Muhammad Ali dies at 74

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Considered by nearly everyone in the boxing world to be one of the greatest of all time — if not the greatest — Muhammad Ali passed away in a Phoenix, AZ hospital after being admitted for respiratory issues. He was 74.

A three-time heavyweight champion of the world, Ali amassed a record of 56-5, with 37 knockouts. He said he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and in his career he backed up his words with his talent.

Cassius Marcellus Clay — Muhammad Ali — on the podium at the 1960 Rome Olympics after winning the gold metal. (Wikipedia)
Cassius Marcellus Clay — Muhammad Ali — on the podium at the 1960 Rome Olympics after winning the gold metal. (Wikipedia)

He first came to prominence in the 1960 Olympics, held in Rome, Italy, where he won the gold medal for light heavyweights. He began is professional career shortly after and on February 25, 1964, Ali, known by his birth name of Cassius Clay, knocked out the champion Sonny Liston, in Miami, FL, in the seventh round of a 15-round fight. It was a controversial bout because at the end of the fourth round Ali began feeling pain in his eyes. He asked his trainer, Angelo Dundee, to cut off the gloves, which would have ended the fight with a win for Liston, but Dundee refused.

It’s been speculated ever since that someone in Liston’s corner applied an ointment to Liston’s gloves specifically to blind his opponent. It’s never been proven, but the rumor was that Liston, who had ties to organized crime, had done that with other fighters.

Ali made it through the fifth round, with sweat and tears rinsing the irritant out of his eyes. In the sixth round he came out into the ring and dominated Liston, so heavily that Liston, who had been the champion, refused to come out for the seventh round. Ali climbed up on the ropes in front of the sports writers and began taunting them, saying “Eat your words!” and “I am the greatest!”

Shortly afterwards Cassius Clay converted to Islam and took the name of Muhammad Ali.

His next fight was a rematch with Liston, an iconic fight because Ali took out Liston in the first round with what was called the “phantom punch,” a chopping right that still leaves boxing fans wondering if Liston took a dive. Ali must have thought it was a dive because he stood over Liston as he lay on the canvas, taunting him to get back up. The referee, Jersey Joe Walcott, refused to start the count until Ali went to a neutral corner. Liston got back up, but a few seconds later Walcott stopped the fight and declared Ali the winner by technical knockout.

Muhammad Ali between rounds during the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman. (YouTube)
Muhammad Ali between rounds during the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman. (YouTube)

He went on to defend his title eight more times until his license to box was taken away by the state of New York in 1967. He was convicted of draft evasion for refusing to be inducted into the military. He not only lost his boxing license, he was stripped of his boxing titles.

He paid a bond to stay out of prison and appealed the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, which over-turned the conviction in 1970. In the time he was suspended from boxing the city of Atlanta, GA Athletic Commission granted Ali a boxing license, which allowed him to fight Jerry Quarry. After the conviction was over-turned the state of New York was forced to re-instate Ali’s boxing license and allow him to fight Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden. Those two fights took place in October and December of 1970.

On March 8, 1971, Ali faced his toughest rival, the one boxer who would become attached to Ali for the rest of their days — Joe Frazier. It was billed as the Fight of the Century and had celebrities packing the seats around the ring. Over 700 media credentials were issued. Two unbeaten heavyweights facing off for the title.

In the weeks leading up to the fight Ali taunted Frazier, calling him an Uncle Tom and a “dumb tool of the white establishment.” Ali said Frazier was “too ugly to be champ,” and too dumb for the title.

It was an intense fight that went the full 15 rounds, and clearly Frazier was the better fighter. When it was over Frazier had won by unanimous decision.

Less than three years later the two would have a rematch at MSG. Ali had several fights in between the two with Frazier, including two with Ken Norton. Ali lost the first one after his jaw was broken, but in their next fight Ali got the controversial decision.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” their third and final fight, held in the Philippines. (YouTube)
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” their third and final fight, held in the Philippines. (YouTube)

Ali won the second fight with Frazier, by unanimous decision. A close fight, it went the full 12 rounds. They had one more fight in 1975, The “Thrilla in Manilla,” which Ali won by a TKO. It’s considered by many to be Ali’s greatest fight ever.

In his career the champ fought George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in Kinshasa, Zaire, and then Norton again, and two with Leon Spinks in 1978, the first a win for Spinks. Ali won his title back seven months later for an unprecedented third time, but then lost to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berwick, his last fight, December 11, 1981.

Throughout his life Muhammad Ali was an inspiration to many people, especially young black men. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but that didn’t stop him from going around the world speaking to people. His opposition to the Vietnam War made Ali a pillar that others followed. It also made him a target for those who considered Ali to be dangerous. He was a successful black man who thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it, a trait that made him a hero to many.

In 1996 Ali raised the Olympic torch for the games in Atlanta, lighting the flame, a shining moment that became one of the most recognized and remembered of those games. He received many honors in his life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to him by President George W. Bush in 2005. In 1993 Time magazine reported he and Babe Ruth were the two most recognizable athletes in America; 97 percent of all Americans knew of him.

In his last years Ali had become frail, his speech almost inaudible, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease taking their toll. He was hospitalized several times in the past few years, until he finally succumbed to the disease he had been battling for more than three decades.

Ali had been living in Phoenix for several years with his wife, Lonnie Ali.

Muhammad Ali: January 17, 1942 — June 3, 2016.