Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali, Boxing Legend and Global Icon, Dead at 74
Saturday, June 4, 2016, 3:19 AM

Muhammad Ali, who rose above poverty and racism to become not only the heavyweight champion but a verse-spouting symbol of religious conviction and the most famous athlete in the world, died Friday at an Arizona hospital.

Ali was 74. The cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease, which he suffered from for more than 30 years. He died surrounded by family at Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center.

His funeral was expected to be in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. Arrangements were still pending early Saturday.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Ali won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, and not even four years later, achieved one of the greatest upsets in the annals of boxing with a seventh-round knockout of reigning heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, at the Miami Convention Center, catapulting the 22-year-old Ali into a spotlight that would endure for a half-century, making him an endlessly compelling figure whose life would be dissected and examined in books and films, most recently in the documentary, “I Am Ali,” which was released in 2014.

Throughout his lifetime, Ali, the fastest and most graceful heavyweight boxer the world had ever seen, became revered by millions and reviled by almost as many - a deeply polarizing figure who epitomized the social and racial turbulence of the 1960s and would ultimately evolve into a global goodwill ambassador in his later years.

At the end, Ali's Parkinson's had made him a trembling, virtually mute shell of his famously boastful and voluble persona - "I am the greatest! I am the greatest!" was his signature shout early in his career - and kept him almost complete out of the spotlight in recent years. As he grew increasingly enfeebled, Ali became a sympathetic figure even to those who took issue with his moral and religious beliefs - most notably his conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964, a decision that prompted his name change.

It was Ali's Islamic faith, of course, that was behind his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam, a stand he took in 1967 that made him either a craven fraud or an outsized hero, depending on one's point of view. Either way, the upshot was that Ali became arguably the most controversial athlete in the annals of American sport - and was stripped of his heavyweight championship and exiled from boxing for three years in his athletic prime, leaving him on the brink of financial ruin.

Gradually, as the tide public sentiment turned against the war, Ali increasingly came to be viewed as a paragon of moral courage, even as he outlined his position in vintage Ali syntax.

"I ain't got no quarrel with no Vietcong," he said.

"He had more lives than a cat," said Howard Bingham, Ali's friend and long-time photographer. "A cat has nine lives, but Ali had controversy after controversy after controversy and he always rose over it. People ask me why he was so loved. People would come up and say to him, 'Ali, I used to hate you, but now I love you.' He never lied to the public. He did things because it was the right thing for him. He didn't care about the money."

Beyond debate is that Muhammad Ali would evolve into as compelling and outrageously charismatic athlete of his or any time. Who else would write and recite poetry such as this, as Ali - then Clay - did before the first Liston fight?


Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in racially segregated Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, his father, Cassius Sr., a sign painter by profession, his mother, Odessa, a strict Baptist who took Ali and his brother, Rahaman (born Rudolph) to church every Sunday.

There was some strife in the home because Cassius Sr., drank and was abusive to his wife and was a womanizer, according to Ali's biography "Muhammad Ali - His Life and Times" by Thomas Hauser.

Ali was not noted for being a great student in school, but managed to get by on his wits and a disarming charm.

"He got through school on his popularity," said Angelo Dundee, his former trainer. "He couldn't spell too good. I had to spell things for him."

Early on Ali's true gifts were outside the classroom and inside the boxing ring. Legend has it that he got involved in boxing at age 12 after someone stole his bicycle. He went to the police station and met Joe Martin, a police officer who ran an amateur boxing program out of the Columbia Gym in Louisville.

In his biography, Ali wrote about the environment that shaped his calling.

"When I was growing up, too many colored people thought it was better to be white," Ali wrote. "And I don't know what it was, but I always felt like I was born to do something for my people. Eight years old, 10 years old; I'd walk out of my house at two in the morning, and look up at the sky for an angel or a revelation or God telling me what to do. I never got an answer. I'd look at the stars and wait for a voice, but I never heard nothing.

"Then my bike got stolen and I started boxing, and it was like God telling me that boxing was my responsibility. God made us all, but some of us are made special. Einstein wasn't an ordinary human. Columbus wasn't an ordinary human. Elvis Presley, the Wright brothers. Some people have special resources inside, and when God blesses you to have more than others, you have a responsibility to use it right."

Ali wasted little time showing how special he was in the ring. He fought 108 amateur bouts, winning six Kentucky Golden Glove titles, two national Golden Glove championships and two National AAU titles by the time he was 18. He qualified for the 1960 Olympic Games as a light heavyweight (178 pounds), winning gold by beating Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, a three-time European champion and a bronze medalist in the 1956 Games.

