Muhammad Ali, deemed boxing’s “greatest,” has died.
The iconic fighter passed away on Friday after being hospitalized for respiratory issues, according to NBC News. Earlier today, Ali’s family gathered by his hospital bedside in Phoenix as reports said the icon was in “grave condition.” Ali, who was 74 years old, had been battling Parkinson’s disease for nearly 30 years.
Synonymous with the sport, Ali began his life far from the spotlight of the ring in January 1942 in segregated Louisville, Ky. as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. Ali’s parents, Cassius Sr. and Odessa, provided for Ali and his younger brother by working as a billboard painter and household domestic respectively.
As the story goes, 12-year-old Ali was first inspired to take up the sport after his bicycle was stolen. After reporting the theft to a policeman, the preteen boasted about how he wanted to beat up the person responsible, but the policeman told him he needed to learn how to fight first. Just like that, the future “People’s Champion” was set on his path to athletic stardom.
He won his first amateur fight that same year, and went on to compete in the Olympic games six years later, winning the light heavyweight gold medal. Soon after, he launched his professional career and continued for years without any recorded losses.
However, Ali quickly garnered a reputation for his abrasive behavior in the ring, mouthing off and insulting his opponents.
The behavior followed up to his first legendary match against Sonny Liston, an intimidating reigning champion, for the World Heavyweight Championship of 1964. After reportedly slamming Liston with offensive remarks in the days prior to the fight, reporters doubted Ali would even arrive out of fear, but he did and walked away a 22-year-old champion with the title.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life,” he famously said.
While Ali went on to win multiple fights, including one against Ernie Terrell deemed “one of the ugliest boxing fights,” Ali was stripped of his boxing license and was not permitted to fight in 1967 after famously refusing to serve in the armed services as the Vietnam War was fully underway, claiming that fighting in a war was against the teachings of the Qu’ran. He had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and later converted to the religion.
Ali was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to five years of prison, a sentence that went unfulfilled as his case traveled to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was ultimately overturned in the 1971 case, Clay v. United States.
In the interim, the athlete became a vocal opponent of the war and traveled the United States addressing young adults, many who also did not agree with the political climate of America at the time and were invigorated by Ali’s remarks. It was a notable moment in sports history as athletes had rarely made that kind of national impact outside of their chosen sport.
In 1970, he resumed his boxing career, forging on to shape a legacy filled with 56 wins, five losses, an induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and a “Sportsman of the Century” honor by Sports Illustrated in 1999. In 2005, former president George W. Bush granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
His personal life was equally full, having married four times and fathering nine children. His daughter, Laila Ali, is now an undefeated retired professional boxer, despite her father’s early opposition to her entering the dangerous sport.
After more than 20 years in the ring, Ali fought his final match in 1981 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome three years after, later forming the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and donating to a handful of other charities.
The champion is survived by his wife of 30 years, Lonnie Williams and his children.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Ali’s loved ones during this difficult time.
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