Muhammad Ali, the people’s champion whose words floated like a butterfly and punches stung like a bee, died Friday at the age of 74. The boxing legend and social activist, who battled Parkinson’s disease for 30 years, was hospitalized Thursday with a respiratory ailment in the Phoenix area.
The three-time heavyweight champ loomed larger outside the boxing ring than inside it. Mr. Ali used his charisma and bravado to become the voice of a generation and stand up for the African American community, battling racial inequality and social and political injustice.
As one of his noteworthy opponents, Floyd Patterson, told author David Remnick some years ago, “I came to see that I was a fighter, and he was history.”
Mr. Ali stayed out of the limelight in recent years as his health deteriorated after a quarter-century of taking punishment in the ring. He was hospitalized in January 2015 with an infection, months after a bout with pneumonia.
Mr. Ali often referred to himself as “the greatest” and was known for his poetic license belittling opponents.
After he was suspended from boxing for refusing military service, Mr. Ali won the heavyweight title back two times during the 1970s, winning notable matches against “Smokin’” Joe Frazier and George Foreman. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Mr. Ali devoted much of his time to philanthropy, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Boxer and activist
Mr. Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942, and in 1960 won an Olympic gold medal as a light-heavyweight. In 1964, he defeated Sonny Liston by knockout in the seventh round and became the world heavyweight champion.
Clay would have a short run as champ, as the morning after beating Liston, Mr. Ali renounced his surname, which he called his “slave name,” and would be known as Cassius X until Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad gave him a holy name. That name was Muhammad Ali.
Mr. Ali narrowly avoided jail time in 1967 when, as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, he refused induction into the U.S. Army. Mr. Ali was convicted in federal court of violating Selective Service laws, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously said in 1967, and from that point on he became a prominent symbol of the antiwar movement, much in demand as a speaker on college campuses.
His case was appealed and eventually overturned, four years later.
That paved the way for Mr. Ali to return to the ring, where he put together a historic career.
After upsetting Liston to win his first heavyweight title, Mr. Ali went on to have a record of 56-5 while becoming boxing’s only three-time heavyweight champion. His classic bouts against legends such as Frazier, Foreman and Liston are arguably the most important fights in boxing history.
Mr. Ali’s three epic bouts with Frazier were his most memorable, forever linking the two men together inside and outside of the ring.
Frazier handed Mr. Ali his first loss after 31 wins in what was billed “The Fight of the Century,” and after losing to Norton as well, Mr. Ali beat Frazier in the 1974 rematch.
That set the stage for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against undefeated heavyweight champion Foreman, held in Kinshasa, Zaire. Mr. Ali, the underdog for once, used his “rope-a-dope” technique to bait Foreman into throwing wild punches and then won back his belt with an eighth-round knockout.
The Ali worldwide tour then hit Quezon City, Philippines, in 1975 for the rubber match against Frazier. The “Thrilla in Manila” went 14 rounds with each fighter giving the other a beating, until Frazier’s trainer threw in the towel before the 15th round.
Promoter Bob Arum handled 25 of Mr. Ali’s 61 professional fights, and even though some came to be regarded as classics, he blamed several of the bouts for causing the damage that led to his Parkinson’s.
“I just talked to Ali by phone, and my impression is that he isn’t as articulate as he used to be and he doesn’t pronounce his words as well,” Arum said in 1980.
Mr. Ali was on the downslope as a fighter after his third bout with Frazier in 1975, but he needed money and he soldiered on another six years. Mr. Ali would have 10 more fights, but he ended up losing three of his last four, including consecutive sad and humiliating defeats to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in 1980 and 1981, as he neared 40.
Where once he was lauded for his perfect physique and mesmerizing moves, Mr. Ali gradually became an old man of halting motion, reduced to speaking in whispers and mumbles. It was an ironic fate for someone who built his legend on an endless succession of outrageous pronouncements and impromptu poetry.
Mr. Ali trembled badly while lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta. But his smile induced a thunderous roar in what was one of the most celebrated Olympics moments ever.
As one of his daughters, Hana, told the Associated Press after Mr. Ali revealed he had Parkinson’s in 1984, “People are naturally going to be sad to see the effects of his disease. But if they could really see him in the calm of everyday life, they would not be sorry for him. He’s at complete peace.”
At the apex of his career as a heavyweight boxer, he was generally regarded as the most famous person in the world, and certainly the most photographed. He traded banter with U.S. presidents as well as world leaders (Leonid Brezhnev, Nelson Mandela and Indira Gandhi, among others), verbally sparred with the Beatles, shook hands with Mother Teresa and took his title as world heavyweight champion literally, fighting in 11 foreign countries and visiting many more.
After his retirement from the ring, Mr. Ali’s public profile receded, but he still had global reach. He used his fame to serve as an unofficial statesman, of sorts.
In 1990, Mr. Ali met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to attempt to negotiate the release of Americans held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait. Fifteen years later, Mr. Ali was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
That same year, he opened the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.
“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given,” he said. “Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”
In 2011, Mr. Ali appealed to Iranian officials for the release of captive hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.
He helped raise funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix and also supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
He was a product of America but a citizen of the world, at first hated and misunderstood but eventually beloved for the way he carried himself in dignified decline.
“He’s like one of those plays where a man is a villain in the first act and then turns out to be a hero in the last act,’’ the vaudevillian and Mr. Ali entourage member Stepin Fetchit presciently said in 1965.
Mr. Ali is survived by his wife Lonnie, brother Rachman, nine children and three ex-wives.
A funeral will be held Wednesday in Louisville, which plans a memorial service Saturday.
Talk about any other sports here.