Boxer Muhammad Ali, 'The Greatest Of All Time,' Dies At 74

Jun 3, 2016
Originally published on June 4, 2016 5:02 pm

Update at 3:15 p.m. ET: Ali's Funeral Set For Friday

Muhammad Ali, the man considered the greatest boxer of all time, died late Friday at a hospital in Phoenix at age 74. He was battling respiratory problems.

He died of septic shock related to natural causes, with his family at his bedside, according to family spokesman Bob Gunnell.

Ali inspired millions by standing up for his principles during the volatile 1960s and by always entertaining — in the boxing ring and in front of a microphone.

Cassius Clay (Ali's given name) won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He wanted more: a professional heavyweight championship. He arrived in Miami in October to work with legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. Dundee, who died in 2012, recalled the first day Clay showed up.

"Bounding up the steps of the Fifth Street gym, and the steps were pretty rickety, you know, all wood. Bouncing up, he said, 'Angelo, line up all your bums. I'm gonna beat 'em all,' " Dundee said.

'King Of The World'

Clay was 18: bounding, fearless, leading with his mouth.

"I'm not only a fighter. I'm a poet; I'm a prophet; I'm the resurrector; I'm the savior of the boxing world. If it wasn't for me, the game would be dead," he said.

Young Clay made boxing an art form. He was an original, a heavyweight who didn't move around the ring — he danced. He'd thrill the crowd with his quick scissor-step shuffle. On defense, he'd slip and slide, Dundee said, and then flick that jab.

"He had a jab that was like a snake," he said.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; rumble, young man, rumble. Boxing reporters never had so much fun.

As the mouth roared, the victories started piling up, all of it prelude to a 1964 battle against the big, bad bear: heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

Liston was a fearsome opponent. Nobody believed the young Ali had a shot. But after six rounds, Liston was done. He didn't come out for the seventh, and Clay was the new champion.

"I am the king of the world! ... I'm pretty! ... I'm a bad man! I shook up the world!" he exclaimed.

But the 22-year-old was just getting started.

A Polarizing Figure

After the Liston fight, Ali revealed he was a member of the black separatist movement Nation of Islam. He wanted to be called Muhammad Ali, a name he said was given to him by the group's leader, Elijah Muhammad.

"That's my original name; that's a black man name," Ali said. "Cassius Clay was my slave name. I'm no longer a slave."

Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader, preached that integration and intermarriage were wrong and that white people were devils. It was an idea Ali defended in a 1971 TV interview.

"I'm gonna look at two or three white people who're trying to do right and don't see the other million trying to kill me? I'm not that big of a fool, and I'm not going to deny it," he said. "I believe everything he [Muhammad] teach, and if the white people of a country are not the devil, then they should prove they're not the devil."

Ali became a polarizing figure in America. Many sportswriters vilified him. Black boxer Floyd Patterson said, "I don't believe God put us here to hate one another. Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race."

To others, Ali became a loud and unapologetic symbol of black pride.

The Rev. Kwasi Thornell of Washington, D.C., was a teenager when Ali burst onto the scene.

"There was a great deal of excitement in seeing that because that was a boldness that many of us did not know," says Thornell, who is African-American. "We were more encouraged by our parents to just go along with the system and not be bold and bodacious, as [Ali] was."

Ali's boldest move — and most controversial — came in 1967. At the height of the Vietnam War, he refused induction into the U.S. military, saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."

"My intention is to box, to win a clean fight. But in war, the intention is to kill, kill, kill, kill and continue killing innocent people," he said.

Some called him a traitor. For those in a growing anti-war movement, Ali was a hero who paid a significant price. He was convicted of draft evasion, and though he avoided jail time, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing at the age of 25, just as he was entering his prime. It would be more than three years before Ali returned to the ring.

Rivalry With Frazier

Following his exile, Ali squared off against Joe Frazier, who became heavyweight champion in Ali's absence. The March 1971 showdown was billed as the fight of the century.

Frazier won, handing Ali his first professional loss. It was also the first of three epic bouts between the two men. Frazier, with his boxer's mashed face and snorting-bull style in the ring, could never equal Ali's finesse and skill as a fighter. Nor could he match Ali's wit, which often turned cruel when the subject was Frazier.

"You'll also see why I say he's a gorilla," Ali said. "You'll see how ugly he is, and how pretty I am."

It was theater to Ali. But in a 2007 interview, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser said the words and frequent taunts were like broken glass in Frazier's stomach. It's one of the reasons, Hauser said, that even late in life, Frazier harbored ill will toward Ali.

"Even though Muhammad said to me that if God ever called him to a holy war, he wanted Joe Frazier fighting beside him," Hauser said.

