RIP Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali, the charismatic three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, who declared himself “the greatest” and proved it with his fists, the force of his personality and his magnetic charisma, and who transcended the world of sports to become a symbol of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and a global ambassador for cross-cultural understanding, died June 3 at a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he was living. He was 74.
A family spokesman said the immediate cause of death was septic shock. The boxer had been hospitalized with respiratory problems after years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which had been diagnosed in the 1980s.
Mr. Ali dominated boxing in the 1960s and 1970s and held the heavyweight title three times. His fights were among the most memorable and spectacular in history, but he quickly became at least as well known for his colorful personality, his showy antics in the ring and his standing as the country’s most visible member of the Nation of Islam.
When he claimed the heavyweight championship in 1964, with a surprising upset of the formidable Sonny Liston, Mr. Ali was known by his name at birth, Cassius Clay. The next day, he announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, a move considered shocking at the time, especially for an athlete. He soon changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he said at the time, signaling his intent to define his career on his own terms. “I’m free to be what I want.”
Mr. Ali came to represent a new kind of athlete, someone who created his own style in defiance of the traditions of the past. Glib, handsome and unpredictable, he was perfectly suited to television, and he became a fixture on talk shows as well as sports programs.
He often spoke in rhyme, using it to belittle his opponents and embellish his own abilities. “This is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today,” he said before his 1964 title bout. “The brash young boxer is something to see, and the heavyweight championship is his destiny.”
As perhaps the best-known Muslim in the United States, he issued a plea for peace after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He continued to travel and make public appearances, often for charity, until shortly before his death. Even in the presence of presidents, popes and other world leaders, Mr. Ali was always the most famous person in the room. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush in 2005.
Mr. Ali’s first three marriages, to Sonji Roi, Belinda Boyd and Veronica Porsche, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his fourth wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, whom he married in November 1986; seven children from his marriages; two other children he acknowledged as his own; a brother; and numerous grandchildren.
Mr. Ali often visited prisons and hospitals and, throughout his life, used simple sleight-of-hand tricks to connect with children and adults all over the globe, until his deteriorating physical condition led him to curtail his public appearances.
From a boxing ring in Manila to villages in Zaire to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, he had a radiant presence that seemed more in keeping with that of an international religious leader than a retired athlete. More than almost any other figure of his age, Mr. Ali was recognized and honored as a citizen of the world.
“Look at all those lights on all those houses,” Mr. Ali told Esquire magazine writer Bob Greene in 1983, while flying into Washington’s National Airport. “Do you know I could walk up to any one of these houses, and knock on the door, and they would know me?
“It’s a funny feeling to look down on the world and know that every person knows me.”
RIP Muhammad Ali