Known as “The Greatest,” former three-time heavyweight boxing champion and cultural and civil rights icon Muhammad Ali has died. He was 74. The verbose and iconic Louisville native, born Cassius Clay Jr, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1980s. He was taken to a Phoenix hospital this week suffering from respiratory problems.
Arguably the most famous athlete on Earth, Ali won millions of fans — and no shortage of detractors — for his brash, trash-talking, poetry-spewing style outside the ring as well as his exploits in it. More like a pro wrestler than boxer. The man who would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” won the 1960 Olympic gold medal and remains the only fighter to win the heavyweight belt three different times.
He first won it in 1964 as a 7-1 underdog against Sonny Liston; regained the title in 1974 against George Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle match-up; and won it again in 1978 by beating Leon Spinks, who had scored a surprise victory over Ali earlier that year. His three fights against and long-running feud with “Smokin'” Joe Frazier became the stuff of legend. Ali retired from the ring in 1979, though he returned for losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Burbick in the early 1980s.
The boxer had a total of 61 fights in his career, winning 56 of them — 37 by knockout — and became a global superstar thanks to TV — and to Howard Cosell, the polarizing Hall of Fame broadcaster who regularly went toe-to-toe in interviews with Ali that often became as entertaining as his fights.
But Ali’s fame extends far beyond the sweet science. In addition to being a civil rights activist and a sometimes-reviled conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, Ali redefined what it meant to be an American athlete – especially an African-American athlete. Deprived of his title in 1967 because of his religious beliefs as a Muslim and his stance on the war in Southeast Asia, Ali took his case all the way to to the Supreme Court in Clay v. United States. As detailed in HBO’s Stephen Frears-directed 2013 movie Muhammad Ali’s Great Fight, the former champ saw the justices vote 8-0 to overturn his conviction on June 28, 1971. While he was already fighting in jurisdictions that granted him a boxing license, the SCOTUS win allowed Ali to fully return to the ring to reclaim his title.
The change in attitudes toward Ali over the decades came after his fight career, when he became a tireless human rights ambassador and philanthropist whose impact was felt worldwide. He was invited to the White House several times in his later career and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. In 1999, the BBC proclaimed Ali the Sports Personality of the Century.
It one of the most iconic moments in recent Olympics — and TV — history, Ali received thundering applause when he made a surprise rare appearance to light the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Ali was also a massive figure in popular culture, appearing in countless TV specials, sitcoms, late-night shows, cartoons, albums, films, and even a legendary DC Comic in which The Champ teamed up with Superman to save the earth from an alien invasion.
His legendary fight against Foreman in Zaire was captured in the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. At the time of the 1974 fight, Ali was widely assumed to be beyond his prime and tipped to lose to the ferocious then-champ Foreman — obviously, with some rope-a-doping, that’s not how the fight went. The victory was also depicted in 2001’s Ali, which garnered Will Smith as Oscar nomination for his performance in the Michael Mann-directed film. Notably however, Ali was first portrayed in a dramatic film by himself, starring in the 1977 biopic The Greatest, which charted his career from the 1960 Olympics through the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Richard Pryor’s hilarious bit recalling a benefit exhibition in which he got in the ring with Ali — “just for fun, of course!” — is a stone classic. To wit: “[He is] so fast with his punches, you don’t see ’em till they comin’ back.” The Champ’s stature as cultural icon even extends to pop charts. Johnny Wakelin and the Kinsasha Band had a 1975 with “Black Superman – Muhammad Ali,” a spoken-sung ditty with lyrics like, “Muhammad was known to have said/’You watch me shuffle and I’ll jab off your head.’”
Ali received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002. The former champ insisted he have the only vertical star as he didn’t want people trampling over his name — the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce agreed. Another win for “The Greatest.”
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.