Sad news for sports fans as boxing legend Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. Known as a 'silver-tongued' presence in the ring, the athlete was also a civil rights activist who was perhaps most famous for proudly proclaiming himself 'The Greatest'. After a lifetime spent living up to the nickname, Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, succumbed to respiratory complications.
Ali's death came Friday night in the Phoenix-area hospital where he'd spent the past few days. The boxer had suffered from Parkinson's disease for the past thirty years. The neurological condition had progressively worn down his physical dexterity and speech over the decades, yet never robbed him of his persona. The man's body is being returned to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky where the funeral will be held. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell had this to say to NBC News
"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."
Ali remained politically active in the weeks leading up to his death. This past December, he released an official statement that criticized presidential hopeful Donald Trump for his plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. This moment helped bookend a career that started in the early 1960s, when Ali was a young heavyweight champion moving through the ranks. Just as he became more popular, he made a very controversial decision to covert to Islam, refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. He quickly grabbed the attention of the entire nation, and became a real-life hero who embodied 'strength, eloquence, conscience and courage'.
Though he had his detractors, Ali became world famous for his antics both in and out of the ring, and was beloved by people of all nationalities, creeds and colors. The man was born Jan. 17, 1942 and started boxing at the young age of 12. He won several Golden Gloves titles before taking home the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics as a light heavyweight. It wasn't long after that he turned pro.
Billed as Cassius Clay, the athlete first found the support of Louisville business owners who promised him an unheard of at the time 50-50 split in earnings. Perhaps better then his strength and agility in the ring was his ability to trash talk, quickly earning the nickname "the Louisville Lip". Unlike some boxers at the time, he had the ability to back-up his words. Soon, he was living in Miami training under the great Angelo Dundee. He then aimed to take the heavyweight title.
Becoming more popular with the America populace, he was quick to take a stand on America racism. And legend has it that after being refused service at a soda fountain counter, he decided to toss his U.S. gold medal in a river.
Ali sought guidance from the Nation of Islam, abandoning the traditional community of agents and promoters. One of the group's leaders, Malcolm X helped him convert to Islam in 1963. But he kept his faith from the public until after he won the title in 1964, fighting heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. It was here that the iconic catchphrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" forever made its way into the public consciousness. Ali beat Liston with a sixth-round technical knockout. This act was followed by another iconic catchphrase that will forever be cemented in history, with Muhammad proudly exclaiming in front of millions "I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I'm the king of the world."
Calling Cassius a 'slave' name, he took on the new name of Muhammad Ali at the age of 22. The name was bestowed upon him by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. It was a move that caused a giant rift in his fan base, and caused great controversy in the sports community.
Ali would go onto defend his title an astounding six times, and even had a rematch with Liston that went in Muhammad's favor. It was in 1967 that Ali was drafted to serve in Vietnam. He famously announced that he wasn't going to fight for America, as his faith did not allow it, and that he had 'no quarrel' with this particular enemy. At the time, he had this to say.
"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? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me."
Grabbing the attention of the entire nation, Ali was forced to appear at an Army recruiting station where he refused to step forward when his name was called. He was quickly stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion. Subsequently, he wound up getting 5 years in prison. Unable to fight or flee the country, he was released on appeal. Instead of fighting in the ring, he decided to use his fame to speak on the lecture circuit, and address college crowds with heated debates about denying civil rights while being asked to fight in wars.
Ali was vilified by the conservatives in the country at that time, though he became a national icon supported by antiwar activists and black nationalists. It took over four years for his appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1971, he was able to reverse the conviction, with the unanimous decision that the Department of Justice had not disclosed Ali's stance about his religious beliefs. As this was happening, Ali was once again able to reinstate his boxing license in the state of Georgia. His first fight back in the ring was against Jerry Quarry. Just six months later he would lose to Joe Frazier in an infamous 15-round bout at a sold out Madison Square Garden. It was billed as 'The Fight of the Century' and came as Ali's first major loss as a pro athlete.
Ali and Frazer sparked one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time. The two fought yet again in 1974, this time Muhammad taking the crown. He then became the lead challenger for the heavyweight title. The title was soon his, as he beat the legendary George Foreman in the infamous 'Rumble in the Jungle' that took place in Zaire. The fight saw Ali moving to Africa for the summer to train. The match was preceded by an unprecedented three day music festival that was headlined by James Brown and B.B. King.
During The Rumble, Ali introduced the soon-to-be iconic boxing strategy known as the 'rope-a-dope'. He would get Foreman to attack him, then lean back into the ropes and let George tire himself out. In the 8th round, Muhammad made his move, and knocked the man out. Since the fight, the move has been copied thousands of times since by many other champions.
Following this historic boxing match, Ali would go up against Frazer a third time in 1975 in a bout that was dubbed the 'Thrilla in Manila', and to this day, it is remembered as one of the best boxing matches of all time. Ali won the fight with a technical knockout in the 15th round. It wasn't until 1978 that Ali lost his title to the younger Leon Spinks.
Ali didn't waste anytime taking his title back, though, and subsequently decided to retire in 1979 at the age of 37. He did, however, return to the ring in 1980 due to financial pressures. He went up against Larry Holmes and lost. He then lost again to Trevor Berbick in 1981. It was then that he decided to put away the gloves for good.
In 1982, the boxing legend was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. As his health began to decline, he switched to a more mainstream branch of Islam. It was at this time that he decided to take on many humanitarian causes. In 1996, he would light the Olympic flare in Atlanta, though the effects of Parkinson's had begun to show. Though his persona became more subdued, he remained as popular as ever with the people of the world.
Ali would spend the later half of his life traveling the globe, meeting with presidents, royalty, heads of state, the Pope. He would go onto state that he regretted not spending more time with his children. But he regretted nothing about his boxing career. In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. And the Muhammad Ali Center was opened in his hometown of Louisville, which served as a forum to promote tolerance and respect.
Muhammad Ali would divorce three times and was the father to nine children. He married his last wife in 1986, living with Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams in Berrien Springs, Michigan before winding up in Arizona. It wasn't until recently that Ali's health really began to decline. He had a major death scare in 2013, and in 2015 he was rushed to the hospital after being found unresponsive. He soon recovered to live out his days in Arizona. Though he was known for his taunting words, his final few years found him unable to speak. In 2009, his wife read from an essay on NPR. Here are his last public words.
"I never thought of the possibility of failing, only of the fame and glory I was going to get when I won. 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 will be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time. No funeral service arrangements have been announced. Today will be one of tribute, as stars from every corner of the world mourn this loss on social media. Even in passing, Ali will continue to be known as 'The Greatest'.