12/17/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Will Smith has become one of the most sought-after performers in Hollywood, but he resisted taking the role of Muhammad Ali for eight years, feeling that the imposing image of the Greatest was beyond him, ABCNews.com reports. Smith admitted on ABC's "Primetime Live" that he was worried he couldn't handle the pressure of the part. "I absolutely, positively did not want to be the dude that messed up the Muhammad Ali story," he said. Like Ali, however, Smith found the inner confidence, even cockiness, necessary to do the role justice. The prizefighter is one of the most famous living people in the world, hailed not just for his boxing prowess but also for his civil-rights activism, his sense of humor, his dedication to Islam and his courage in dealing with Parkinson's disease. Smith finally took the part after coaxing from Ali's family and director Michael Mann. "I'm profoundly changed," Smith told "Primetime Live." "There's a bittersweet emotion that I feel from playing this role. I want the world to be different because I was here. However lofty or crazy or delusional that may sound, I want people's lives to be better because I was here."