For years, a myth circulated that Ali was so disillusioned by the racism he encountering upon returning to America that he threw his medal into the Ohio River.

"That wasn't true. He lost it," Bingham said. "He just misplaced it somewhere."

Ali got a replacement gold medal at The Atlanta Games in 1996, when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the close of Opening Ceremonies, a moving spectacle at the rim of the stadium, as the white -clad Ali tipped the torch to ignite a ring of fire against the night sky.

After the 1960 Olympics, Ali returned home to Louisville to begin his professional boxing career, backed by a syndicate of 11 white Louisville businessmen, most of them owners of local distilleries, who raised $30,000 to get him on his way. They split Ali's purses 50-50 and took care of his training and living expenses, hiring Angelo Dundee to train him. Dundee worked out of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami with his older brother, Chris, who was a local promoter.

Dundee found Ali to be an industrious and willing pupil.

People don't realize that this kid worked hard," Dundee said. "As hard as he talked, he worked. He never cheated on road work, never cheated on the gymnasium. First guy to arrive and the last guy to leave. And he was a good kid right from the go. I first talked to the Louisville group in October. They said, 'When do you want him in Miami, Ange?' I said, 'Let him come after December so he could spend Christmas with his family.' I got a call the next day and they said he's coming tomorrow. He wanted to train. He wanted to be a fighter."

Dundee couldn't have asked for better pure athlete to train. Blessed with wickedly fast hands and the footwork of a ballet dancer, Ali was able to move himself into position to pounce on an opponent and out of harm's way when they returned fire. "Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," is how Ali described it, and it was hardly an overstatement.

Ali once boasted that he was so fast that he could turn out the light on one side of the room and be in bed on the other side before the room got dark. As a kid growing up in Louisville, he would let his brother throw rocks at him as hard as he could just so he could attempt to dodge them. Ali said he never got hit.

It was also under Dundee's tutelage that Ali developed his penchant for bragging about himself and his ring exploits.

"I made him talk," Dundee said. "You have to remember, before him, nobody talked. I remember the early days with (Rocky) Marciano. You couldn't get to Marciano and he was a pretty good talker. But (the media) had to talk with his manager or trainer. Muhammad helped the media because guys realized you don't want second best. You want to talk to the guy. He was for real. He never had a phony bone in his body. What you saw was what you got."


Ali made his pro debut at Freedom Hall in Louisville by winning a six-round decision against Tunney Hunsaker on Oct. 29, 1960. He reeled off 16 straight victories over the next four years before getting his first title shot against Sonny Liston, a glowering and intimidating ex-con from St. Louis with mob ties who had gained the title with a first-round knockout of Floyd Patterson.

Few observers gave Ali a shot at beating Liston because they thought Ali was too soft and had no chance to stand up to the thunderous power of Liston, who made opponents feel as if they'd been hit by a sack of cement.

Though Ali had proven himself a gifted boxer, he hadn't proven himself a warrior inside the ring. There hadn't been a need to.

He was unorthodox in his skills. Instead of slipping punches, he would pull back from them, his speed and dexterity enabling him to dance out of harm’s way - a propensity that made more than a few old-timers consider him one notch above a coward.

“I try to tell guys don’t try to imitate him,” Dundee said. “Everything was natural. He looked off balance. He reared up. I told everybody don’t worry about it because it all came out right.”

It did against Liston on the night of Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami. Liston, whom Ali derided as a “big, ole, ugly bear” before the fight, was beaten, bleeding and embarrassed when he quit on his stool in the seventh round, citing a shoulder injury.

Shortly after securing the heavyweight world championship, Ali announced that he was changing his name to Cassius X, to reflect his conversion to the Nation of Islam. He would later change his name to Muhammad Ali.

It was not a move that pleased the mainstream press or those who promoted Ali’s matches, particularly promoters of the rematch with Liston, which took place in the unlikely outpost of Lewiston, Me. on May 25, 1965.

“On the posters for the fight the promoters were not allowed to put Muhammad Ali’s name down because they were afraid the gate would be hurt,” said Leroy Neiman, the famed New York artist who painted more than 500 works with Ali as the subject. “So, they put down Champion and Challenger on the first posters. In the New York Times after the fight the headline was Cassius Clay KOs Liston in the first round. It was months and months before they would change it.”


