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Muhammad Ali, Boxing Legend, Dead at 74

Legendary athlete and breaker of boundaries remained social activist until his death.

Legendary athlete and breaker of boundaries remained social activist until his death.

Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion whose brash yet playful public persona, innovative fighting style and outspoken political stances made him one of the most widely recognised and admired Americans in the world, died Saturday. He was 74.

“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74,” family spokesman Bob Gunell said. “The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening. Muhammad Ali’s funeral will take place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers and support and asks for privacy at this time.”

Ali fought for and won the heavyweight title a record-setting three times in his 22-year career, and his rivalries with Sonny Liston, George Foreman and, especially, Joe Frazier are the stuff of boxing legend. Charismatic, proud, and quotable, Ali’s trash-talking, self-aggrandizing and often rhyming interviews made him a new kind of sports celebrity, and his commitment to acting upon his personal convictions redefined the role of professional athlete as public figure. His conversion to Islam in 1963 alienated white boxing fans, and after he refused to serve in the Vietnam War, he was prevented from boxing for four years at the height of his career. People who never watched a boxing match in their lives, or who never learned to speak a word of English, knew who Muhammad Ali was, and knew he was, as he himself said, “the greatest.”

Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17th, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His father, Cassius, painted billboards and signs; his mother, Odessa, was a household domestic. When Clay was 12, his bicycle was stolen, and a police officer (who also happened to be a boxing coach) overheard the angry boy threatening harm if he ever found the thief and told him he’d better learn to box first.

Clay took his advice. As an amateur, his record was 100-5. He won six state Golden Gloves titles and two national titles, then went to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where he won the Light Heavyweight gold medal. Returning from Rome, Clay went pro in October 1960. Around this time he hired Angelo Dundee, the man who would be his trainer until the boxer retired in 1981.

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‘Rolling Stone’ Muhammad Ali covers.

By the end of 1963, Clay was undefeated, with 15 of his 19 wins by knockout, and the top contender for Sonny Liston’s Heavyweight title. A title fight was set for February 25th, 1964, in Miami, Florida and Clay was a 7-1 underdog. Nonetheless, he boasted repeatedly before the match that he would prevail over the champ, who he insulted as “a bear,” because he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” In what would become a standard pre-fight move, he even recited a poem to reporters about his impending victory. It ended: “Yes the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money/ That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

Clay was true to his word, dancing around the lumbering Liston and cutting him for the first time in his career. After six rounds, Clay was declared the winner by TKO when Liston didn’t answer the bell. “I am the greatest!” the enthusiastic new champion exclaimed in an interview immediately after the match. “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest.” Clay had become the youngest fighter to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champ – a record that would stand until it was broken in 1986 by 20-year-old Mike Tyson.

Shortly after winning the title, Clay became a member of the Nation of Islam, and the sect’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, personally renamed him Muhammad Ali. The boxer had been attending Nation of Islam meetings since 1961, and Malcolm X had served as his spiritual advisor, though Ali kept this connection secret until just before the Liston match. Just weeks after Ali’s name change, Malcolm split with the Nation, and the boxer ended their friendship, a move he later counted among his life’s biggest regrets.

Many white sports commentators were scornful about Ali’s conversion and name change, and most continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay. A notable exception was ABC’s Howard Cosell (who would later also support Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam). Ali and the staccato-voiced Cosell developed a close professional relationship, and Cosell would call most of Ali’s signature bouts in the late Sixties and Seventies.

Muhammad Ali met Liston for a rematch in May 1965. Less than two minutes into the fight, the referee, former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, declared Ali the victor. Liston hit the mat in the first round – the press, which hadn’t seen Ali land a blow, skeptically said he’d been felled by a “phantom punch.”

Ali defeated Floyd Patterson to retain his title in November, and was set to fight Ernie Terrell in March 1966. But a month before the scheduled fight, the Louisville draft board reclassified Ali as 1-A. Ali announced that he would refuse to serve in the army, saying, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.” Amid public outcry, the fight was delayed. Ali fought several bouts in Canada and Europe before finally facing Terrell in February 1967, a nasty fight in which Ali, angered at Terrell calling him “Clay” before the match, refused to knock his staggering opponent out, mockingly asking between punches, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?”

A month later, the response to Ali’s statements about the draft would end his boxing career for nearly four years. Ali was stripped of his title and the state of New York suspended his boxing license. In June, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He was free on bail as the verdict was appealed, but no state would license him to box. In the prime of his career, Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing, and he wouldn’t fight again until October 1970. Instead, he became a popular speaker on college campuses, opposing the Vietnam War and championing black pride. In these years, Ali helped galvanize public disapproval of the war, and inspired African-American athletes to celebrate their heritage and culture.

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On October 30th, 1974, referee Zack Clayton, right, steps in after challenger Muhammad Ali looks on after knocking down defending heavyweight champion George Foreman in the eighth round of their championship bout in Kinshasa, Zaire. AP

The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually overturn, by an 8-0 vote, the verdict against Ali, and a federal court ordered New York to reinstate his license. Now nearly 30 years old, Ali squared off against the new heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier, at Madison Square Garden on March 8th, 1971 in what was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” Both fighters were undefeated, and Ali’s trash talk was especially brutal in the lead-up to the bout. “Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” He also called his opponent an Uncle Tom and the favorite of the “white establishment” – Frazier reportedly never forgave Ali for his comments. Frazier won the decision, though, handing Ali the first loss of his professional career.

