SAN DIEGO, June 3, 2016 – Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, the most famous boxer who ever lived and who became a beloved figure far beyond the ring, died Friday at the age of 74 following a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
It is a day everyone knew would come eventually, but no one could be prepared to accept.
News reports circulated in the last 24 hours that Ali had been taken to a Phoenix hospital with respiratory issues. Ali had lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the last decade. Pleas for prayers flooded from those who knew him well and those who simply admired him from afar.
Born in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Ali emerged as a star from the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, where he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight by defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland.
See rare video of the fight here.
Ali’s first professional fight took place just weeks later in his hometown of Louisville on Oct. 29, 1960, a six- round unanimous decision against the long forgotten Tunney Hunsaker. Four years later on Feb. 25, 1964, he defeated Sonny Liston in Miami to win the first of his three heavyweight titles, after Liston retired after the sixth round, claiming an injured shoulder. The judges had the fight scored as a draw at the moment of the stoppage, 58-56, 56-58, and 57-57. In a rematch a year later, Ali knocked Liston out at 2:12 of the first round in front of just 2,434 people in Lewiston, Maine. The iconic photo of Ali standing over Liston on the canvas is among the most famous in sport.
Ali fought until March 1967, when he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War on religious grounds. It kept him out of the ring until 1970, for nearly three prime years of his career. On his return, he stopped Jerry Quarry. In 1971 he suffered his first professional loss, a unanimous decision to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. It did nothing to diminish his enormous drawing power.
From that point, the series of fights with names everyone knows captivated people worldwide. Ali won his second heavyweight title against Joe Frazier in 1974 at Madison Square Garden, the “Fight of the Century.” Nine months later, he beat George Foreman in the 1974 Fight of the Year, the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire. In a rematch in 1975, Ali beat Frazier a second time in the fight called “The Thrilla in Manila,” when Frazier quit after the 14th round.
Ali lost his WBC and WBA heavyweight titles to upstart Leon Spinks in February 1978. Spinks’ record was all of 6-0-1 at the time of the split decision victory. Ali took his titles back in a rematch eight months later in front of 63.350 people at the Superdome in New Orleans. One year later, he announced his retirement from boxing.
Ali came back briefly, ended his career with two unfortunate losses, to Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981, fights in retrospect that should not have happened. Ali finished with a record of 56-5, 37 by knockout, a total of 548 professional rounds in the ring.
Fifteen years later, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Muhammad Ali provided one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history when he lit the torch at the opening ceremonies. It was a well-kept secret; Ali was already showing signs of the Parkinson’s disease that afflicted him. It remains an emotional memory. Team USA produced this video tribute, with comments from other American Olympians, including 2012 bronze medalist boxer Errol Spence Jr.
Doing justice to Ali’s legacy in a single obituary is impossible. It is not an exaggeration to say Ali was the most dominant athlete in the second half of the 20th century, a phenomenal talent who nevertheless possessed the bold character to sacrifice several years of his career to take a principled stand against the Vietnam War. He endured becoming a public pariah until his actions were eventually recognized and justified, making a man who made a living with his fists a powerful symbol of peace.
How ironic and perhaps fitting that Ali died as one of the most famous Muslims in the world, at a time when fear of terrorism and prejudice born of that fear dominate the world’s relationship with Islam. One of Ali’s last public statements before his death came in response to the San Bernardino shootings and the call by presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban Muslim immigration to the United States.
Here is Ali’s full statement:
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.
“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
ESPN put Ali in the same category as Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. Boxing’s only eight division world champion, Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines, issued this comment Friday evening: “We lost a giant today. Boxing benefits from Muhammad Ali’s talents but not nearly as much as mankind benefits from his humanity.”
Ali’s longtime promoter and friend Bob Arum of Top Rank Promotions expressed his thoughts in an interview Friday night on ESPN. “He is without question in my mind the most transformative person of our time. I mean, I’m 84 years of age. I’ve seen a lot of the world going back many years. When we go back to the ’60s, when I first met him, this country was very very different than what it is now. Black people were not served in restaurants, hotels were segregated, but even more important, there was very little opportunity for African-Americans.
“He had this way with people, he was a great talker, he said what was on his mind, what he thought was right,” said Arum. “Any man willing to make that kind of sacrifice for his beliefs had to be listened to and had to be respected.”
A fellow Olympian, Golden Boy Promotions chairman and CEO Oscar De La Hoya, issued the following statement Friday night:
“It is with great sadness today that we mourn the loss of the Greatest of All Time – Muhammad Ali. I send my deepest condolences to his family, and pray for strength and peace for them during this difficult time.
“Muhammad Ali is a legend and one of the world’s most celebrated athletes, the fighter who ushered in the golden era of boxing and put the sport on the map. He paved the way for professional fighters, including myself, elevating boxing to become a sport watched in millions of households around the world.
“Ali’s talent was undeniable – he was an Olympic Gold Medalist, three-time lineal world heavyweight champion, and the only one to accomplish that to this day, and reached the pinnacle of our sport as the undisputed heavyweight champion in 1964.
“Beyond his incredible talent, he also made boxing interesting. Ali was fearless in the ring, and took on the toughest, most challenging opponents. Ali exemplified courage—he never took the easy route, something to be admired in and outside of the ring.
“As he grew older, he didn’t let his physical condition become an excuse to stop working; he continued to work hard, focusing on giving back to the community. Today, as we reflect on his life, let us remember a man who pursued greatness in everything he did and be inspired to hold ourselves to that same standard. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is president/owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +
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