The move to the Nation of Islam made Ali the most controversial African-American heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson in the 1900s. Like Johnson, Ali presented himself as a defiant black man at a time when African-Americans were supposed to be submissive to the white majority.

In Ali’s biography, Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University, said there were major differences between Johnson and Ali, however, and the stances they took.

“(Ali) attacked injustice on black terms, and was always willing to face the consequences,” Sammons said. “As for Johnson, clearly his effect on Black Americans was enormous . . . But Johnson never saw himself as a racial symbol . . . He never became part of a movement or aligned himself in a crusade with others the way Ali chose to do.”

Ali joined the Nation of Islam at a time when the organization promoted black separatism and self-reliance, and preached that all white people were devils. But Ali’s association with the Nation of Islam was full of contradictions. Though he hired Herbert Muhammad, a fellow member of his faith, as his manager in 1966, Ali did not dismiss Dundee or his doctor Ferdie Pacheco, both of whom were white.

At the time, Ali forged an alliance with Howard Cosell, who was moving up the ranks of ABC Sports. Cosell, unlike many reporters, not only accepted Ali’s embracing the Nation of Islam, but supported him, challenging the government and legal system when the champ was exiled.

More troubling still was Ali’s personal habits, including the fact that he was a notorious womanizer who fathered two children out of wedlock.

Ali joined Malcolm X as the organization’s two most visible spokesmen. Even though Malcolm X opposed professional sports, particularly boxing, he admired Ali.

In an interview with George Plimpton in the June 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Malcolm X talked about why he liked Ali.

“Not many people know the quality of the mind he’s got in there,” Malcolm X told Plimpton. “He fools them. One forgets that though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate the clown. He is sensitive, very humble, yet shrewd - with as much untapped mental energy as he has physical power. He should be a diplomat. He has that instinct of seeing a tricky situation shaping up . . . and resolving how to sidestep it. He knows how to handle people, to get them functioning. The more people around, the better - just as it takes water to prime a country well.”

Ali sided with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, after Malcolm X was excommunicated from the organization and later split with the Nation. Later, Ali also was cut off from the Nation of Islam after he returned to boxing following the lifting of his ban in 1970.

The move to Islam seemed to steel the moral convictions that Ali developed growing up in Louisville. His sense of right and wrong played out dramatically on April 28, 1967 - the day he refused his Army induction in Houston, citing religious his religious convictions, and became a boxing pariah, setting in motion a three-year legal battle that would ultimately end with Ali’s stance being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I always liked him,” said Ina Brown Bond, Chairwoman of the Board of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville and the daughter of one of Ali’s initial syndicate investors. “But I’m sure there were a lot of people around here who didn’t like him because of the draft issue. I never thought of him as a draft dodger, because he never went to Canada.

“He said, ‘This is something I can’t do and I’m going to stay here and take the consequences. This is my belief and I can’t go over there and kill people.’

Ali’s decision cost him three and a half years of his career, and his heavyweight title.

Bob Arum, who promoted 25 of Ali’s bouts, starting with the one against George Chuvalo a year before he was banned from boxing, said that stance elevated Ali to a man of stature.

“As somebody who was around at that time you can not believe how unpopular and hated he was. And how the position he took was so against how the people of America felt,” Arum said. “But he had the courage of his convictions and he showed it. He was willing to make the sacrifice of his entire career. He wasn’t naïve. He knew they would prevent him from fighting. The fact that ultimately he was proven correct and people saw that I think that everybody then appreciated what this man meant.”

Arum said it was extremely difficult to get Ali fights in the U.S., between the time that he made his stance known and he was officially banned from boxing.

“We were supposed to go to Chicago with the Chuvalo fight, but they kicked us out,” Arum said. “That was after he said he ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. (Chicago Mayor Richard) Daley kicked us out of Chicago and we couldn’t get a fight in the U.S. and we ended up in Toronto with Chuvalo.

“Then, I took him to England and he fought (Henry) Cooper, Brian London and (Karl) Mildenberger (in Germany).”

Arum was able to bring Ali back to the U.S. for a match against Cleveland Williams in Houston, because the father of Fred Hofheinz, one of the members of Arum’s new corporation, controlled the Houston Astrodome. With Ali in his prime and at the peak of his career, he KO’ed Williams in the third round. Three months later he scored a 15-round decision over Ernie Terrell at the Astrodome.

In the last match before his three-year exile from boxing, Ali stopped Zora Folley with a seventh-round TKO at Madison Square Garden on March 22, 1967.