Undoubtedly, sports announcer Howard Cosell would have done the holy war's play-by-play, as he did for many of Ali's fights. The two men had a symbiotic relationship. Their interview sessions were more like hilarious jousting matches, with Ali needling the pedantic former lawyer, always threatening to tear off Cosell's obvious toupee.

When it came to boxing IQ, none was higher than Ali's. In 1974, against the menacing George Foreman, Ali used a tactic called the "rope-a-dope." He stayed on the ropes, covering up, letting Foreman punch himself out. Then Ali struck quickly, knocked out Foreman and became champion a second time.

Parkinson's Diagnosis

A year later, "The Thrilla in Manila" was the final fight in the Ali-Frazier trilogy. It was an awesome and horrible slugfest that ended with Ali winning, but admitting afterward, "It was the closest to death that I could feel."

"This is too painful. It's too much work. I might have a heart attack or something. I wanna get out ... while I'm on top," he said.

It would have been the perfect time to stop. But Ali kept fighting six more years. In the early 1980s, he was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome.

His last big public moment came in 1996, when he lit the flame at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Shaking, his face frozen by a Parkinson's mask, this was a new generation's image of the man called the greatest of all time. But the sadness was mixed with global love.

Ali was the rare and perhaps only person who could go anywhere — Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a marketplace in Latin America — and people would stop and point and smile.

Come Friday afternoon, many will again stop when a public procession and interfaith service are held for Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. Family spokesman Gunnell says eulogies will be delivered by former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel. The funeral will be streamed on the internet, Gunnell says.

In his life, Ali traveled from a boxer's cruelty to kindness. A man who stood up and shouted out for his principles ultimately embraced the quiet principle of spirituality. But in later years, his words muted by Parkinson's, Ali was asked if he'd do it all over exactly the same, even if he knew in advance how he'd end up. The answer: "You bet I would."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Muhammad Ali is dead. The man considered the greatest boxer of all time died surrounded by his family at a hospital in Phoenix from respiratory problems after decades of Parkinson's. He was 74. Ali enthralled, outraged and inspired millions in the boxing ring or in front of a microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUHAMMAD ALI: Joe's going to come out smoking, and I ain't going to be joking. I'll be pecking and a-poking (ph), pouring water on his smoking. And this might shock and amaze you, but I will destroy Joe Frazier.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman has this remembrance of Muhammad Ali.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: October 1960, Cassius Clay - Muhammad Ali's given name - had won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics that year. Now he wanted more - a professional heavyweight championship. He arrived in Miami to work with legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, who died in 2012. Dundee remembered the first day Clay showed up.

ANGELO DUNDEE: Bounding up the steps of the 5th Street gym, and the steps were pretty rickety, you know - all wood. Bounding up, he said, Angelo, line up all your bums. I'm going to beat them all.

GOLDMAN: Eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay, bounding, fearless, leading with his mouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI: I'm not only a fighter. I'm a poet. I'm a profit. I'm a resurrector. I'm the savior of the boxing world. If it wasn't for me, the game would be dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDMAN: Young Clay made boxing an art form. He was an original, a heavyweight who didn't move around the ring - he danced. He'd throw the crowd with his quick scissor step shuffle. On defense, he'd slip and slide, says Dundee, and then flick that jab.

DUNDEE: He had a jab that was like a snake. We said snake-lick him and hit him with a jab, you know. Go snake-lick him. Take him home. Lock him up. You know, we got our own expressions.

GOLDMAN: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble. Boxing reporters never had so much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let me see you just close mouth and just keep it closed.

ALI: Well, you know that's impossible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, no, no. Keep it closed.

ALI: You know that's impossible. I'll be the greatest. I'm knocking out all bums. And if you get too smart, I'll knock you out.

GOLDMAN: As the mouth roared, the victories started piling up. And all of it prelude to a 1964 battle against the Big Bad Bear, heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Liston was a fearsome opponent. Nobody gave the young kid a shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Liston seems bewildered. He's unable to cope with Clay's sharp shooting.

GOLDMAN: But after six rounds, Liston was done. He didn't come out for the seventh, and Clay was the new champion.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

ALI: I'm the king of the world. I'm pretty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hold it, hold it, hold it. You're not that pretty.

ALI: I'm a bad man. I shook up the world. I shook up the world.

GOLDMAN: But 22-year-old Cassius Clay was just getting started.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Why do you insist on becoming Muhammad Ali now?

ALI: 'Cause that's the name given to me by my leading teacher, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That's my original name. That's a black man name. Cassius Clay was my slave name. I'm no longer a slave.

