Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who coined the slogan “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” has died. He was 74.
Ali, who battled Parkinson's disease for the past few decades, died on Friday after being treated for respiratory complications at a Phoenix-area hospital, NBC News reported.
"After a 32-year battle with Parkinson's disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away," said spokesman Bob Gunnell in a statement. "The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening. The Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers, and support and asks for privacy at this time."
Ali was anointed the “People’s Champ.” When he proclaimed to be “the greatest,” the world approved. He shared his affirmation publicly and aggressively inside and outside of the boxing ring, often in the public eye, and under ridicule. At the height of boxing’s “golden era,” Ali emerged as one of its most colorful participants, and during a time of civil unrest, he portrayed the Black hero, a fighter unwilling to conform.
Ali stated in his 1998 biography, “King of the World”, “I had to prove you could be a new kind of Black man. I had to show that to the world.”
Ali ended his decorated boxing career with a record of 56 wins – 5 losses and 37 knockouts. He became the first man to ever win the heavyweight crown three separate times. Many of the matches were spectacles, folkloric events that are still brought up in barbershop conversations. His epic bouts inside of the ring, perhaps, rivaled his three-decade long battle with Parkinson’s syndrome.
Greats from the boxing world took to social media to express their condolences.
— Mike Tyson (@MikeTyson) June 4, 2016
— MagicMan 5X Champ (@AntonioTarver) June 4, 2016
“Rumble, young man, rumble…”
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. At age 12, Clay decided to take up boxing after his red and white Schwinn bicycle was stolen outside of an annual convention at the Columbia Auditorium. His first trainer, Joe Martin, inspired young Clay to learn how to fight in the gym beneath the auditorium.
In six tumultuous years as an amateur, Clay amassed 100 victories – six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title – and five losses. In 1960, at age 18, Clay represented the United States in the Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. Then, a wide-eyed, slender framed Clay competed in the light-heavyweight division, winning all four of his matchups, and earning his first and only gold medal.
But being denied service at a Louisville diner opened his eyes to the racism pervasive in the United States despite his hero status. He was so angry about the incident, he threw his medal into the Ohio River.
Clay’s professional foray began on October 29, 1960 at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. Never one to lack confidence, Clay backed up his cool quips with quick feet in the ring and a powerful combination of punches that pummeled 15 of his first 19 opponents. Sportswriters across the country began to call the upstart a variety of monikers, such as “Cash the Brash,” “Mighty Mouth,” and most famously, “the Louisville Lip.”
It took Clay three years to earn a shot at the ominous Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Before the boxers met in between the ropes, Clay called Liston a “big ugly bear”, mocking the 6’1, 215 pounder’s menacing frame. Clay’s clever jeers came off distasteful and pompous at the time; nonetheless the soon-to-be champ was crafting his iconic image carefully.
After six tumultuous rounds, and heavy aid from his trainers, a bruised Liston declined to come out of his corner for the seventh. The technical knock out outcome turned Clay into the youngest heavyweight champion ever to win the WBA belt outright. With his fists clenched in his gloves and both arms stretched above his head jubilantly, Clay shouted ringside, “I’m the king of the world! King of the world!”
At the champ’s request, the world would soon say goodbye to Cassius Clay, and meet Muhammad Ali – “the people’s champ,” the “authentic folk hero,” defender of Allah as he joined the Nation of Islam.
A 1963 EBONY article called him “a blast furnace of race pride.”
Ali’s newfound religion perturbed the press, as he demanded to be called Muhammad Ali, a name bestowed upon him by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. Converting his faith and associating with Malcolm X, who became Ali’s spiritual advisor, made Ali a key figure in the national conversation on civil rights. “Changing my name was one of the most important things that happened to me in my life,” Ali explained. “It freed me from the identity given to my family by slave masters.”
The following year, Ali would defend his title against Liston in a peculiar rematch that has been speculated for ages. In the first round, Ali sent Liston tumbling towards the ground, after he counterpunched with a straight right that landed on Liston’s temple. The brevity of the match and chants of “Fake” and “Fix!” from the crowd, led many to believe that Liston had succumbed to a “phantom punch.”
As Ali's career was beginning to peak, the United States the war in Vietnam began to rage and Ali was selected for drafting into the U.S. Army. Opposed to the war and simply refusing to go based on his convictions as a Muslim, Ali flatly told members of the media,"I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.”
