Mohammad Ali – brilliant boxer, world champion, political symbol and man of immense dignity – has died of respiratory failure, aged 74.
The man who polarised his nation and the world, becoming as well known for his battles outside the ring as in, had been in poor health for decades. Admirers have been in mourning for many years as the athletic young man who won Olympic gold and went on the claim the world’s heavyweight championship three times, was increasingly crippled by Parkinson’s disease, a legacy of too many punches absorbed by a man too proud to bow.
He styled himself “the Greatest”and was acknowledged by many as having been nothing less – the greatest boxer the world has seen.
A spokesman for Ali’s family, Bob Gunnell, announced in Phoenix, Arizona, “After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s syndrome, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74.”
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, he began boxing at age 12. He rose swiftly through the amateur ranks, winning six state and two national Golden Gloves titles and earning a place in the US team for 1960’s Rome Olympics. He achieved international prominence by winning the Olympic light heavyweight boxing title. Less than four years later, barely 22 years old, he stunned the world by defeating the reigning champion, Sonny Liston, outpacing and out-thinking the bigger man, who failed to come out for the seventh round.
Clay had already attracted attention for his outspokenness and what much of the media regarded as arrogance, earning the nickname “The Louisville Lip”. Most commentators dismissed his challenge before the fight. On winning, Clay harangued them from the ring: “Eat your words! I am the greatest!” In a rematch against Liston the next year, the fight was stopped within two minutes. The young champion seemed to have proved his point.
Soon after winning the heavyweight championship he converted to Islam, a decision that was to shape the rest of his life, and adopted the name Muhammad Ali.
Despite a string of title defences that cemented his authority, tragedy loomed. He was declared eligible for the draft to fight in America’s war against communism in Vietnam. Ali declared he would refuse to serve, saying “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” That decision polarised America, still in the throes of the civil rights struggle.
In March, 1967, he was stripped of his title for refusing to accept the draft. He was charged with draft evasion, convicted and sentenced to five years’ jail. Though he remained free while he appealed the conviction most US states refused to grant him a licence to box, and his career was effectively on hold until late in 1970. Through those years he campaigned against the Vietnam War and for the dignity of his race – a battle he would never abandon.
In 1971 his conviction was unanimously overturned by the US Supreme Court. A court also ordered the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate his licence, opening the way for a match against “Smoking Joe” Frazier, the star who had dominated boxing during Ali’s absence, taking the vacant championship.
He lost that bout on points, but eventually he would defeat Frazier, then go on to defeat Ken Norton, who had taken the title from Frazier, and regained the crown that had been stripped from him. His final fight against Frazier, the “Thrilla in Manila”, was a gruelling, brutal clash between two men who refused to quit. At the end of the 14th round Frazier’s corner refused to let him continue. Ali could barely rise from his stool to acknowledge the win. He would later describe the match as “the closest thing to death” he had ever known.
Though he would go on to fight for several more years, losing and regaining the title, the old magic was fading, and the dancing Ali of old, the man who “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee”, was just a memory, replaced by an ageing but smart boxer who survived, but survived too long, absorbing fearful punishment in the process. By the time of his last fight in December 1981 a growing media chorus was calling for him to quit the ring before it was too late.
Just three years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, a problem common in boxers who have suffered head trauma.
Through his decline he was showered with honours around the world. The BBC and Sports Illustrated declared him sportsman and sports personality of the century. He was all of that. – The Newsroom Team
Photo shows Muhammad Ali rocking challenger Joe Frazier in the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” – screengrab from video coverage of the fight.