Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali Dies at 74 After Extended Battle With Parkinson's Disease
By Josh Tager
Muhammad Ali, the venerated boxer -- the only three-time World Heavyweight Champion -- died Friday, June 3, after a multi-decade battle with Parkinson’s disease, according to family spokesperson Bob Gunnell. He was 74 years old.
"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,” according to family spokesperson Bob Gunnell. "The Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers, and support and asks for privacy at this time."
"It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am," Ali once famously said, adding on another occasion, "I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was."
And he was.
His skill as a boxer may have led to his nickname as "The Greatest," and led Sports Illustrated to name him "Sportsman of the Century."
And his was a wide-ranging life, distinguished by his commanding persona and embrace of controversy. Yes, he was a boxer, a sport he turned to for a practical reason -- someone stole his bike when he was 12; he wanted revenge.
He was also an activist who opposed the Vietnam War, fought for African-American civil rights and stood for racial justice. Ali was an author, a singer, and even an actor who once starred in a Broadway musical and had cameos on iconic 1970s TV shows, including Diffe'rent Strokes and The Sonny and Cher Show. He also had an eclectic set of friends, including Malcolm X and Elvis Presley.
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he found early success on the Kentucky amateur boxing circuit. After winning gold in the 1960 Olympics, he went professional, and won every fight on his path to his first heavyweight champion title.
Ali was known for his boxing talent, but captured America's attention with his punishing (and often hilarious) wit -- what we'd call trash-talk today -- which he used to fluster his opponents before ever landing a punch.
Prior to his first heavyweight title match with then-reigning champ Sonny Liston (aka Big Bear), Ali said, "Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him." For good measure, he made an unannounced visit to Liston's house, at three in the morning, accompanied by press -- just to taunt him.
Ali won the fight -- and the title: World Heavyweight Champion.
Outside the ring, Ali doggedly pursued his political and spiritual aims, even at the expense of his career. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 just before his first Liston fight. Promoters demanded he renounce the group, and he refused, at which point they threatened to cancel the match. (It was then that Ali's friend and Nation of Islam mentor, Malcolm X, arranged a compromise. The fight went on.)
Soon after winning the title, Ali changed his name. "Cassius Clay is a slave name," he said. "I didn't choose it and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name -- it means beloved of God -- and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me." Most journalists ignored his request, echoing the injustice he confronted.
Ali put his convictions before his career again by refusing in 1967 to be drafted into armed service -- a decision for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. "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," he asked, "while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
Though he never served time, and the Supreme Court overturned the sentence four years later, his title was revoked, and his boxing license was denied. It wasn't until 1970, as the nation soured on the Vietnam War, that he competed again, ultimately regaining his title.
He boxed throughout the 1970s, winning some fights, losing others. Ali was slowing down, and in retrospect, showing early signs of Parkinson's disease. Mid-decade, after some tough matches, he made the first of several retirements to focus, he said, on his faith, having converted to Sunni Islam after a falling out with the Nation of Islam.
Still, he kept going back in the ring. His final boxing retirement came in 1981 after losing several high-profile fights, including a particularly violent defeat to Larry Holmes. Several years later, he received a formal Parkinson's diagnosis.
Though he was slowed by his illness, he remained indefatigable. A nation that once reviled him had come to revere him. Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House. He lit the Olympic torch at the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia. During the first Gulf War, he met with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to win the release of American hostages. And though the National Security Agency had once marked him for surveillance, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by George W. Bush, in 2005.
A man of global stature, Muhammad Ali is an American icon, even in death.
Like any one soul, Ali was fallible. But more than most, he fought and persisted and did great things. For this he was loved, or as Ali liked to put it, he was The Greatest.
"I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me," he said.
"It would be a better world."
According to Gunnell, Ali's funeral will take place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.