Three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, whose fame transcended boxing and sports, died Friday night at age 74 from respiratory problems related to Parkinson’s disease, a condition he had battled since the 1980s.
Ali transformed the promotion of boxing, becoming a controversial figure as he bragged openly, proclaiming himself “the greatest of all time,” and denigrating his opponents.
He often promoted his fights with poetry, predicting a victorious outcome through rhymes. But it was Drew “Bundini” Brown, as assistant trainer and cornerman for Ali, who coined the most lasting words about Ali, saying “he floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.”
Ali backed up his words with action. He won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 at age 18. In 1964 he shocked the boxing world by upsetting heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Before the fight, Ali said of Liston, “He’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me.”
He shocked the world again the following day by announcing that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, an organization founded by Elijah Muhammad and personified by Malcolm X, who, in contrast to Martin Luther King Jr., endorsed violence as a tactic to achieve civil rights. He soon changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
Three years later, Ali took another controversial stance, refusing to be inducted into the United States Army. Ali claimed that Islam required he be a pacifist – a curious stance for a boxer and a member of the Nation of Islam – but his public comments may have provided deeper insight into his reasons for not serving.
“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,” Ali said, “while so-called Negro people in Louisville (where Ali was born) are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”
One year earlier he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
Ali was stripped of the heavyweight championship for refusing to join the army, but he had stepped into the public spotlight by speaking out on two of the most pressing issues of the turbulent 1960s: civil rights and the Vietnam War.
Ali’s public views made him a hero to many people, but many despised him for those public stances on controversial issues.
Ali, who had a home in the Overbrook Farms section of Philadelphia, just off City Line Ave. regained his boxing license in 1970. One year later, he challenged Philadelphia’s Joe Frazier for the world title. Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th round and won a unanimous decision in the first of what would become boxing’s most famous trilogy of fights (pictured above).
In the second fight of the Ali-Frazier trilogy, in January of 1974, Ali won, but Frazier had previously lost the championship to George Foreman. Ali recaptured the title from Foreman later that year in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” which took place in Zaire (now Congo), demonstrating Ali’s appeal as an international star.
Ali employed a “rope-a-dope” strategy against Foreman, laying against the ropes and allowing the hard-hitting Foreman to tire himself out trying to break through Ali’s defenses. Ali then knocked out the previously unbeaten Foreman in the eighth round.
The final act of the Ali-Frazier rivalry took place one year later in the Philippines. Dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali survived a brutal fight with Frazier in extremely hot conditions. Frazier’s trainer tossed in the towel following the 14th round.
The third Ali-Frazier fight is considered a classic, a fitting conclusion to their storied rivalry, but the pre-fight publicity provided fuel for Ali’s critics. Ali’s personal criticism of Frazier, calling him ignorant, ugly and a gorilla, were tinged with racism. (Ali was light-skinned; Frazier was dark-skinned.)
Frazier, who died in 2011, remained bitter about Ali’s comments, even making nasty comments about Ali’s Parkinson disease. Ali apologized in 2001, allowing the two great fighters to reconcile their differences.
Ali was shocked himself in 1978 when he lost the heavyweight title to the lightly regarded Leon Spinks. Ali regained the title in a rematch and then retired. Ali came out of retirement for two more fights, including an ill-advised challenge to heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who looked pleadingly at the referee to stop the fight before unleashing a barrage of punches at his idol.
Ali’s career ended with a 56-5 record, but his fame had long ago outgrown the sport of boxing – or even the world of sport. He made appearances all over the world, sort of becoming a goodwill ambassador. One of the iconic Olympic moments came in 1996 as Ali, his hand trembling from Parkinson’s, lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies 36 years after winning a gold medal.
With Ali’s physical capabilities diminished by Parkinson’s, and with time elapsing since some of his controversial stances, the controversy and resentment surrounding him during the 1960s and ‘70s seemed to melt away, leaving only love and respect for one of the icons of not only the boxing world, but of the entire world during the past 50 years.