Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxer who transcended his sport and redefined what it means to be a hero during a turbulent time in American history, died Friday night in a Phoenix hospital.
Ali, who was 74, had been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease for three decades. The fighter known for speaking in the same cadence with which he jumped rope, who used to spout poetry and “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was unable to talk and had difficulty walking in recent years.
But even in silence Ali was a magnetic figure, beloved in all corners of the world, from the Philippines, where he fought Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” to Africa, where he fought George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” to Miami Beach, where he trained at the 5th Street Gym and won the first of his three titles in 1964, thrusting his gloves in the air and shouting, “I shook up the world!”
As Ali aged, his stature grew, and it became harder to separate myth from man, although he maintained a simple, humble lifestyle that included prayer five times a day. He spent most of his time at home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and also had homes in Louisville, Ky., and Berrien Springs, Mich.
In his 20s, when the United States was in a state of racial and political upheaval, when the country was riven by marches, riots and protests, Ali molded an era by breaking the mold of the black athlete. He was an outspoken advocate of black power and religious freedom.
Despised by many Americans in the mid-1960s for joining the radical Nation of Islam, refusing to be drafted into military service for the Vietnam War and challenging the white establishment, Ali came to represent the value of self-love.
“Ain’t I pretty?” he used to say, then reel off a rhyme he composed. Ali’s physical beauty and sharp humor imbued him with a charisma that made him irresistible to both boxing fans and those who knew nothing of the brutal sport. He rapped and danced and punched his way to stardom.
“I outwit them and then outhit them,” he said
Even to his last days, he was addressed as “Champ.” He called himself “the greatest of all time,” and eventually he was referred to as “The Greatest,” and by the acronym GOAT.
“I learned something from people everywhere,” Ali once said. “There’s truth in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, all religions. And in just plain talking. The only religion that matters is the real religion – love. I’m color blind. I love people. Black, white, rich or poor.”
In an appearance as memorable as his title triumphs, a trembling and stone-faced Ali was the climax to Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as he lit the flame then raised the torch with his unsteady arm, inspiring a new wave of adoration and respect for his undaunted spirit.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ali was named after his father, a signmaker and house painter, who had been named after a 19th century Kentucky slave owner turned abolitionist. His mother, Odessa O’Grady Clay, was a domestic worker.
Ali was admitted to the hospital Thursday with a respiratory ailment. He was having trouble breathing. Parkinson’s complicated his treatment. People in an advanced stage of the disease have difficulty coughing and swallowing and are prone to pneumonia.
Ali, married four times, is survived by his wife, Lonnie, and seven daughters and two sons. He survived his trainer, Angelo Dundee, his cornerman, Drew “Bundini” Brown and his opponent in three epic bouts, Frazier.
In retirement, he dedicated himself to humanitarian causes, world peace, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. The Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum – the renovated house where he grew up – opened last month.
Despite his frailty, Ali made numerous public appearances every year, including at the unveiling of the massive 800-page Taschen biography entitled “GOAT” in Miami Beach, the opening of the new 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach and the Miami Marlins’ opener in their new stadium. Recently, he attended a Celebrity Fight Night fundraiser for Parkinson’s research. He also released a statement criticizing presidential candidate Donald Trump for his comments about banning Muslims from traveling to the U.S.
As a boxer, Ali was an innovator. No previous heavyweight had been so quick, elusive and graceful. But he could take punishment, too, as he proved when he knocked out Foreman for the title in 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, utilizing his “rope-a-dope” tactic.
Ali was the first to win the title three times, first in 1964 against Sonny Liston and last in 1978 against Leon Spinks. His pro record was 56-5.
Ali was renowned for his courage inside and outside the ring. He slugged it out with Frazier for 14 rounds in Manila and he smashed stereotypes about what was expected of a black man in a slowly, painfully desegregating society.
“Ali helped raise black people in this country out of mental slavery,” former Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson once said. “The entire experience of being black changed for millions of people because of Ali.”
He made controversial decisions and remained steadfast in his beliefs despite harsh criticism, racist threats and a three-and-a-half-year suspension from boxing during his prime after he was convicted of draft evasion. Ali argued that he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
“Where do you think I would be if I didn’t shout and holler? I would be poor and down in Louisville washing windows, shining shoes or running an elevator and saying, ‘Yes, suh’ and ‘No, suh,’ and knowing my place,” Ali said of his activism.“Why does the white man care if I hate him anyhow? He’s got everything going for him — White Swan soap, Tarzan is white, Jesus is white, White Owl cigars, the White Tornado, Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs, the White House. Angel food cake is all white, but Devil’s food cake is black!”
After Ali’s exile, he began to gain acceptance from Americans who had resented him. Times were changing. Ali had been ahead of those times in his commitment to the antiwar movement and the abolishment of Jim Crow laws.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 44, three years after his 1981 retirement. He first disputed the assumption that the disease was caused by the cumulative head trauma of his bouts. His longtime physician, Ferdie “The Fight Doctor” Pacheco, quit Ali’s corner in 1977 because Ali refused to hang up his gloves despite early symptoms. Then Ali sustained further neurological damage in his last two fights, when he was pummeled by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.
