We like to believe there is bravery in the acts of sports teams and heroes. That LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady or Joe Montana -- any such legend -- speaks to a deeper meaning about who and what we are through the games they dominate.
That's rarely true.
But on Friday, when Muhammad Ali passed from this world to whatever comes next, we lost one of the few all-time greats whose remarkableness in sports was just a touchstone to his remarkableness outside it.
Ali was 74 years old. Life and Parkinson's had long since outwardly diminished the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee throughout his career and life.
Not only is he arguably the greatest athlete of all time, or the most famous; he is the most important.
Yes, Ali had no equal in the ring. His brute force, the beauty of his gifts and talents, the awe behind his quips and mind -- his mind games and tactical thinking -- all of it formed the backdrop for a legend.
But it was the Ali outside the ring that made him so much more. Athlete? Just a part of Ali's reach. He was an all-time great, and courageous, man.
Ali, who converted to Islam, befriended and then abandoned Malcolm X. He strove and fought diligently to live by a code as he did to fight with a fervor, staked everything, all that greatness, on a belief he put before his own career.
It is especially easy today to be cynical about our leaders, our heroes, men and women we think we look up to or at least turn to as more notable among us. Ali was the antidote for such selfishness, even nihilism. He believed something, and he was wiling to sacrifice all he had from boxing in order to be more than a boxer.
His refusal to be inducted into the armed forces -- and his racially charged, candid, unafraid explanations as to why -- was worthy of the best parts of us. More than any athletic feat. He said he would not fight in Vietnam, and that refusal became one of the defining moments in that point in American history, let alone sports. It was a marriage of the two that recalled Jackie Robinson, but with a swagger, confidence and fight that separated it, and fit the times perfectly.
Those convictions had costs. Before the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor, Ali found himself unable to secure a boxing license or travel because his passport was revoked. Starting in March 1967 and continuing until late in 1970, one of the greatest athletes of all time was unable at his prime to compete. He punched. They counter-punched. And he stood his ground despite pain that followed.
It is hard to fathom his gamble for what he believed. From age 25 to almost age 29, he was sidelined.
LeBron James won both of his championships in that window. Jordan won three of his six titles during that span. Tiger Woods won five of his majors from age 25 to 29. Tom Brady won two Super Bowls. The list goes on.
Winston Churchill said this of bravery: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts."
Nothing could better sum up Ali, why he matters, how he should be remembered and why he'll be missed. His success, as world heavyweight champion, did not last forever. So he sacrificed it, for almost four long years of his prime, in the name of a deeply-held conviction that could have cost him everything.
Ali was a black man, in 1960s America, who converted to Islam and was vocally staking his reputation and adulation against the military and the nationalism behind it. All during one of this country's great schisms. Forget if you think he was right or wrong; that is courage.
And, as Churchill said, it turned out that failure -- inside and outside the ring -- was not fatal. The failure to get a license, to be able to box, to be understood, all of it set Ali up for the greatest comeback that boxing, and perhaps sports, have given us. First, Joe Frazier. Then, the Rumble in the Jungle. The stuff of boxing legend, yes, but only because it was built on the foundation of something so much more pivotal than boxing.
And why did Ali become, again, the champ, the greatest, an icon not just in sports but in the most important time-honored American tradition of resistance? Because, as Churchill put it, he had the courage to continue.
He was 56-5, with 37 knockouts and enough transcendent fights -- and quips, and moments, and memories -- to make him the Greatest of All Time.
But in his passing, let's remember him for the real fight he gave us, and what it means: That idea that, no matter what you have to lose, nothing is more worthy of a battle than the beliefs that define us and, in his case, helped shape our country and some of its most deeply difficult issues.