By Joseph Romanos
OPINION: It is remarkable that Muhammad Ali made it to 74.
Ali, the most famous boxer - and maybe the most famous sportsman - of all time, outlived some of his most famous opponents, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, Ron Lyle and Jerry Quarry among them.
He suffered from the debilitating Parkinsons syndrome from 1980 and for 25 years was but a shaky, shambling shadow of the livewire youngster who announced himself to the world in the 1960s.
Tributes have flooded in for Ali, of course. In his prime he was arguably the most famous person on the planet. He was the best boxer in one of heavyweight boxing's golden eras and waged a succession of titanic struggles.
I don't agree with critics who point to his epic victories over Frazier, Norton and George Foreman and say he was the greatest heavyweight ever. That version of Ali was a brave, durable, resourceful fighter, but wasn't a patch on his younger self, the man who became heavyweight king in 1964.
That person, known first as Cassius Clay and then Muhammad Ali, was something else. He had lightning hands, brilliant footwork and the ability to move his head so quickly he could "ride" a punch, taking all the sting out of it.
He won the title in a massive upset, handing out a lesson to fearsome Sonny Liston, who experts felt was unbeatable.
Back then, the 22-year-old wasn't the beloved figure he eventually became. He was viewed as a loudmouth, a show-off, a puffed-up middleweight. But he turned on a sublime exhibition against Liston.
Joe Louis, the famous Brown Bomber of the 1930s, was no fan of the brash young Clay and was at ringside as a television comments man for that fight. He said after the first round: "We have just seen the greatest round of boxing by any heavyweight ever."
And he was right. From 1964-67, Ali (he changed his name after the first Liston fight) was untouchable.The only thing he lacked was punching power, because he was seldom still long enough to set himself.
However, he scored plenty of knockouts through his domination and an accumulation of punches.
He was cut off in his prime when US authorities took away his boxing licence. He refused to be inducted into the army, citing religious objections, and was sentenced to five years in jail and fined heavily.
By the time he won that legal battle and regained his boxing licence, his best boxing days were behind him, though greater fame and popularity awaited him.
It was amazing how by sheer force of personality he turned a nation that hated him into a nation of fans.
They forgave him for becoming a Muslim and spouting spiteful anti-white sentiments, and for refusing to go to Vietnam. In fact, many came to agree with him in time.
As a boy, I watched black and white newsreels of Ali in his halcyon days, then I listened, shocked, when Joe Frazier knocked him down and outpointed him in their "Fight of the Century", at Madison Square Garden in 1971.
I held my breath while he absorbed all George Foreman's blows and then knocked him out in Zaire in 1974.
I was a journalism student and set myself up in the Southern Cross bar in Wellington to watch him win the gruelling "Thrilla in Manila" against Joe Frazier in 1975.
Thereafter I loved Ali, as so many did, but watched sadly as his skills eroded.
He finished his career with two bad beatings, by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, and was already suffering from Parkinsons syndrome by then.
Later I watched him overcome his physical limitations to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996 and saw him wheeled out at other Olympics or major boxing bouts.
He knew he looked physically wrecked, but turned up uncomplaining. Ali was always brave, but the way he accepted his terrible illness defined courage.
Not everything about Ali was admirable. He married four times and treated his first three wives poorly. He overdid the insults of some of his opponents, especially Floyd Patterson and Frazier. But he was generous, charismatic and superbly talented.
He was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime sports hero.
I feel lucky to have grown up in the Ali era.
* Joseph Romanos is a long-time sports journalist and broadcaster, and the author of nearly 50 books.