Ali was 25, at his physical and mental peak, and was one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. Yet he gave it all up for his religious convictions.

“Are you kidding? It was almost saint-like,” Arum said. “You don’t understand. He was the biggest earner for himself and the people around him and he gave it all up. We thought at that time, never, never, never, will he have a second act.”


Ali’s second act may have been more dramatic than his first. It was played out on television just as the medium with unparalleled reach and power in cultivating the popularity of sports and entertainment.

With his outspoken nature and his bravado, Ali was a must-watch athlete, no matter how you felt about him. His exile made him even bigger, as the sports world anxiously awaited his return. After the Supreme Court ruled in Ali’s favor, he and his advisors moved to get him back in the heavyweight championship picture and get a fight with the new champ, Joe Frazier.

While on the comeback trail, Cosell played a prominent role as Ali’s media foil. Ali would mock Cosell, even taunt him. Unflappable, Cosell would answer back in signature monotone style and deep vocabulary. It could be cruel or funny, but their relationship continued being a highlight of the Ali circus.

Ali’s first match back was against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1970. He knocked out Quarry in the second round. Ali returned to the Garden - the so-called “Mecca of Boxing” - for his second comeback fight, winning a 15-round decision against Oscar Bonavena two months later.

That set up one of the biggest sporting events in American history - Ali-Frazier I at the Garden, on March 8, 1971. The hype leading up to the title fight was unprecedented. Ali was the anti-establishment figure, while Frazier took the role of the fighter for the mainstream. Ali stoked the flames by calling Frazier an “Uncle Tom” - a vicious and personal attack that people close to Frazier said the former champion never forgave Ali for.

The night of the fight was charged with drama and almost off-the-charts anticipation, and the theatre that often accompanies such mega-events. Anybody who was anybody was there. Frank Sinatra was even credentialed as a photographer for Life Magazine. Ali and Frazier more than lived up to the hype by waging a 15-round battle in which Frazier dropped Ali in the 15th round and won a unanimous decision to retain his title.

The two met twice more, with Ali winning both bouts. The concluding match in 1975 was billed “The Thrilla in Manila” because it was held in the Philippines capitol. Neither Ali nor Frazier were anywhere near their prime by then, but the courage both showed was beyond any measure, the brutal slugfest ending with a battered and exhausted Frazier sitting on his stool, unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round. Ali remarked after the fight that it was the closest he had ever come to dying.

Before he even got to Manila for his last Frazier fight, Ali played the challenger to another staggeringly powerful champion, not unlike Liston. In this case the ferocious force was George Foreman, who had won the title against Frazier in January, 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica, where he made the undefeated Frazier look like a used-up club fighter, knocking him to the canvas five times in 275 seconds. Foreman was the new champion and his title bout against Ali was held in Kinshasa, Zaire, the so-called “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Foreman, a 24-year-old mauler with a massively muscled physique, was eight years Ali’s junior, and regarded to be as invincible as a lion and tiger put together.

Promoter Don King took the fight to Zaire, in order to get Ali the $5 million he had promised. President Maputo Sees Seiko was ruling the former Belgium Congo in 1974 when he arranged for the fight, reportedly raiding his country’s coffers to do so, in the hope that it would put Zaire on the map and open up trade possibilities with other nations.

“At that time, Zaire was a country that had been stripped bare and was bereft of any sort of amenities,” said Pacheco, Ali’s physician the time. “But Ali brought his circus to town for six weeks. There was no fighting, because half the rebels were in our camp watching him workout.”

The people in Zaire took to Ali, but didn’t care much for Foreman, who made the mistake of bringing a German shepherd with him for the fight. The people hated the dog and they took it out on Foreman. The night of the fight they shouted “Ali, bondage!” which translated to “Ali, kill him!”

Foreman came into the ring robe less, which only made him look more intimidating. But Ali had a plan, and nobody knew it. He developed a strategy to absorb Foreman’s powerful punches on his arms while tiring out Foreman, purposefully hanging on the ropes and covering up while Foreman punched and punched. Ali later called the strategy the “Rope-a-dope.” In the eighth round, Foreman was punched out, Ali went on the attack and KO’ed him for the world championship.

That was the last great fight Ali had in him. But he continued fighting for another seven years.


With his fights in Zaire and in the Philippines, Ali burnished his image as a caring global humanitarian, who happened to be the greatest boxer who ever lived. He may have been wealthy and famous, but he seemed to have an ability to connect with the poor and disenfranchised.