“That was criminal,” Pacheco said, blaming the “Ali circus” for allowing him to fight. “I told him a long time ago that he would suffer. To be a great talker like he was, to lose your power of speech is very, very hard.”
In retirement, Ali’s increasing infirmity enabled him to be embraced again, as people could see themselves aging in him.
“He reminded us of our youth, our lost youth,” boxing writer Bert Sugar said.
Ali said he learned to bob and weave as a kid, when he had his brother Rudy (now Rahman) throw rocks at him.
“The first person I ever knocked out was my mom,” said Ali, who accidentally hit his mother in the mouth when he was a baby. She lost two teeth.
His first prediction was said to be made when he was 12 and told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “This guy is done. I’ll stop him in one.”
When Ali was 13, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi had a profound impact on him.
Ali won the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, then returned home to turn professional. He later lost his medal, but originally claimed he threw it into a river in a fit of anger: “The man said, ‘We don’t serve Negroes.’ I said, ‘I don’t eat them, either.’ They shouted, ‘Boy, get out!’ I looked at my gold medal and thought, ‘This thing ain’t worth nothing; it can’t even get me a hamburger.’ ”
The 11 wealthy businessmen of the Louisville Sponsorship Group paid for Ali to hook up with trainer Dundee at the gym Dundee and his promoter brother Chris owned at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.
Ali’s Miami years, from 1960 to 1966, were transformative for him and the city he made his home.
He began his partnership with Angelo Dundee. He won the heavyweight championship. He announced his conversion to Islam. He changed his name to Ali. He declared his opposition to the Vietnam War from the front steps of his Allapattah house.
When he arrived, he was shy, determined, 18-year-old Cassius Clay – a handsome face. When he departed, he was the electric, polarizing Muhammad Ali – a man at the epicenter of change in American society, and the most recognizable face in the world.
In segregated Miami, he first lived in a “colored” motel in Overtown, the Sir John. Dundee ran a tab for him at the Famous Chef restaurant. Ali jogged four miles over the MacArthur Causeway to the 5th Street Gym and was occasionally stopped by police who suspected he was fleeing the scene of a crime. At Burdine’s he was not allowed to try on shirts lest his black skin would soil the fabric.
He prayed in storefront mosques. He met the cornermen of his career. He enchanted his entire neighborhood. He posed for a famous set of photos by Flip Schulke in which he pretended to be “training” by shadow boxing underwater in a swimming pool even though he couldn’t swim. He got his hair cut at Sonny Armbrister’s barber shop, where he joined in the custom of composing rhyming verses.
“Those were the best, purest years of his life,” Dundee once said. “He was such a sweet kid. I had so much fun with him. That’s what I learned from Muhammad: Every day is fun.”
When Ali – then Clay – moved into the aqua house on Northwest 15th Court, the local kids gravitated to him. He raced them in the street and paid them if he lost. He drove them to school, the beach and Dairy Queen in his new, tomato-red convertible. He set up a film projector in his yard and invited neighbors to watch home movies and clips of his fights. He loved to perform magic tricks – and would continue to do so decades later when his hands shook.
“He exuded a charisma I wanted to have,” said Nelson Adams III, a Miami physician who grew up in the house next to Ali’s. He also admired Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Bill Russell during those days. “He showed me what you can achieve if you stand up for what you believe in.”
The 5th Street Gym was a steamy, scruffy, termite-infested loft above a liquor store and drug store. Dundee was afraid if his boxers jumped rope too hard they would fall through the rotting floorboards.
It was there that Ali met Pacheco, a white doctor who ran a clinic in Overtown for 20 years until it burned down during the McDuffie riots.
Ali honed his schtick as poetic showman.
“The mouth on that kid – a promoter’s dream,” said the late boxing historian Hank Kaplan. “He asked me to help him make a card with his picture on it that he could hand out everywhere. I asked him how he wanted me to label the card. He said, ‘I am the greatest.’ He was creating a buzz and a persona. Boxing – and sports – would never be the same.”
As the underdog, Ali trained for his title shot against the menacing ex-con Liston, a succession of celebrities came by to watch the brash young fighter — including the Beatles during their U.S. tour, and they posed for the famous “domino punch” photo in the ring.
The media portrayed Ali as nutty and naive, all hype and no heft. Ali harangued Liston constantly with taunts and poems:
“Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the Bear clear out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting til Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up; he’s somewhere over the Atlantic
Who would have thought when they came to the fight
That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite?
Yes, the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
Ali predicted he’d take Liston out in eight rounds. During the weigh-in at Miami Beach Convention Hall, Dundee played straight man to Ali’s act. Ali tried to unnerve the scowling Liston by ranting, raving and rhyming. Liston told him to shut up so people wouldn’t think he was a fool. Joe Louis’ wife told Kaplan: “That boy needs a psychiatrist.”
