Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, whose record-setting boxing career, flair for showmanship and political stands made him one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, died on Friday aged 74.
Ali, who had long suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome which impaired his speech and made the once-graceful athlete almost a prisoner in his own body, died a day after he was admitted to a Phoenix-area hospital with a respiratory ailment.
Even so, Ali’s youthful proclamation of himself as “the greatest” rang true until the end for the millions of people worldwide who admired him for his courage both inside and outside the ring.
Along with a fearsome reputation as a fighter, he spoke out against racism, war and religious intolerance, while projecting an unshakeable confidence and humor that became a model for African-Americans at the height of the civil rights era.
“Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest human beings I have ever met,” said George Foreman, who lost to Ali in Zaire in a classic 1974 bout known as the “Rumble in Jungle.”
“No doubt he was one of the best people to have lived in this day and age. To put him as a boxer is an injustice.”
Ali enjoyed a popularity that transcended the world of sports, even though he rarely appeared in public in his later years.
“We lost an icon,” said Delson Dez, 28, a construction worker, who was holding up a poster of the fighter in Scottsdale, Arizona soon after Ali’s death was confirmed in a statement issued by his family late Friday evening.
“He talked trash but he backed it up,” Dez said.
Few could argue with his athletic prowess at his peak in the 1960s. With his dancing feet and quick fists, he could – as he put it – float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He was the first person to win the heavyweight championship three times.
But Ali became much more than a colorful and interesting athlete. He spoke boldly against racism in the ’60s, as well as the Vietnam War.
During and after his championship reign, Ali met scores of world leaders and for a time he was considered the most recognizable person on earth, known even in remote villages far from the United States.
Ali’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s came about three years after he retired from boxing in 1981.
His influence extended far beyond boxing. He became the unofficial spokesman for millions of blacks and oppressed people around the world because of his refusal to compromise his opinions and stand up to white authorities.
“We lost a giant today. Boxing benefited from Muhammad Ali’s talents but not nearly as much as mankind benefited from his humanity,” said Manny Pacquiao, a boxer and politician in the Philippines, where Ali fought arch rival Joe Frazier for a third time in a brutal 1975 match dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila.”
In a realm where athletes often battle inarticulateness as well as their opponents, Ali was known as the Louisville Lip and loved to talk, especially about himself.
Key fights in the boxing career of Muhammad Ali
Important bouts in the career of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali:
* Sept. 5, 1960 – Wins the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal in Rome in a unanimous decision over Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland.
* Oct. 29, 1960 – Makes his professional debut in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, winning a six-round unanimous decision over Tunney Hunsaker, whose day job was police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia.
* Feb. 25, 1964 – Boasting a 19-0 record, wins the heavyweight title at age 22 by beating Sonny Liston, who surrenders after six rounds, in Miami Beach.
* March 22, 1967 – After eight successful title defenses, including another win over Liston and one over former champ Floyd Patterson, Ali knocks out Zora Folley in the seventh round in New York. It was his last fight before losing his titles and facing prison for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army.
* Oct. 26, 1970 – After a 3 1/2-year layoff due to his legal troubles, Ali returns to the ring in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry and wins by TKO in the third round.
* March 8, 1971 – Ali faces Joe Frazier, who had become heavyweight champ during Ali’s hiatus, in a greatly anticipated match that promoters called “the fight of the century” in New York. Both men were undefeated going into the bout, which pitted Ali’s speed and reach against Frazier’s doggedness and stronger punching power. Ali started strong but Frazier dominated the latter part of the 15-round fight and won by unanimous decision.
* March 31, 1973 – Ali’s second loss is a split decision against Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw. Six months later Ali wins a rematch with Norton.
* Jan. 28, 1974 – Ali beats Frazier, who had lost his title to George Foreman, by unanimous decision.
* Oct. 30, 1974 – Ali is a decided underdog going into the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, against the fearsome and younger Foreman. Instead of his usual dancing footwork, Ali spends much of the fight covering his face with his arms and leaning against the ropes in a strategy called the “rope-a-dope.” His plan is to let Foreman tire himself out by throwing punches that did no serious damage and it works, allowing Ali to knock him out in the eighth round and reclaim the major boxing championships.
* Oct. 1, 1975 – The second rematch with Frazier is called the “Thrilla in Manila” and part of the pre-fight hype includes Ali calling Frazier a gorilla. Ali wins when Frazier is unable to come out for the 15th and final round. The temperature approached 100 degrees (38 C) and Ali describes the fight as the closest he had come to death.
* Feb. 15, 1978 – Ali, now 36, loses his titles by split decision to Leon Spinks, 25, who had only seven professional fights after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics.
* Sept. 15, 1978 – Ali gets the a heavyweight title back by beating Spinks in a 15-round unanimous decision, making him the first man to reign as champion three times. He then retires.
* Oct. 2, 1980 – At age 38 he attempts a comeback in a title fight against Larry Holmes, a former Ali sparring partner, but his skills are clearly eroded. Ali’s trainer stops the fight after 10 rounds, marking the only time in his career that Ali lost by anything other than a decision.
* Dec. 11, 1981 – Ali’s final fight is a unanimous decision loss to Trevor Berbick.
Muhammad Ali’s best quotes
- I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.
- I’ll beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.
- I’m the best. I just haven’t played yet.
- If you dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologise.
- There are two things that are hard to hit and see. That’s a spooky ghost and Muhammad Ali.
- I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing. And the shadow won.
- There’s not a man alive who can whup me. I’m too fast. I’m too smart. I’m too pretty. I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.
- One of these days, they’re liable to make the house I grew up in a national shrine.
- Frazier is so ugly he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife.
- Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.