In March of 1971, when Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century, I was in high school in Ithaca, New York. At that time Ithaca was a sleepy Republican town. But Ali woke things up. People who had no interest in sports were taking sides.
Perhaps unfairly, Frazier had become the candidate of conservatives, the boxer who proudly carried the American flag, the man who would teach some manners to the mouthy antiwar upstart who had changed his name and (they muttered) should have been in prison.
His supporters were eclectic. The students at Ithaca High were split. The hippies in their Earth shoes, the rebels, the greasers in their boots, the math nerds supported Ali. Everybody else was pulling for Frazier. That's what Ali did. He forced you to take sides.
Muhammad Ali, who died Saturday at 74, was not only the dominant boxer of his generation. He was the transcendent sports figure of the 20th century, a lightning rod for controversy who became a beloved ambassador for peace, and whose tragic final years have probably hastened the end of the sport at which he excelled.