlessness of Muhammad Ali

Spears shares incredible Ali autograph story (3:07)

The Undefeated's Marc Spears tells a powerful story about Muhammad Ali signing autographs for fans. (3:07)

Muhammad Ali was brash at a time when we expected our athletes to be humble. He was loud at a time when we expected them to be quiet. And he was defiantly independent in an era when white America expected black men to do as they were told.

These things alone didn't set Ali apart. There were loud, boisterous athletes before him, notably the wrestler "Gorgeous" George Wagner, after whom Ali modeled his persona. And there were proud, defiant black men, notably Jack Johnson, the former heavyweight champion who was Ali's spiritual predecessor. What made Muhammad Ali different: Not only did he have the talent to back up his words -- Sugar Ray Robinson, for instance, was more than his equal in talent -- but he also had the courage to back up his convictions, both in and out of the ring.

In all the hundreds of thousands of words that have and will be written about Ali in the wake of his death Friday at age 74, that quality is the one most likely to be overlooked in the assessments of this exceptional man.

Yes, Ali was big and bold and brash. And, yes, he had the fastest feet and hands of any heavyweight ever seen to that point or since. But he was also fearless, treating Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, the U.S. government and white society all the same: as opponents not to be feared, but to be conquered through sheer force of will.

Ali's decision to refuse induction into the Army in 1967 was as courageous an act as staring down Liston or allowing Foreman -- by the numbers, the most devastating heavyweight champion in history -- to pound away at his arms, shoulders and flanks for seven rounds before dispatching him as neatly as a hunter takes out a deer with a high-powered rifle.

In a lot of ways, his refusal was more courageous because he knew it would cost him in ways no athlete with the exception of Johnson had ever faced. And even having had nearly four years of his athletic prime ripped out of his life, Ali came back to score some of his greatest victories.

There simply is no parallel for that in the annals of professional sport.

Jackie Robinson broke significant racial ground Ali never had to face -- boxing had been integrated in its own way pretty much since its inception in the 1700s -- but Robinson, wisely, did it largely on the establishment's terms.

That never would have worked for Ali. His famous quote -- "I don't have to be who you want me to be'' -- was the motto he lived by throughout his life. It was not an easy stance to maintain, but somehow, he did it.

As a young boxing fan who admired the kamikaze styles of Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong and Joe Frazier, Ali the fighter was an acquired taste for me. I preferred fighters who stood and traded punches, who came forward rather than flitted around the ring, and who punched with what Mike Tyson would later dub "bad intentions.''

That wasn't Ali, though of course, he didn't have to be the fighter I wanted him to be.

But as a teenager growing up in the era of Woodstock, Kent State and the annual draft lottery (a one-way ticket to Vietnam), the courage of Ali's convictions not to fight in a war he did not believe in resonated strongly.

I didn't want to go to Vietnam either, and I admired someone with the guts to tell the government to shove it, that he wouldn't serve as cannon fodder for what he considered a meaningless war.

To this day, there are those who saw that as a grandstand play, or a cowardly way to avoid service, or most bizarrely, a display of disrespect for our servicemen.

In fact, it was a decision that impacted his life profoundly, and often negatively, for years to come, but one that he never renounced. And history has proven him to be absolutely right about the Vietnam War.

I came around on Ali the fighter with the Foreman fight, because like most observers, I believed that the man who bounced Frazier around the ring like a ping-pong ball in Kingston, Jamaica, the previous year would far overpower Ali. When Ali slew the dragon, and did it in a way that seemed to defy all conventional logic -- the fight guys have a saying for it, "The cow got loose and killed the butcher'' -- I could no longer deny the man his courage in the ring, too.

That courage was on display in the third fight with Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila, a slowed-down version of their furious first bout, and it was apparent before the first bell even rang. Before one of the most eagerly anticipated fights in history, there was Ali clowning in the center of the ring, taking a trophy meant to be awarded to the winner and dragging it to his corner, and breaking down in mock tears when informed he would have to wait until the fight was over.

I first laid eyes on him in person at a book signing in Manhattan in 1975, and was struck not only by his size -- bigger than I thought -- but also by the air of charisma that surrounded him. Even in a sea of people crowding around him for an autograph, a handshake or a snippet of conversation, there seemed to be a glow about Ali. You simply couldn't miss him, and you couldn't look away.

I witnessed him fight live only once, against Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium in 1976, and regrettably only knew him after his Parkinson's disease, worsened by years of ring punishment, had already set in. Although I knew him for the last 33 years of his life and interviewed him rather frequently in the '80s and '90s, I never overcame my sense of awe in his presence.

Over the years, I had the privilege of being told some hilariously profane jokes by him and watching his silly magic tricks -- the levitation act, the handkerchief pulled from a fake rubber thumb and his dexterity with making coins appear and disappear at his fingertips.

And I was at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996 when, at the end of a lengthy and sometimes tedious opening ceremony, Ali suddenly appeared with the torch held aloft in his trembling hand.

And I was reminded that to reveal himself publicly like this, it took the kind of courage few men or women have ever possessed.

Muhammad Ali's refusal to succumb to fear might have been his greatest gift of all.