“He liked everybody,” Dundee said. “He could blend in with anybody. I used to call him the Pied Piper. We’d go into a town and the people followed him. They adopted him.”

At home, there were still pockets of ambivalence toward Ali, but he was becoming increasingly entrenched as a sporting icon. He continued to reign as the dominant heavyweight champion from 1974 through 1978, beating back challenges from Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, an aging Frazier and Earnie Shavers.

Ali was caught by surprise when he fought Leon Spinks on Feb. 15, 1978, however. The 24-year-old Spinks entered the ring with a 6-0-1 record and walked out the heavyweight champion after edging Ali in a 15-round split decision. Ali regained the title seven months later, but Ali was no longer the man who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

Ali’s career came to a pathetic end two years later when he climbed into the ring against his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes. Holmes battered Ali before Dundee stopped the fight in the 11th round.

“Before the fight started I thought I could win,” Ali wrote in his biography. “I wouldn’t have fought if I didn’t think I could beat him. But after the first round, I knew I was in trouble. I was tired, nothing left at all. A couple of times before, when I had hard fights, in the middle of the fight I’d ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ With George Foreman in Zaire, against Frazier in Manila, I told myself I had to be crazy. But when the fights were over, it always seemed worth it, except when I fought Holmes.”

Even so, Ali climbed back into the ring one more time. On Dec. 11, 1981 in Nassau, The Bahamas, Ali had one more, sad showing against Trevor Berbick. Weighing a career-high 236-1/2 pounds, a lackluster Ali lost a 10-round decision.

After 21 years of ring wars, Ali’s next bout was against his failing health.

In 1984, feeling lethargic and out of sorts, Ali checked himself into Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York for a series of diagnostic tests. The results came back and Ali was with Parkinson’s syndrome, which was initially thought not to be as damaging as Parkinson’s disease.

It was later discovered that Ali fought the last two fights of his career while suffering from Parkinson’s.

“The guys around us, the media, had a hard time hearing him,” Dundee said. “They had to get close up to him. I thought he got hit in the throat. I used to tell Muhammad, “Sit up, talk.” But it was the Parkinson’s. The last couple of fights and nobody knew it. It broke my heart when I found out later.”

His marriage to his third wife, Veronica, was also unraveling. Many saw Veronica as nothing more than a stage wife who wasn’t willing to stick by Ali’s side through what was going to be a lengthy illness.

Ali divorced Veronica and married Yolanda (Lonnie) Williams in 1986. Lonnie Ali became Ali’s voice as the Parkinson’s robbed him of his ability to speak. The two were inseparable, and from their farm in Berrien Springs, Mich. Lonnie and Muhammad Ali took on an array of humanitarian causes that helped forge an altogether different legacy for a man who became famous for his superior skills in the boxing ring.

In one of the supreme ironies of Ali’s life, one of his daughters by Veronica, Laila, decided that she wanted to box. In 1999 she turned pro. Initially, Ali was not pleased with his daughter’s decision, which he objected to on religious grounds. He later warmed to the idea and even attended some of her fights and even offered advice on ring tactics. Laila said her father’s condition never frightened her away from the sport. She believed that his condition was not brought on by the |countless blows he took in the ring.

Lonnie Ali said Muhammad never got depressed about being stricken with Parkinson’s, though the disease stole the instrument that had made him Muhammad Ali.

“In some ways he thinks that it was given to him for some reason,” she said during an interview in 2005. “Maybe to slow him down, make him more reflective. He didn’t know. God never gives you more than you can bear. He looked at it as a lesson. He has no regrets.”

Perhaps nothing signaled Ali’s transformation from superstar athlete to global goodwill ambassador better than when he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be bestowed upon a U.S. civilian, by President George W. Bush in 2005. Later that year, the 93,000-square foot Muhammad Ali Center opened in Ali’s hometown of Louisville and it brought everything full circle for Ali. The center embodied the convictions and ideals that permeated Ali’s life, highlighted his legacy, and encouraged others to standup for their |beliefs the way that Ali did. The center also has an academic adjunct - the University of Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice.

“He’s always going to be the greatest fighter of all time, but what people now see is that he was an athlete that was a caring human being, who cared about other people and gave back to other people,” Laila Ali said. “It’s not about the money and the glitz and the glamour. It’s about making this world a better place and he has.

“That’s what he was all about from the beginning.”

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