Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest heavyweight boxer the world has ever known and a cultural icon, died Friday, June 3, in Phoenix. He was 74.
He died from respiratory complications, reports NBC News. He suffered from Parkinson's disease. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome (a similar condition often caused by trauma to the head) in 1984, but was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease proper when his conditions persisted.
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali won his first 31 fights before suffering a loss and was named the world heavyweight champion by the World Boxing Association three different times, in 1964, 1974, and 1978. He was an Olympic gold medalist and a quick-footed dancer in the ring, lithe and smart and ready with trash talk to throw off his opponents.
But he was also a global celebrity who wasn't afraid to speak his mind at a time when black men who spoke their minds often paid dearly. His gleeful boasting about his abilities made him tremendously fun to watch on camera. But his unapologetic, outspoken politics made him a figure of tremendous significance.
In particular, Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War caused him to be suspended from boxing for almost four years, at the prime of his physical prowess. "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 while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" He asked.
Even as recently as 2015, Ali spoke out against Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. (Ali was himself a Muslim and famously a Nation of Islam member at the height of his fame.)
Like Babe Ruth before him and Michael Jordan after him, Ali was simultaneously the greatest athlete in America and such a massive cultural figure that his every move inspired news coverage. (Perhaps not coincidentally, those three athletes were also judged the greatest in history in a 2015 Harris Poll of Americans.)
To get to that point, however, he really did have to be "The Greatest," and after winning the gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games, he burst onto the professional scene that fall, tearing his way through opponent after opponent.
Ali rarely had the strongest punch in any given fight, nor was he the kind of brutalizer who could simply keep forcing massive hits in through his opponent's defenses. Instead, he danced, staying one step ahead of his opponent, dodging punches, and looking for openings in the other fighter's defenses that he might quickly exploit.
This compilation of his greatest moments shows just how thrilling watching Ali at work could be. He'll seem as if he's slightly indifferent to what's going on around him, lazily ducking punches, then suddenly throws a combination that drops his opponent completely.
The above clips also suggest what a great psychological fighter Ali was, a master of knowing just how to get under his opponent's skin and make them second guess themselves. In particular, Ali would often suggest his black opponents were tools of the (implicitly or explicitly white) man, while he himself was on the side of the people, the underdogs. (He even called opponent Joe Frazier, among others, an "Uncle Tom.")
While this was a canny way of throwing his opponents off their games, Ali was also placing himself at the center of the greatest political discussions of the day, especially the struggles of the civil rights movement and the counterculture to push back against white, mainstream American culture in the 1960s and '70s.
His strategic genius followed him well into the waning years of his career. He hung back against the ropes and baited George Foreman into exhausting himself in the famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle (though just how important this "Rope-a-Dope" strategy was to Ali's ultimate victory is debatable). And even when he was in his waning years and clearly past his prime, he remained an expert at promoting both himself and the fights he was a part of.
A national celebrity and political flash-point
Yet even as Ali was racking up an impressive career in the ring, he was becoming a symbol of the political battles cutting the US in two in the 1960s and '70s. Some of this was his canny self-promotion, mentioned above, but just as much stemmed from the fact that he joined the Nation of Islam, claimed Malcolm X as a mentor, and refused to fight in the Vietnam War after being drafted.
It was the latter that turned him into one of the foremost cultural figures of his time. While he was unable to fight from March 1967 to October 1970, he made a point of speaking out against the war on campuses and at gatherings, right at a time when American public opinion was steadily turning against the war.
"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America," Ali said. He labeled himself a conscientious objector.
Though convicted of draft evasion, Ali paid bail and was never imprisoned. In 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in an 8-0 decision, with Thurgood Marshall abstaining.
Without the ability to box, nor the passport that would let him leave the country to fight elsewhere, he found himself struggling with money problems. Yet as public opinion swung back toward his point of view, he was slowly but surely granted license to box again, and he worked his way back up to the top levels of the sport, taking out Foreman to win the title in 1974.
In his later life, Ali became a symbol of declining health and mortality, the great fighter reduced to a shell of himself by his Parkinson's. His most famous appearance in this time was likely in 1996, when he lit the torch at the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Summer Olympics. It's a fitting image to remember him by.