Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead. Ali died Friday at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications. He was 74.
“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening,” Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman said.
Ali had suffered for three decades from Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his legendary verbal grace and his physical dexterity. A funeral service is planned in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. His daughter Rasheda said early Saturday that the legend was “no longer suffering,” describing him as “daddy, my best friend and hero” as well as “the greatest man that ever lived.”
Even as his health declined, Ali did not shy from politics or controversy, releasing a statement in December criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” he said.
— Alison Comyn (@alisoncomyn) June 4, 2016
The remark bookended the life of a man who burst into the national consciousness in the early 1960s, when as a young heavyweight champion he converted to Islam and refused to serve in the Vietnam War, and became an emblem of strength, eloquence, conscience and courage. Ali was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion. His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, to middle-class parents, Ali started boxing when he was 12, winning Golden Gloves titles before heading to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight. His birth name, which he later disowned, was the same as his father’s and he was named after a famous 19th Century Abolitionist.
As his profile rose, Ali acted out against American racism. After he was refused services at a soda fountain counter, he said, he threw his Olympic gold medal into a river.
Recoiling from the sport’s tightly knit community of agents and promoters, Ali found guidance instead from the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected the pacifism of most civil rights activism. Inspired by Malcolm X, one of the group’s leaders, he converted in 1963. But he kept his new faith a secret until the crown was safely in hand.
Of all the Ali pieces that will be up today, this one of best to read: McIllvanney's interview after Zaire 74 https://t.co/nESgui1zlt
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) June 4, 2016
That came the following year, when heavyweight champion Sonny Liston agreed to fight Ali. The challenger geared up for the bout with a litany of insults and rhymes, including the line, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He beat the fearsome Liston in a sixth-round technical knockout before a stunned Miami Beach crowd. In the ring, Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world.”
The new champion soon renounced Cassius Clay as his “slave name” and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali — bestowed by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. He was 22 years old.
Ali successfully defended his title six times, including a rematch with Liston. Then, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. He’d said previously that the war did not conform with his faith, and that he had “no quarrel” with America’s enemy, the Vietcong. He refused to serve.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?” Ali said in an interview. “They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
His stand culminated with an April appearance at an Army recruiting station, where he refused to step forward when his name was called. The reaction was swift and harsh. He was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. Released on appeal but unable to fight or leave the country, Ali turned to the lecture circuit, speaking on college campuses, where he engaged in heated debates, pointing out the hypocrisy of denying rights to blacks even as they were ordered to fight the country’s battles abroad.
“My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese,” Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance. “You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali’s stance wasn’t motivated by religious belief. He converted to Sunni Islam in 1975, and 30 years later began adhering to Sufism.
Even as his health gradually declined, Ali — who switched to more mainstream branches of Islam — threw himself into humanitarian causes, travelling to Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990 to seek the release of American hostages. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, lifting the torch with shaking arms. With each public appearance he seemed more feeble, a stark contrast to his outsized aura. He continued to be one of the most recognizable people in the world.
This will forever be one of my favourite ever photos of Muhammad Ali. pic.twitter.com/NP2ZiLw2Ir
— NovelistPrice (@Novelistprice) June 4, 2016
“I never thought of the possibility of failing, only of the fame and glory I was going to get when I won,” Ali wrote. “I could see it. I could almost feel it. When I proclaimed that I was the greatest of all time, I believed in myself, and I still do.” Muhammad Ali defeated every top heavyweight in his era, which has been called the golden age of heavyweight boxing. Ali was named “Fighter of the Year” by Ring Magazine more times than any other fighter, and was involved in more Ring Magazine “Fight of the Year” bouts than any other fighter. He was an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and held wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees. He was one of only three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.
In 2010 President Obama wrote about how Muhammad Ali’s example had influenced him: “It was this quality of Ali’s that I have always admired the most: his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way.”
Farewell then to this Greatest of Americans who has left us in the final year of the Presidential term of a black American President. Respect to the memory of Muhammad Ali, a great and principled fighter against injustice, racism, White Man’s Imperialism and militarism. RIP.
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times.
Who was humorous and who treated everyone right.
As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him.
And who helped as many people as he could.
As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what.
As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.
And if all that’s too much then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people.
And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
Muhammad Ali born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., January 17, 1942 Louisville, Kentucky, – June 3, 2016 Scottsdale, Arizona,) Olympic Gold Medallist, American professional boxer and Civil Rights campaigner. Three times Heavyweight Champion of the World.
In London it is impossible to watch his appearance at the 2012 Olympics without having a lump in your throat.