The Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali Dead at 74
Muhammad Ali truly shocked the world with his performance inside and outside the ring even after retiring from the sport he revolutionized. Sadly, he shocked the world one last time with his passing Friday night.
Ali died at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications. He was 74.
“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,” Said Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman.
For three decades the champ had suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of the verbal grace he was known for and his physical dexterity.
Although the Greatest of All Time has passed, many fans – old and young – reminisce the life and career of the ‘young man’ from Louisville, Kentucky that shook the world in more ways than one; whether upsetting the man dubbed the “Ugly Bear” to refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War to the legendary trilogies he had against his biggest rival, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier.
The Birth of the Greatest
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky to middle-class parents.
At the age of 12, the young Cassius took up boxing after his bike was stolen, starting the legend of what was to become after winning Golden Gloves titles before heading to the 1960 Olympic games in Rome and winning the gold medal as a light-heavyweight.
As his profile rose, Ali acted out against American racism. Legend has it that after he was refused services at a soda fountain counter, he threw his Olympic gold medal into a river.
His mouth and skills turned pro soon after, rising through the ranks – after having victories over the likes of Doug Jones, Henry Cooper and Archie Moore – knocking on the doorsteps of the heavyweight kingdom that was ruled by the man he once dubbed the “bear”, Sonny Liston.
With his trainer, Angelo Dundee, at his corner Ali faced the ‘ugly bear’ in 1964 for the heavyweight crown. Taunting the bear during the pre-fight weight-in with his crafty words. Reciting poetry and rhymes as he predicted that “the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
Many in attendance thought that Clay’s behavior was stemmed out of fear and wondered if he would even show up to the ring.
The future champion did not disappoint as he faced Liston in what was considered one of the major sporting upsets after the ‘bear’ refused to meet Clay at the start of the eighth round, giving the Louisville Lip the victory as he prowled all over the ring and pointing at all the critics while shouting “eat your words!” before screaming the famous words that would forever be etched into boxing lore;
“I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” Ali said after being awarded the win via TKO against Liston
Unfortunately, the rise to fame came with controversy.
The new 22 year old champion soon renounced Cassius Clay as his “slave name” and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali — a name that was bestowed by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. The move split sports fans and the broader American public.
Draft Refusal and Exile
The heavyweight champion of the world met any challenger that dared to take away his crown, among them was the rematch against Liston – a fight that caught much controversy as well – Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson.
Against Terrell, Ali showed his prowess and skill by punishing the latter after Terrell kept calling him Clay. Screaming several times “What’s my name!” as the fight went on. Its suffice to say that Terrell indeed caught hell after the sound of the bell.
Unfortunately, controversy rose to a higher point as Ali faced against a much bigger contender and heavier opponent that was too powerful him to defeat: the Government of the United States.
In the amidst of the Vietnam War, Ali refused to be drafted by the U.S. Army based on his religion beliefs but it was going to be the words he spoke that caught the ire of many Americans.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” Ali said.
The reaction was swift and harsh. Ali was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion and costing him three years of his prime.
Unable to fight or leave the country, Ali turned to the lecture circuit. Speaking on college campuses, where he engaged in heated debates, pointing out the hypocrisy of denying rights to blacks even as they were ordered to fight the country’s battles abroad.
“My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese,” Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance. “You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
The Champs words and actions resonated with many young Americans who chanted “If he won’t go, I won’t go!”
Meanwhile, Ali’s appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but in June of 1971, the court reversed the conviction in an 8-0 unanimous decision.
Return to the Ring
Toward the end of the legal saga, Georgia agreed to issue Ali a boxing license, which allowed him to fight Jerry Quarry whom he beat. Six months later, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, where he lost to Joe Frazier in a 15-round duel touted as “the fight of the century.” It was Ali’s first defeat as a pro.
That fight began one of boxing’s and sport’s greatest rivalries. Ali and Frazier fought again in 1974, after Frazier had lost the heavyweight title to George Foreman. This time, Ali won in a unanimous decision making him the lead challenger for the heavyweight crown.
Ali was 32 years old when he agreed to fight Foreman in what was dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” However, it was clear that the champ clearly lost speed and reflexes since his twenties.
Foreman – who was considered one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history – was a brooding and intimidating presence. Almost no one associated with the sport, not even Ali’s long-time supporter Howard Cossell gave the former champion a chance of winning.
However, like Liston before Foreman, it was unwise to bet against the greatest of all time as Foreman lost the crown to Ali.
Against Foreman, Ali delivered a historic performance in the ring as he employed a new strategy dubbed the “rope-a-dope.” Ali goaded the favored Foreman into attacking him, then leaning back into the ropes in a defensive stance and waiting for Foreman to tire. Afterwards, Ali then went on the attack, knocking out Foreman in the eighth round.
The third fight and final in the Ali-Frazier trilogy followed in 1975, the “Thrilla in Manila” that is now regarded as one of the best boxing matches of all time. Ali won in a technical knockout in the 15th round.
Ali successfully defended his title until 1978, when he was beaten by a young Leon Spinks, although he quickly took it back in their rematch seven months later. He retired in 1979 when he was 37, but seeking to replenish his dwindling personal fortune returned in 1980 for a title match against Larry Holmes, which he lost. Ali lost again to Trevor Berbick the following year. Finally, Ali retired for good.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. The disease caused his health to decline slowly throughout the years and although he was losing his fluidity of words and his movement was not what it used to be. Ali was loved by the people nonetheless.
When the lighting of the Olympic flame in Atlanta for the 1996 games took place, the crowd cheered when the Greatest of All Time emerged to hold the torch with shaking arms.
With each public appearance he seemed more feeble a contrast to his outsized aura. That did not deterred him from being one of the most recognizable and endeared figures in the world.
And while his boxing career was very prolific his personal life was not a stable one.
Divorced three times and the father of nine children — one of whom Laila become a boxer — Ali married his last wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams in 1986. They lived for a long time in Berrien Springs, Michigan, then moved to Arizona.
In recent years Ali’s health began to suffer dramatically.
In 2013, a death scare was reported and last year he was rushed to the hospital after being found unresponsive. Fortunately, he recovered and returned to his new home in Arizona.
In his final years with Parkinson’s having almost eradicated Ali’s ability to speak. Asked to share his personal philosophy with NPR in 2009, Ali let his wife read his essay:
“I never thought of the possibility of failing, only of the fame and glory I was going to get when I won,” Ali wrote. “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.”
While the Champ isn’t no longer with us, let us not forget what he did throughout his life and whenever someone is asking who is the greatest, without fear, stand up and shout: “Ali! Ali’s still the greatest!”