GOLDMAN: After the Liston fight, Muhammad Ali revealed he was a member of the black separatist movement called Nation of Islam. Its leader, Elijah Muhammad, preached that integration and intermarriage were wrong and white people were devils - an idea Ali defended in a 1971 TV interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ALI: And I'm going to look at two or three white people who are trying to do right and don't see the other million trying to kill me?

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: I'm not that big of a fool, and I'm not going to deny it. I believe everything he teach. If the white people the country are not the devil, then they should prove they're not the devil.

(APPLAUSE)

GOLDMAN: Ali became a polarizing figure in America. Many sportswriters vilified him. Black boxer Floyd Patterson said, I don't believe God put us here to hate one another. Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race. To others, Ali became a loud and unapologetic symbol of black pride.

KWASI THORNELL: There was a great deal of excitement in seeing that because that was a bone that many of us did not know.

GOLDMAN: Reverend Kwasi Thornell from Washington, D.C., was an African-American teenager when Ali burst onto the scene.

THORNELL: We were more encouraged by our parents to, you know, just go along with the system and not be bold and bodacious as Muhammad Ali was.

GOLDMAN: Ali's boldest move - and most controversial - came in 1967.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI: My intention is to box, to win a clean fight, but in war, the intention is to kill, kill, kill, kill and continue killing innocent people.

GOLDMAN: At the height of the Vietnam War, Ali refused induction into the U.S. military, saying, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong. Some called him a traitor. For those in a growing antiwar movement, Ali was a hero who paid a significant price. He was convicted of draft evasion, and although he avoided jail time, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing at the age of 25, just as he was entering his prime. It would be more than three years before Ali returned to the ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Fifteen and final round.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Referee Arthur Mercante has them touch gloves - something they've been doing all night.

GOLDMAN: Following his exile, Ali squared off against the late Joe Frazier, who heavyweight champion in Ali's absence. The March 1971 showdown was billed as the fight of the century. Frazier won, handing Ali his first professional loss. It was also the first of three epic bouts between them. Frazier, with his boxer's mashed face and snorting bull style in the ring, could never equal Ali's finesse and skill as a fighter, nor could he match Ali's wit, which often turned cruel when the subject was Joe Frazier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI: You'll also see why he's a gorilla. You'll see how ugly he is and how pretty I am.

GOLDMAN: It was theater to Ali, but in a 2007 interview, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser said the words and frequent taunts were like broken glass in Fraizer's stomach. It's one of the reasons, said Hauser, that even late in life, Frazier harbored ill will toward Ali.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TOM HAUSER: Even though Muhammad said to me that if God ever called him to a holy war, he wanted Joe Frazier fighting beside him.

GOLDMAN: Undoubtedly, Howard Cosell would have done the holy war's play-by-play, as he did for many of Ali's fights. The two men had a symbiotic relationship. Their interview sessions were more like hilarious jousting matches, with Ali needling the pedantic former lawyer, always threatening to tear off Cosell's obvious toupee. These are excerpts from a TV tribute to the two men.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV TRIBUTE)

ALI: I'm going to let everybody know that that thing you got on your head is a phony, and it comes from a tale of a pony.

HOWARD COSELL: The body is now aging, a shell of what it used to be. The man's beset by fear.

What are you going to do George Foreman?

ALI: He just said the man's body is not what it used to be, the man is beset by fear - talking about me. You crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: If I had a lower IQ, I could enjoy your interview.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: When it came to boxing IQ, none was higher than Ali's. In 1974, against the menacing George Foreman, Ali used a tactic called the rope-a-dope. He stayed on the ropes, covering up, letting Foreman punch himself out. Then Ali struck quickly, knocked out Foreman and became champion a second time. A year later, the Thrilla in Manila was the final fight in the Ali-Frazier trilogy. It was an awesome and horrible slugfest that ended with Ali winning, but admitting afterwards - it was the closest to death that I could feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ALI: This is too painful. It's too much work - might have a heart attack or something. Going to get out while I'm on top.

GOLDMAN: It would have been the perfect time to stop, but Ali kept fighting another six years. In the early 1980s, he was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1996 OLYMPICS OPENING CEREMONY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Muhammad Ali.

GOLDMAN: His last big public moment came in 1996, when Ali lit the flame at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Shaking, his face frozen by a Parkinson's mask, this was a new generation's image of the man called the greatest of all time. But a sadness was mixed with global love. Muhammad Ali was at the rare - perhaps only - person who could go anywhere - 5th Avenue in Manhattan, a marketplace in Latin America - and people would stop and point and smile.

In his life, he traveled from a boxer's cruelty to kindness. A man who stood up and shouted out for his principles ultimately embraced the quiet principle of spirituality. But in later years, his words muted by Parkinson's, Ali was asked if he'd do it all over exactly the same, even if he knew in advance how he'd end up. The answer - you bet I would. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.