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When I first got into sports writing in 1983, I made a promise to never be intimidated by pro athletes.

So when I first saw New York Giants linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson sitting on stools with blood all over their uniforms in 1987 after a loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it was no big deal.

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When I had a chance to cover the Dream Team in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, it was great to be around Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson but not overwhelming.

Meeting Jim Brown in 1995 during the Browns' last season in Cleveland gave me some chills because Brown was bigger than the game itself.

But Muhammad Ali was bigger than life.

I never got a chance to meet Ali, who died at age 74 late Friday night, but if I did I would have been intimidated. I would have been shaking in fear and gawking at him like some starry-eyed teenager.

Besides being the greatest boxer ever, the legacy Ali leaves behind is one built on principle, character and peace. And for young African-American men like me who grew up watching Ali in his prime, he taught us about racial pride and that being a leader was more than just rushing for 1,000 yards in a season or being able to score 20 points a game.

It's sad to have to write this column about Ali, but also an honor. It's been a privilege to watch his boxing career, which included winning the heavyweight title three times, but also fascinating to see how the same people who once hated him now love him.

Some labeled him a coward and a racist back in 1967, when he refused to go into the U.S. military to fight in the war in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs as a Muslim and America's opposition to the war.

Yet in 2001, President George Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Citizens Medal and later he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.

That's what I admired the most about Ali. In these current times, when so many people are swayed by polls and what is or is not trending, Ali stayed true to his belief in religious freedom and fighting against racial injustice.

He didn't mind being out front in regards to any of society's prevailing issues. A lot of today's fans, especially African-Americans, believe that high-profile athletes should be outspoken leaders.

That was always a major criticism of Jordan. Jordan has always been a leader in his own quiet style, which was in contrast to some others who came before him such as Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But Ali was different from all the others in the modern era. As a boxer, he was provocative and outlandish, and transcended the role of African-American athletes in America.

Yet as the world's most recognizable athlete even after he retired in 1981, he became an ambassador for peace, going to visit Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War to try to obtain the release of American hostages, or going to Afghanistan in 2002 on a U.N. Message of Peace. He probably gave away several millions of dollars through charities.

I loved Muhammad Ali. I loved him because he didn't give a damn. As a teenager, I liked his arrogance and the way he went against the system. His poems were funny and he became boxing's version of a carnival barker.

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I tried to emulate the hand speed in our backyard brawls or imitate his "Ali Shuffle" or bolo punches. I would run home on Saturday afternoons to watch a tape delay of his fights on "Wide World of Sports"; his interactions with Howard Cosell were almost as entertaining as the fights.

I was overcome with emotion when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction and allowed him to return to boxing in 1971, and that in itself became a major victory and a source of black pride.

But I also didn't want to go to school on March 9, 1971, one day after Ali lost to Joe Frazier in the first of their three epic fights. Only two days before, my birthday wish was for Ali to knock out Frazier.

At least he won the next two fights against Frazier.

I lived a lot of my childhood life with Muhammad Ali. I still have two posters of him on my office wall at home and another on my basement wall.

Some say Joe Louis was a better heavyweight than Ali, but not in my eyes. Ali was big, was strong and could pepper an opponent with his signature jab, or hit with the big right hand. What made him truly great was his ability to land punches while moving backward.

Yes, he was The Greatest.

There was never anyone better, never anyone who provided as many magical moments despite his four-year exile from the sport by the federal government during the prime of his career.

I have to admit, though, I was one of those who never wanted to see Ali retire. Even when his reflexes were starting to slow and there were whispers about his opening bouts with Parkinson's disease, I thought he would still find a way to win, as he did with his Rope-A-Dope style against George Foreman in 1974.

Little did I know then that Father Time has never lost a battle.

It has been 33 years since I started writing professionally and we all become a little jaded with time. We get to see the side of these athletes that others don't, and it isn't always flattering.

But regardless of what will be written or said about Ali, he will always be my hero. Every year on our trip to Cincinnati to cover the Ravens play against the Bengals, a lot of my co-workers fly into Cincinnati or nearby Dayton.

I always fly into Louisville, Ky., and visit the Muhammad Ali museum. It's great to go there, kick back in the recliner and watch old Ali fights on video.

I'm going to miss him because he gave me a lot of anxious nights and some great childhood memories.

But the admiration will always been there, and so will the intimidation.

Rest in peace, Champ.

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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