PHOENIX: He was fast of fist and foot – lip too – a heavyweight champion who promised to shock the world and did. He floated. He stung. Mostly he thrilled, even after the punches had taken their toll and his voice barely rose above a whisper. He was The Greatest.
Muhammad Ali died Saturday at age 74, according to a statement from the family. He was hospitalised in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems earlier this week, and his children had flown in from around the country. “It’s a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die,” Don King, who promoted some of Ali’s biggest fights, said early Saturday. “Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world.”
A funeral will be held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The city plans a memorial service Sunday.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer ordered flags lowered to half-staff to honour Ali. “The values of hard work, conviction and compassion that Muhammad Ali developed while growing up in Louisville helped him become a global icon,” Fischer said. “As a boxer, he became The Greatest, though his most lasting victories happened outside the ring.”
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ali began boxing at age 12 after his new bicycle was stolen and he vowed to policeman Joe Martin that he would “whup” the person who took it. He was only 89 pounds at the time, but Martin began training him at his boxing gym, the beginning of a six-year amateur career that ended with the light heavyweight Olympic gold medal in 1960.
With a wit as sharp as the punches he used to “whup” opponents, Ali dominated sports for two decades before time and Parkinson’s disease, triggered by thousands of blows to the head, ravaged his magnificent body, muted his majestic voice and ended his storied career in 1981.
He won and defended the heavyweight championship in epic fights in exotic locations, spoke loudly on behalf of blacks, and famously refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War because of his Muslim beliefs.
Despite his debilitating illness, he travelled the world to rapturous receptions even after his once-bellowing voice was quieted and he was left to communicate with a wink or a weak smile.
“He was the greatest fighter of all time but his boxing career is secondary to his contribution to the world,” promoter Bob Arum said Saturday. “He’s the most transforming figure of my time certainly.”
Revered by millions worldwide and reviled by millions more, Ali cut quite a figure, 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds in his prime. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” his cornermen exhorted, and he did just that in a way no heavyweight had ever fought before.
He fought in three different decades, finished with a record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts – 26 of those bouts promoted by Arum – and was the first man to win heavyweight titles three times.
He whipped the fearsome Sonny Liston twice, toppled the mighty George Foreman with the rope-a-dope in Zaire, and nearly fought to the death with Joe Frazier in the Philippines. Through it all, he was trailed by a colourful entourage who merely added to his growing legend.
“Rumble, young man, rumble,” cornerman Bundini Brown would yell to him.
And rumble Ali did. He fought anyone who meant anything and made millions of dollars with his lightning-quick jab. His fights were so memorable that they had names – “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila”.
But it was as much his antics – and his mouth – outside the ring that transformed the man born Cassius Clay into a household name as Muhammad Ali.
“I am the greatest,” Ali thundered again and again. Few would disagree. Ali spurned white America when he joined the Black Muslims and changed his name. He defied the draft at the height of the Vietnam war – “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” – and lost 3 1/2 years from the prime of his career. He entertained world leaders, once telling Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos: “I saw your wife. You’re not as dumb as you look.”
He later embarked on a second career as a missionary for Islam. “Boxing was my field mission, the first part of my life,” he said in 1990, adding with typical braggadocio, “I will be the greatest evangelist ever.”
Ali couldn’t fulfill that goal because Parkinson’s robbed him of his speech. It took such a toll on his body that the sight of him in his later years - trembling, his face frozen, the man who invented the Ali Shuffle now barely able to walk - shocked and saddened those who remembered him in his prime.
“I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world just to call him my friend,” former business manager Gene Kilroy said. “If I was to die today and go to heaven it would be a step down. My heaven was being with Ali.”
One of his biggest opponents would later become a big fan, too. On the eve of the 35th anniversary of their “Rumble in the Jungle,” Foreman paid tribute to the man who so famously stopped him in the eighth round of their 1974 heavyweight title fight, the first ever held in Africa. “I don’t call him the best boxer of all time, but he’s the greatest human being I ever met,” Foreman said. “To this day he’s the most exciting person I ever met in my life.”