Muhammad Ali, the colorful but polarizing three-time world heavyweight champion who risked his career and his freedom by his refusal to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War, died Friday night in a Phoenix hospital after a long, debilitating battle with Parkinson’s syndrome believed to be brought on by repeated blows to the head. He was 74.
An Olympic champion and veteran of 61 heavyweight fights spanning three decades, in the ring Ali may be best known for his three epic bouts with longtime foil Joe Frazier, a brutal trilogy that left both fighters greatly diminished.
Ali who devoted much of his post-boxing career to humanitarian causes around the world and who for decades was widely recognized as the most famous person on the planet, had battled Parkinson’s since 1984 and in recent years had lost the ability to speak. It was a cruelly ironic twist for the outspoken boxer who made almost as many headlines with his loquaciousness and poetry — “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see” — as he did with his dancing feet and iron fists.
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am,” said Ali, who often referred to himself as “The Greatest.” “I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
An Olympic gold medalist in Rome in 1960 at the age of 18, Ali was already the world heavyweight champion when he received his draft notice in April 1967. He arrived as instructed for his physical exam, and cooperated until it was time to take the Army oath. He also refused to answer when authorities referred to him by his given name of Cassius Clay and added, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. … No Viet Cong ever called me n—-r.”
The public furor over that comment and Ali’s refusal to be inducted for religious reasons — he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 — caused virtually every state to cancel his boxing license. It would be 3 ¹/₂ years before he fought again after an all-white jury found him guilty of draft evasion that June. He was stripped of his world championship, had his license revoked, and his passport taken. He was also fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison.
Ali appealed the decision and remained free on bail. As a way to make money while barred from the ring, Ali toured the country, mostly visiting college campuses, speaking out against the Vietnam War. He was among the first prominent figures to do so.
While he preached peace and nonviolence out of the ring, he was not shy about pummeling opponents in it.
“It’s just a job,” he said. “Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942, he had his bike stolen at the age of 12. Wanting justice, he found policeman Joe Martin in a nearby gym and told him he was going to “whup” whoever stole his bike.
Martin, who taught kids how to box in his spare time, told him he’d better learn to box first and offered to teach him. Within weeks Clay, then weighing all of 89 pounds, had his first bout and his first win.
Four years after his gold-medal performance in Rome, after winning all of his professional bouts, most by knockouts, Clay announced he had converted to the Nation of Islam and would drop his “slave name.” He officially changed his name in February 1964 the day after winning the world heavyweight title from reigning champ Sonny Liston.
“You … you … you … I fooled you all,” he had yelled to the reporters at ringside that night in Miami Beach. “ … I shocked the world.”
It wouldn’t be the last time. And it was that victory that set the stage for everything that would follow.
“If Ali doesn’t beat Sonny Liston, the course of history is different,” Thomas Hauser, author of “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” told FoxNews.com. “It was the fact that he was heavyweight champion of the world that gave those acts on his part national importance.
“When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, it became a newsworthy event that found its way onto the front pages. And the more important Ali became as a social, political and religious figure, the more important the fight became. If Cassius Clay hadn’t beat Sonny Liston, the things he said and did afterwards wouldn’t have had the same impact.”
Ali, still referred to as Clay by many in the media, defended his title a year later by knocking Liston out 2 minutes 12 seconds into the first round of their controversial rematch with what became known as the “phantom punch.” Many in attendance that night in Lewiston, Maine insisted they never saw the right hand to the head that floored Liston.
But they couldn’t miss seeing Ali standing over his fallen opponent yelling, “Get up and fight, sucker.”
In 1970, after much negotiating and with the charges against him still pending, Ali was able to obtain a license in Georgia because it was the only state without a boxing commission. In Atlanta that October, he stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds due to a cut over Quarry’s left eye.
Shortly after that fight, the New York State Supreme Court ruled Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license, freeing him to fight in New York. He beat Oscar Bonavena in 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden in December 1970, paving the way for the first of Ali’s bruising matches with Frazier, then the heavyweight champion.