After defending his heavyweight title overseas in Canada, London, and Germany, Ali was stripped of the belt, convicted of draft evasion, ordered to serve five years in prison and pay a large fine. His passport was also taken away, but he remained out of jail, as the case was being appealed. Still, the champ was banished from boxing.
During his hiatus from March 1967 to October 1970, Ali lectured about his political and religious views at colleges across the country, often sharing his poetry with the students. By 1970, public opinion on Ali and the wearisome war in Vietnam had changed. No longer viewed as a draft dodger, Ali became exalted as a trailblazer, who fought feverishly for his beliefs. He later told EBONY: “I’m not only a boxing champion, I’m a people’s champion.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned Ali’s conviction for refusing induction on a technicality. Though Ali had fought in Atlanta, a year before, he was officially eligible, according to statewide boxing commission standards, to compete for the heavyweight title, once again.
On March 8, 1971 Ali would meet his famed foe, Joe Frazier, for the first time, inside of Madison Square Garden.
“Ninety-eight percent of my people are for me. They identify with my struggle… If I win, they win. I lose, they lose. Anybody Black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom,” Ali stated leading up to the fight.
After fifteen volatile rounds, Ali was handed his first humbling loss, by unanimous decision, to Frazier. The match was billed as the “fight of the century” and a pivotal moment in Ali’s illustrious career. The journey to retain the heavyweight title for Ali was arduous. He lost handedly to Ken Norton, won the rematch, and then faced Frazier, once more at The Garden. This time, Ali was announced the victor after twelve rounds.
His next marquee matchup in 1974, dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle” came against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali, 32 at the time, faced off against a younger, 25-year-old Foreman, who had dealt 37 knock outs to his first 40 opponents. During the bout, the crowd, filled with mostly Central African Ali admirers, chanted “Ali, bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”). Ali deployed his famous “rope-a-dope” tactic against Foreman. During the early rounds, Ali endured a barrage of powerful punches – while leaning against the ropes – to tire his adversary. Foreman would fall in round eight, making Ali the heavyweight champion of the world, once more.
After the fight, Foreman mentioned, “Muhammad amazed me, I’ll admit it. He outthought me, outfought me. That night, he was just the better man in the ring.”
The antagonist in Ali’s narrative, Frazier, would get to fight Ali for a third time in the Philippines. The 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” as Ali called it, was his final meeting with Frazier and widely considered the third most important fight of his career.
Scorching temperatures made both fighters sluggish and it showed. While Ali took the early rounds, Frazier fought back, delivering punishing blows to win the next few. By the fourteenth round, Frazier’s eyes were nearly shut and he began to spew blood. His trainers decided that Frazier was finished, and Ali was announced as the winner. Both exhausted prize fighters sat on their stools, in a pool of sweat in their separate corners, after the fight. Frazier later commented that he had hit Ali with “punches that’d bring down the walls of a city.”
Ali fought ten more times after his impressive duel with Frazier in the Philippines. After losing the WBC and WBA heavyweight titles to Leon Spinks at age 38, EBONY documented “the aging gladiator’s” rematch in a cover story titled, “Can Old Man Ali Accomplish the Impossible?” Ali ultimately defeated Spinks, and regained the title for the third time in his career.
A fourth comeback for Ali was derailed by his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes in 1980. He made an attempt in the ring once more against Trevor Berbick before retiring permanently.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease sending him into a different type of fight, which he waged for the rest of his life. Though his condition has been blamed on boxing past-his-prime, Ali has said that the sport isn’t to blame.
After his diagnosis, Ali focused on philanthropy and has raised funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Center in Phoenix as well as given his support to the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
In 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the world recognized his greatness after all he had been through — in boxing, politically and personally — when he was handed the Olympic Torch to carry it on the last leg of its journey. Ali took the torch in his right hand, and in an unforgettable moment in sports, turned to the cheering crowd — shaking with his affliction but unbowed — held the torch above his head before he lit the flames to start the games.
Ali married his fourth wife Yolanda in 1986 and has nine children from various relationships, including daughter Laila, who became one of the world's greatest women's boxing champions.
He stayed active as well as public throughout his later years and was honored multiple times for his accomplishments in and out of the ring. In 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former president George W. Bush. In 2009, he was on hand at the first inauguration of President Obama, who later called Ali in tribute: "The man who believes real success comes when we rise after we fall; who has shown us that through undying faith and steadfast love, each of us can make this world a better place. He is, and always will be, the champ."