On the morning of the fight, Feb. 25, 1964, the New York Post ran a column by Jackie Gleason: “I predict Sonny Liston will win in 18 seconds of the first round, and my estimate includes the three seconds Blabber Mouth will bring into the ring with him.”
Gleason was among those ringside, along with Sammy Davis Jr. and Ali’s new friend Malcolm X.
As the fight unfolded, Liston stalked, Ali juked. At one point, Ali got something in his eyes, was blinded, suspected subterfuge and threatened to quit. But Dundee sponged his eyes furiously and pushed him back out, shouting, “Keep dancing! Hit and run!”
Ali landed punishing blows in the sixth round. Liston sat on his stool, proclaimed, “That’s it,” and surrendered. Ali was champion by TKO.
“I am the king!” Ali screamed. “King of the world! Eat your words. Eat! I am the greatest.”
King sent Ali a congratulatory telegram. Ali celebrated by eating ice cream with Malcolm X.
After the upset victory, Ali declared his Muslim faith and his membership in the separatist Nation of Islam. The sect’s message of power over passivity appealed to Ali. Malcolm X declared that Ali would “mean more to his people than any athlete before him.”
On March 6, Nation leader Elijah Muhammad announced during a radio speech that he was giving Cassius Clay the Muslim name Muhammad Ali.
“I said, ‘OK, Muhammad, but what are we going to rhyme that with?’ ” Dundee said.
“Cassius Clay is my slave name,” Ali said. “Muhammad means ‘worthy of praise’ and Ali means ‘most high’ and I insist people use it.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am America. I am the past you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.”
Ali married Sonji Roi on Aug. 14, 1964. She accepted Islam at Mosque No. 29 on Northwest 17th Ave. Captain Sam Saxon had brothers in bow ties from the mosque serving as cooks and bodyguards for Ali. Sonji resisted Muslim rules.
“She’d come over to my kitchen, as did some of the fellows, and say, ‘I’m so tired of those bean pies. Can I have some pork chops?’ ” neighbor Naomi Adams recalled. “She’d smoke a cigarette and I’d spray her with perfume to mask the smell.”
Within a year, Ali had the marriage annulled in a Miami courtroom, where he complained that her clothes were too revealing.
On Feb. 17, 1966, reporters came to Ali’s Allapattah house to tell him his low draft test score had been reclassified and that he was now eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam War.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali said. He refused to be inducted, citing his religious beliefs. He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing.
“You want me to do what the white man says and go fight a war against some people I don’t know nothing about — get some freedom for some other people when my own people can’t get theirs here? No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs.”
Ali was maligned by the media (they continued to call him Clay) as an impudent egomaniac, and now he was unpatriotic, too. He was criticized by his idol, Joe Louis, and by Floyd Patterson.
But Ali’s words resonated with the younger generation. They saw him not only as a fighter for titles but for peace and equal rights.
He gained respect when he won his case and returned to the ring.
The first of the three Frazier fights was in 1971, when he lost at Madison Square Garden. He won the next two, a rematch in Madison Square Garden in 1974 and the “Thrilla in Manilla” in 1975.
In 1973, Ken Norton broke his jaw in the second round. Ali refused to quit and narrowly lost by decision in the 12-round bout. He defeated Norton in their two subsequent rematches.
Despite doubts that he was washed up, Ali knocked out Foreman in 1974 in the fight in which he told Dundee he came “closest to death.”
“If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned,
Wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!
I done rassled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale
Handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail;
Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick;
I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
As his career dragged on, he lost then regained the title from Spinks. He came out of retirement to fight Holmes, but it was a mistake as Ali took a beating from the champion, who apologized afterward. Ali finally retired at 39 after losing to Berbick in Nassau. He accepted the fight because he wanted to close his career with a victory and once again, he was in financial straights.
Ali was preceded in death by his rival, Frazier, whom he had mercilessly insulted as an “Uncle Tom” and an “ugly gorilla.” He later apologized, said he was overzealous in promoting their fights.
Ali could be vicious in the ring. For some years, he was a philanderer out of it.
But people who spent time with him were moved by his kindness, his wit, his courage. He accepted his disease, never asked anyone to feel sorry for him.
“I won the title, became champion. Powerful and strong,” he said. “And then God tries you, takes my health. Fixes it so it’s hard to talk. Hard to walk. I’m blessed and thankful to God that I understand he’s trying me. This is a trial from God. He gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not number one. He is.”
Pacheco said Ali’s heart was as good as it was strong.
“Ali was no intellectual but he had an intuition that was eerie,” Pacheco said. “He did things wrong and they came out right. He boxed wrong, and it worked. He joined the wrong religion – that was supposed to be his downfall – but it worked because he symbolized steadfastness. He refused the draft – oh, that’ll be the end of Ali. But, no, he was a hero for it. Then he carried the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. Why would he expose himself as frail and pitiful? But that was perfect, too. People loved him all over again for the strength of showing his weakness.”
In an interview years ago, Ali described how he’d like to be remembered:
“I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: As a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could – financial and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”