Muhammad Ali, the brash and polarizing boxer who transcended sport to become a cultural icon, died Friday evening, according to family spokesperson Bob Gunnell. He was 74.
Ali was hospitalized earlier in the week in the Phoenix, Arizona area with apparent respiratory issues further complicated by Parkinson’s syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in 1984. Following a procession through his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, June 10 starting at 9 a.m. ET, Ali’s funeral will be held at 2 p.m. in the city’s KFC YUM! Center. Open to the public, it will also be streamed live on www.alicenter.org. Former President Bill Clinton, Bryant Gumbel, and Billy Crystal will be among those delivering eulogies.
The self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time — a title he wore as comfortably as the heavyweight championship belt he held for parts of two decades — was an artist in the ring, a lightning-quick “butterfly” who could “sting like a bee.” His most famous bouts in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the sport was at its zenith, were must-see events that held significance beyond the ring, carrying with them subtext about everything from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War. Both famous and infamous, Ali became a beloved figure in retirement, especially after his Parkinson’s diagnosis — an illness that slowly sapped his charisma but never doused his spirit.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., in 1942, and raised in segregated Louisville. He became an American hero when he won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but after turning pro his dancing style in the ring and his loud-mouth antics out of it rankled many old-time sportswriters. Ali’s first shot at the heavyweight title came as a major underdog against the brooding, heavy-fisted Sonny Liston in 1964, but he made history with a shocking seventh-round technical knockout.
Days after the fight, Ali confirmed swirling rumors that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and announced he was dropping his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, for the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The name-change perplexed or aggravated much of white America, who feared or mistrusted the Black Muslim movement during the turbulent 1960s. But in the ring, Ali remained devastating, dispatching one challenger after another.
His ascendance into a cultural figure continued in 1967 when he refused to be drafted in the Army during the Vietnam War, claiming to be a conscientious objector. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously said. He was stripped of his boxing license and prevented from fighting for more than three years while his case went through the courts. While the antiwar movement grew louder in the late-‘60s, Ali became a prominent spokesperson for the cause — a celebrity who had sacrificed his lucrative livelihood for his beliefs.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually reversed his draft-evasion conviction, and Ali faced champion Joe Frazier in 1971 in the first of three titanic bouts. Leading up to the bout Ali portrayed Frazier as an Uncle Tom, the white-man’s champ, which angered the proud Frazier; it also raised interest in the fight to deafening levels. To root for Frazier or Ali said more about a fan’s politics than anything related to actual boxing. With Madison Square Garden filled with famous celebrities and the world watching, Frazier scored a knockdown in the 15th round en route to handing Ali his first professional defeat, a unanimous decision.
Four years later, with many considering Ali washed up, he knocked out the new heavyweight champ, George Foreman, in Zaire, to reclaim the heavyweight title. He held the title for four more years — successfully defending it against Frazier in 1975 in what is considered the greatest fight in history, The Thrilla in Manila, before losing it briefly to Leon Spinks in 1978 and then winning it back seven months later in a rematch. He retired as the champ, but made an ill-advised comeback in 1980 and was pummeled by Larry Holmes in a fight many believe left irreparable brain damage that led to his Parkinson’s.
Ali is considered among the greatest boxers in history, but it’s outside the ring where he left his biggest mark. Brash and arrogant yet funny and charismatic, he became the model for a new breed of celebrity athlete, from Joe Namath to Michael Jordan. His political awakening gave voice to millions, empowering the next generation of athletes to have an opinion and to wield their celebrity for causes they felt important. “That was always the difference between Muhammad Ali and the rest of us,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson. “He came, he saw, and if he didn’t entirely conquer — he came as close as anybody we are likely to see in the lifetime of this doomed generation.”
Though Parkinson’s slowly eroded his ability to communicate, he remained a vital citizen on the world stage and played a significant role in matters beyond sports. In 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, he traveled to Iraq to negotiate for the release of American hostages. In 1996 he lit the Olympic flame at the Atlanta Summer Games, an anxious but ultimately beautiful moment as worldwide audiences watched him tremble with the debilitating effects of his disease. President George W. Bush honored Ali in 2005 with the nation’s two highest civilian honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Presidential Citizens Medal. The battles he’d waged in and out of the ring, the hatred he’d engendered for his political beliefs, finally gave way to near-universal adulation. “I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me,” Ali once said. “It would be a better world.”
Ali is survived by his wife, Yolanda (“Lonnie”); seven daughters — Maryum, Jamillah, Rasheda, Hana, Laila (who became a boxer in 1999 and ended her career with a 24-0 undefeated record), Miya, and Khaliah; and two sons — Muhammad Ali Jr. and Asaad.