Oddly, the greatest memory I have of Muhammad Ali is not one of his triumphant moments. It was his loss to Leon Spinks on Sept. 15, 1978.
I was four years old. And that night was the first time I saw grown men cry. Those memories are faded, black-and-white blurred images, slightly traumatic and slightly inspirational.
Ali lost a split decision to Spinks that night, losing the heavyweight championship to a guy with six professional fights under his belt. It wasn't just that Ali lost. It was the night Ali grew old, right there in front of the eyes of my father and his fight friends who gathered to watch the fight.
All great fighters age and fade into the sunset, but to see it happen to "The Greatest," the man who revolutionized the sport and popular culture, did not seem like a natural event. It was like watching a bit of their hopes and dreams die, right there in front of their eyes. A part of themselves died that night, even before the split decision was announced.
Ali was not just a fighter, like Mike Tyson was a fighter, or like Jon Jones is a fighter. Ali rose to fame during the turbulent 1960s, a symbol of hope during the civil rights movement, political unrest and widespread division over culture and race in America. Ali had strong views, and was never shy to express them.
Like with presidents and musicians, Ali's career was intertwined with that of the American public. He was not just a fighter. He was emblematic of everything that was changing in our country, from sports and politics to race and acceptance.
Why did grown men quietly cry that night Ali lost to Spinks? They feared that without Ali, all those changes would revert back, and all the progress would be lost.
For Ali it started in 1964:
Feb. 25, 1964, Cassius Clay knocks out Sonny Liston
This was the first time Ali would "shock the world." Liston was supposed to knock Ali out, but Ali turned the tables, knocking Liston out. Ali had complained that something may have been rubbed onto Liston's gloves because his eyes burned. Didn't matter Ali battered Liston so bad that Liston couldn't answer the bell for round 7.
May 25, 1965, Ali knocks out Sonny Liston -- Again
Ali took care of business in the first round this time, albeit in controversial fashion. Known as the "phantom punch" Ali knocked Liston out with a punch that never seemed to land. Was Ali that quick that even the cameras couldn't catch his punches? Did Liston take a dive? Didn't matter. Ali was the man.
March, 1966 -- Ali Avoids The U.S. Military
Ali did the unthinkable. He refused to enlist in the U.S. Army. Ali, newly converted to Islam, famously said "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong." While some people saw his stance as cowardly or traitorous, others saw it as brave and heroic. Ali said "They never called me n---er. They never lynched me." As a celebrity Ali was able to say "No," and that no was on behalf of people of color who had been sent to Vietnam. Ali was exercising his free will and independence. And whether you agreed with it or not, you knew he would not be told what to do.
Ali was then denied a boxing license, and shunned for his decision. It wasn't until the American people in the late 1960s turned on the war that Ali's stance began to win favor. Ali lost nearly four years of his boxing career, from 1966 to 1969 because of his stance.
When Ali returned to the ring, he was, as expected, unstoppable.
He would be part of the sport's biggest, most iconic events, at a time when PPV was not available, when boxing was on free TV or closed-circuit television. There was no internet, with rumors constantly getting reported. When Ali fought, the news went viral, the old-fashioned way; people talked about it.
Oct. 30, 1974: Ali vs. Foreman, The Rumble in the Jungle
If you have never seen the documentary "When We Were Kings," you are missing out. It looks at the buildup to the big fight between Ali and George Foreman. The video shows Ali not just as a fighter, but as an artist, a poet and a great leader.
Foreman had just knocked out Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight title. Foreman was the most feared fighter of his time, like Mike Tyson was in the 1980s. Could Ali dance his way to victory of the hulk that foreman was? Yes.
Ali showed off his famous "rope-a-dope," letting Foreman pound on him as Ali leaned backwards into the ropes. When Foreman was tired out, Ali attacked, and knocked Foreman out in the eight round. To African people, Ali was their hero that night.
Oct. 1, 1975, Ali vs. Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manilla
He fought Joe Frazier three times, wining two of those fights. Of all the fighters Ali faced during his prime, Frazier fought him the best, and was his toughest challenge. Frazier, along with Chuck Wepner, Henry Cooper and Sonny Banks, were the only fighters to knock Ali down. It was the third fight with Frazier where Ali finally settled the score. Frazier won the first fight, Ali the second, but both of those outcomes were by decision. In the trilogy fight, Ali won by 14th round knockout. Once again, Ali was the hero of the people.
Ali had several great fights other than these. His battles with Ken Norton were legendary. This fight against Ernie Shavers was epic. Ali shows great boxing skills and that he can take a massive shot from Shavers.
Ali also battled tough guys like Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner, Jimmy Young and Wepner. In those fights he demonstrated his boxing skills and dominated.
The loss to Spinks was the beginning of the end. Although he would defeat Spinks by decision in the rematch, Ali would never regain his old form. The only time he was ever knocked out came against his protege, Larry Holmes, when Ali failed to answer the bell for the 11th round.
This was a sad day in 1981 for not only boxing, but popular culture. Even Holmes was depressed.
Ali would fight one more time, losing to Trevor Berbick in 1981 by unanimous decision. By then, Ali was nothing but a shell of himself.
When Ali lost that night in 1978 against Leon Spinks, it signaled the beginning of the end, the end of the man who stood up against the establishment. The end of a man who fought for and on behalf of people of color and anyone who at the time was considered part of the underclass.
When Conor McGregor talks trash, or Floyd Mayweather Jr. talks trash, they are building fights to make money. When Ali talked trash he was not just building hype to make money, he was speaking truth to power, giving hope and inspiration to those who had been oppressed or kept down. Ali was a leader of people, and that's why grown men quietly cried in 1978 when his boxing time was up, and why they cried again in 2016 when "The Greatest" died.