It would not be the last. Ali lost again in 1973, this time to Ken Norton. By the time of the Ali-Frazier rematch in January 1974, Joe Frazier was no longer undefeated either – he’d lost his title when the hard-hitting George Foreman knocked him out in the second round. Ali prevailed in the Frazier rematch, and the time had come for him to battle Foreman.

Ali was boastful as ever in the days leading up to the “The Rumble in the Jungle,” a bout held in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30th, 1974, and crowds throughout the African nation shouted “Ali, bomaye” (“kill him”) in his wake. Still, not even Ali’s strongest supporters expected him to prevail. They certainly didn’t expect him to win by staying close to the ropes and letting Foreman powerfully pummel him. Ali’s revolutionary strategy, later popularised as “Rope-A-Dope,” was to let Foreman tire himself out, and it was shockingly effective – Ali knocked his foe out in the eighth round and regained the heavyweight title.

Ali then faced Frazier a third and final time in the “Thrilla in Manila,” a bout held in the Philippines in October 1975. As the temperature closed in on 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the two boxers exchanged vicious blows in a battle of endurance. Frazier’s trainer refused to allow him to answer the bell for the 15th round, and Ali won by TKO. “That was the closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said of the fight. He couldn’t even stand for the post-fight interview, during which he called Frazier “the greatest fighter of all times” – before adding, “next to me.”

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Muhammed Ali lights the Olympic flame during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in Atlanta on July 19th, 1996. Michael Probst/AP

As these overseas fights demonstrated, Ali had become an international celebrity and figure of black pride. When Ali starred in The Greatest, the 1977 film adaptation of his autobiography, he became one of the few public figures who could boast of portraying himself in his own biopic.

The final years of Ali’s career were far from glorious. In 1976, the judges’ announcement that he’d won a Yankee Stadium bout with Ken Norton was met with boos from the crowd, and in response Ali announced his retirement to focus on his faith. (He’d recently left the Nation of Islam to practice Sunni Islam; 30 years later, he would become a Sufi Muslim.)

Ali was soon back in the ring, although both his health and his boxing abilities were clearly in decline. In 1977, his longtime doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, refused to work with Ali any longer, after seeing the toll that the boxer’s career had taken on his kidneys. Ali announced his retirement a second time in 1979, but then almost immediately challenged the heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who was reportedly reluctant to fight the increasingly struggling Ali.

Holmes easily dominated Ali during the October 1980 fight, a gruesome event that dismayed everyone who recalled Ali’s prime. Sylvester Stallone would later say it was “like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.” Angelo Dundee stopped the fight after 10 rounds. And yet, Ali still refused to retire, returning to the ring one last time to lose a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick in December 1981.

From nearly the start of his career, Ali was embedded in American popular culture. He recorded a version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” in 1963, and a year later Bob Dylan boasted comically of his ability to whup the champ on “I Shall be Free No. 10.” There were few celebrities the impossibly photogenic Ali wouldn’t strike some comic pose with, and few who passed up the chance to be in the frame with him. When they first came to the U.S. the Beatles made a point of meeting him — and hamming it up for the cameras together.

By the Seventies, Ali was so well-known he could seem almost like a fictional character, or a figure out of legend. DC Comics even paired him off with Superman to battle an alien invasion in 1978, and around the same time he had his own Saturday morning cartoon: I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. With the rise of hip-hop, rappers would recognise one of their own in the witty, boastful rhymer, and MCs from LL Cool J to 50 Cent name-dropped him in their lyrics. For half a century, if you wanted to claim that you were the greatest at what you did, the easiest way was to compare yourself to Muhammad Ali.

In 1984, Ali, whose hands had begun trembling and voice stuttering about five years earlier, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. The diagnosis was later changed to Parkinson’s disease, according to his wife, Lonnie. Over the next three decades, due to Parkinson’s and spinal stenosis, which required surgery, his body would degenerate and Ali had limited mobility. He could barely stand during the opening ceremonies at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and his ability to communicate was impaired. He spent most of his time at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, often watching Westerns and old black-and-white TV shows. He gave few interviews since, according to his wife, he no longer liked the way he looked on camera.

Despite his illness, however, Ali remained active for many years. He was now a celebrated public figure, honoured by the establishment that once loathed him. He rode in the 1987 Tournament of Roses Parade as part of the U.S. Constitution’s 200th birthday celebration and lit the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. A 2001 film directed by Michael Mann, titled Ali, starred Will Smith in the lead role and garnered critical acclaim. And Ali persisted as a social activist as well. He travelled to Iraq in 1991, attempting to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages with Saddam Hussein, and to Afghanistan in 2012 as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Ali is survived by his fourth wife, Lonnie, who he married in 1986, and nine children: seven daughters and two sons. His youngest daughter, Laila, born in 1977, became a professional boxer, and retired undefeated in 2007.

“It’s a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die,” Don King, who promoted some of Ali’s biggest fights, told The Associated Press. “Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world.”