Frazier, 26-0 at the time, had won the title vacated by Ali all those years earlier while the challenger brought a 31-0 record into the Garden that March night in 1971. Dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” it didn’t disappoint.
Ali employed his “rope a dope” strategy for the first time in an attempt to tire Frazier out as he leaned against the ropes, protected himself and taunted his relentless opponent. But Frazier used a thunderous left hook in the 15th round to floor Ali, who many believe had lost his legs and his quickness during his prolonged absence from the ring. Frazier won a unanimous decision.
For their trouble each fighter received the previously unheard of sum of $2.5 million.
Not long after his loss to Frazier, Ali was awarded perhaps his most significant victory when the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeal, overturned the lower court’s conviction that had found him guilty of draft evasion. The high court decided that, under the tenets of Islam, Ali, a practicing Muslim minister, was a conscientious objector, not a criminal.
After the decision, reporters asked Ali if he intended to sue to recover damages from exile from the ring.
“No. They only did what they thought was right at the time,” he said. “I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right.”
Ali would beat Frazier in a 1974 rematch, also at the Garden. It was a win that put Ali in position to challenge George Foreman, who had taken the heavyweight crown from Frazier. Foreman was unbeaten and thought to be unbeatable.
Before their “Rumble in the Jungle” which was held in Zaire, Ali boasted to one reporter “I’m gonna knock that sucker out.” That’s exactly what he did.
Ali again used his “rope a dope” technique, this time to much greater effect. He was able to tire out Foreman, who played right into Ali’s hand and punched himself out.
Ali knocked Foreman to the mat in the eighth round to become heavyweight champion for a second time.
“I thought he was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear: ‘That all you got, George?’,” said Foreman. “I realized that this ain’t what I thought it was.”
At the age of 33, Ali traveled to the Philippines in October 1975 to fight Frazier for the third time in the “Thrilla in Manila.” By then, the 31-year-old Frazier — who, among other things, had been labeled a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom” by Ali — had grown weary of the incessant insults and name-calling that had begun before their initial meeting in 1971.
It was a brutal fight inside a steamy arena with Ali winning only after Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, wouldn’t let his fighter, whose left eye was swollen shut, leave his corner for the 15th round.
“Frazier quit just before I did,” Ali said. “I didn’t think I could fight any more. This was the closest to dyin’ that I know of. … We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men.”
Frazier, who would fight just twice more after that bout, died in 2011 at the age of 67 after a brief battle with liver cancer.
“They should have both retired after the Manila fight,” former Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. said. “They left every bit of talent they had in the ring that day.”
In fact, Ali had retired after the final Frazier fight, but the lure of easy money proved too much and he was back.
Four fights later, Ali met Ken Norton, who had broken Ali’s jaw in one of their previous meetings, for a third time at Yankee Stadium. Ali won a controversial decision that was greeted by boos from the crowd of 30,000. Fans had stayed away in droves that night in September 1976 with the city in the throes of a police strike.
An aging out-of-shape Ali would lose his title to Leon Spinks in 1978, but would regain the crown by beating Spinks in 15 rounds a year later to become a three-time heavyweight champion.
Ali retired for good in 1981 after losses to Larry Homes and Trevor Berbick. He finished with a 56-5 record, with 37 of his wins by knockout. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Following his retirement, Ali worked for philanthropic and social causes around the world. He made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea, delivered medical aid to Cuba, traveled to Iraq to secure release of 15 U.S. hostages during the first Gulf War, and worked for the eventual release of three American hikers held captive in Iran.
In 1996, Ali, visibly shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s, lit the torch to open the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In November 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. Later that year the Muhammad Ali Center opened in his hometown of Louisville, a celebration of his boxing career and his humanitarian efforts.
“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me,” he said. “It would be a better world.”
Married four times, Ali is survived by his wife, Yolanda, and his nine children.
“People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone,” he once said. “Like President Kennedy … nobody like him. Like The Beatles, there will never be anything like them. Like my man, Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”