Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion who helped define his turbulent times as the most charismatic and controversial sports figure of the 20th century, died Friday. He was 74.
His death was confirmed by Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman.
Ali was the most thrilling if not the best heavyweight ever, carrying into the ring a physically lyrical, unorthodox boxing style that fused speed, agility and power more seamlessly than that of any fighter before him.
But he was more than the sum of his athletic gifts. An agile mind, a buoyant personality, a brash self-confidence and an evolving set of personal convictions fostered a magnetism that the ring alone could not contain.
Ali was as polarizing a superstar as the sports world has ever produced – both admired and vilified in the 1960s and ‘70s for his religious, political and social stances. His refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, his rejection of racial integration at the height of the civil rights movement, his conversion from Christianity to Islam and the changing of his “slave” name, Cassius Clay, to one bestowed by the separatist black sect he joined, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, were perceived as serious threats by the conservative establishment and noble acts of defiance by the liberal opposition.
In later life Ali became something of a secular saint, a legend in soft focus. He was respected for having sacrificed more than three years of his boxing prime and untold millions of dollars for his anti-war principles after being banished from the ring; he was extolled for his unselfconscious gallantry in the face of incurable illness, and he was beloved for his accommodating sweetness in public.
That passive image was far removed from the exuberant, talkative, vainglorious 22-year-old who bounded out of Louisville, Kentucky, and onto the world stage in 1964 with an upset victory over Sonny Liston to become the world champion.
Over 21 years, he won 56 fights and lost five. His Ali Shuffle may have been pure showboating, but the “rope-a-dope” was the stratagem that won the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974, the fight in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in which he regained his title.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, into a family of strivers that included teachers, musicians and craftsmen.
Cassius started to box at 12, after his bicycle was stolen. He reported the theft to police Officer Joe Martin, who ran a boxing gym. When Cassius boasted what he would do to the thief, Martin suggested he first learn how to punch properly.
Martin, who was white, trained him for six years, although historical revisionism later gave more credit to Fred Stoner, a black trainer. It was Martin who persuaded Clay to go to Rome with the 1960 Olympic team despite his almost pathological fear of flying.
Clay won the Olympic light-heavyweight title. He turned professional by signing a six-year contract with 11 local white millionaires, who supported him while he was groomed by Angelo Dundee.
Clay enjoyed early success against prudently chosen opponents. His outrageous predictions, usually in rhyme, put off many older sportswriters, especially since most of the predictions came true. Younger sportswriters were delighted by the hype and by Clay’s friendly accessibility.
It was feared he would be seriously injured by slugger Liston, a 7-to-1 favorite to retain his title in Miami Beach, Florida, on Feb. 25, 1964.
To the shock of the crowd, Clay took immediate control of the fight. He danced away from Liston’s vaunted left hook and peppered his face with jabs. Clay was in trouble only once. Just before the start of the fifth round, his eyes began to sting. It was liniment, but he suspected poison. Dundee had to push him into the ring. Two rounds later, Liston, slumped on his stool, his left arm hanging uselessly, gave up.
On Feb. 17, 1966, Ali learned he had been reclassified 1A by his Louisville Selective Service board. He had originally been disqualified by a substandard score on a mental aptitude test. But a subsequent lowering of criteria made him eligible for service. The timing, however, was suspicious to some; the contract with the Louisville millionaires had run out, and Nation members were taking over as Ali’s managers and promoters.
On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be drafted and requested conscientious-objector status. He was immediately stripped of his title by boxing commissions around the country. Several months later he was convicted of draft evasion, a verdict he appealed. He did not fight again until he was almost 29, losing 3 1 / 2years of his athletic prime.
As Ali’s draft-evasion case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he returned to the ring on Oct. 26, 1970, through the efforts of black politicians in Atlanta. The fight, which ended with a quick knockout of white contender Jerry Quarry, was only a tuneup for Ali’s anticipated showdown with Joe Frazier, the new champion.
“The Fight,” as the Madison Square Garden bout with Frazier on March 8, 1971, was billed, lived up to expectations as an epic match. Ali stood toe to toe with Frazier and slugged it out as if determined to prove that he had “heart,” that he could stand up to punishment. Frazier won a 15-round decision. Both men suffered noticeable physical damage.
On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court decision and granted Ali his conscientious-objector status.
It was assumed now that Ali’s time had passed and that he would become a high-grade “opponent,” the fighter to beat for those establishing themselves. But his time had returned. Although he was slower, his artistry was even more refined.
He won 13 of his next 14 fights, including a rematch with Frazier, who had lost his title to George Foreman, a bigger, more frightening version of Liston.
When he met Foreman, on Oct. 30, 1974, in Zaire, Ali was the underdog, smaller and seven years older than Foreman.
As the fight progressed, the crowd chanted, “Ali, bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”), first out of concern as Ali leaned against the ropes and absorbed Foreman’s sledgehammer blows on his arms and shoulders, and then in mounting excitement as Foreman wore himself out. In the eighth round, in a blur of punches, Ali knocked out Foreman to regain the title.
Ali successfully defended his title 10 times over the next three years, at increasing physical cost. He knocked out Frazier in their third match, the Thrilla in Manila in 1975.
In 1978 he lost and then regained his title in fights with Leon Spinks. Ali’s longtime ring doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, urged him to quit, noting the slowing of his reflexes and the slurring of his speech as symptoms of damage. Ali refused. In 1980, he was battered in a loss to champion Larry Holmes. A year later, he fought for the last time, losing to journeyman Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
Ali was soon told he had Parkinson’s syndrome. Several doctors have speculated that it was brought on by too many punches to the head. The diagnosis was later changed to Parkinson’s disease, according to his wife, Lonnie.
After retiring from the ring, Ali made speeches emphasizing spirituality, peace and tolerance, and undertook quasi-diplomatic missions to Africa and Iraq. Product and corporate endorsements brought him closer to the “show me the money” sensibilities of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, the heirs to his global celebrity.
In recent years, Parkinson’s disease and spinal stenosis, which required surgery, limited Ali’s mobility and ability to communicate. He spent most of his time at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He ventured out mostly for physical therapy, movies and concerts. He rarely did TV interviews, his wife said, because he no longer liked the way he looked on camera.
“But he loved the adoration of crowds,” she said. “Even though he became vulnerable in ways he couldn’t control, he never lost his childlike innocence, his sunny, positive nature. Jokes and pranks and magic tricks. He wanted to entertain people, to make them happy.”