Boxing legend Muhammad Ali dies at 74

Tributes have poured in from the worlds of politics, boxing and beyond for a man who transcended his sport to become an inspiration for millions enduring prejudice and oppression around the globe.

Muhammad Ali in Davos, Switzerland, in 2006. The boxing legend died aged 74 on Friday.  Reuters/Andreas Meier
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Fear isn’t a word that the world came to associate with Muhammad Ali, the sporting giant who has died at the age of 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s – the disease widely considered to be the price he paid for his sporting success.

Yet fear of flying almost grounded the 18-year-old Cassius Clay before his professional career had even taken off, almost preventing him from boarding the flight in the summer of 1960 that would take him to Olympic victory as a light heavyweight in Rome.

Legend has it that on the way to the airport Ali stopped off at an army surplus store and bought a second-hand parachute, which he clutched all the way to Italy. In fact, as he revealed in his 1975 autobiography, he merely called the US air force “and asked them to give me a record of plane flights between Rome and America”.

Someone told him they couldn’t recall the last time an aircraft had crashed on the route and “that calmed me down enough to take the flight”.

Many was the heavyweight boxer who would come to regret that fateful decision. But following Ali’s death late on Friday, the tributes that poured in from the worlds of politics, boxing and beyond were for a man who transcended his sport to become an inspiration for millions enduring prejudice and oppression around the globe.

Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said on Instagram: “May Allah have mercy on the legend Muhammad Ali Clay’s soul. He was a beacon of tolerance and humanity and a shining example of courage and will.”

“Muhammad Ali shook up the world,” as US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle put it, and “the world is better for it.”

The man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, to the delight of boxing fans around the world for two decades, “took boxing from the back pages”, in the words of boxing promoter Kellie Maloney. In the process, he fought some of his greatest battles out of the ring, in the name of faith, justice and equality.

The Rev Jesse Jackson told BBC Radio that Ali had been a champion “inside the ring and a hero outside. Champion because he won the boxing matches, hero because he stood up against the war in Vietnam”.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, Ali, like his father, was named after a white 19th century US politician who turned his back on his Kentucky family’s plantation fortune and campaigned for the abolition of the slavery that had bolstered it.

When Clay returned from Rome bearing Olympic gold, he was given a parade and a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Louisville. But, literally and figuratively, the lustre quickly faded from his medal and the young fighter soon found himself battling the same old prejudice and bigotry he had known all his life.

“I was deeply proud of having represented America on a world stage,” Ali later wrote. But the medal was “more than a symbol of what I had achieved for myself and my country; there was something I expected the medal to achieve for me” – acceptance as an equal by white America.

But the medal didn’t do that. Feted by white millionaires clamouring to sponsor his imminent professional career, Ali grew cautious about being “groomed ... to become a White Hope ... I understood they would prefer that the White Hope be white. But, Hopes having come upon hard times in boxing, I could see they would settle for a Black White Hope, as long as he believed what they believed, talked the way they talked and hated the people they hated. Until a real White White Hope came around.”

They would have a long, long wait.

Ali came down to earth a few days after returning to the south, which in those days was still largely segregated. He and a black friend rode their motorbikes to a restaurant in their hometown, tried to order hamburgers and were promptly told “we can’t serve you here”.

Clay, who now realised that the gold medal he was still wearing around his neck like an amulet had no currency in his own hometown, later recalled that he wanted to tell them “this is supposed to be the land of the brave and the home of the free, and you’re disgracing it with your actions ... You should be ashamed”.

But instead, the man who would later be known to the world as the Louisville Lip – the original trash-talker par excellence – was lost for words, tongue-tied and impotent in the face of the prejudice of bigots and bullies.

“Instead of making them feel ashamed,” he wrote, “I felt shamed, shocked and lonesome.”

Never again. The prejudice that had blighted the lives of his parents and their generation fuelled the fury of his fists and drove his determination to become “The Greatest” on his own terms.

“I am America,” he would proclaim after publicly embracing Islam in 1964. “I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

On October 29, 1960, Tunney Hunsacker, the chief of police in Fayetteville, West Virginia, and an experienced – if waning – 30-year-old heavyweight, became the first victim of Clay’s decision to turn pro.

The 18-year-old Clay, Hunsacker later recalled, was “as fast as lightning ... I tried every trick I knew to throw at him off balance but he was just too good”.

Hunsacker would be the first in a long line of fighters to reach the same conclusion. Clay’s unanimous six-round decision against him would be the first of 31 professional wins in a row.

In February 1964, in his 20th bout, the 22-year-old Clay stopped Sonny Liston in the seventh round of a battle royal in Miami Beach, Florida, to become the WBA and WBC heavyweight champion of the world.

By now Clay was famous for his fast feet and fists, and even faster mouth, and all three were on display in Miami. Despite being rated the underdog by the bookies, Clay mocked Liston before the fight, dismissing him as a “big ugly bear” and announcing: “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo”.

With Liston comprehensively bested, Clay’s boast that “I am the greatest” became fact.

The fight was a turning point for Clay, in and out of the ring. Shortly after his victory he announced his affiliation to the Nation of Islam, the African-American political religious movement led by Elijah Muhammad, with which he had been secretly associated for some years.

“When I finally made it known that I was a Muslim,” he later said, “almost every educated friend, associate and prominent person I knew, black as well as white, was horrified.”

He didn’t care. As for his new name, Cassius Clay was “a slave name”, he told an open-mouthed media at the time. “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.”

Ali was in a fighting mood, which was just as well – his next opponent would be the US government, which he took on and whupped. In 1966 he was called up to fight in Vietnam and refused to go. War, he said, unless ordained by Allah or the Prophet, was “against the teachings of the Holy Quran”.

Besides, why should America expect him “to put on a uniform and go ... drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”.

No Vietcong, he added, had “ever called me nigger”.

Facing five years in prison, Ali was arrested, stripped of his titles and had his boxing licence suspended for three years. Found guilty in June 1967, he remained free on appeal until his conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court in June 1971.

Ali’s stand helped inspire resistance to the unpopular Vietnam War and, concluded The New York Times in 2013, had redefined “what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”.

Three years and seven months after his suspension, in October 1970 Ali was back in the ring, stopping Jerry Quarry in three rounds in Atlanta. He then set about recovering his purloined titles, lifting the WBC and WBA belts from George Foreman in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire.

In all, Ali would fight 31 more fights, for a career record of 56 wins and five defeats, losing only to Joe Frazier (1971), Ken Norton (1973), Leon Spinks (1978) – though with all three he would later even the score. His last two, ill-advised fights, furnished his last two defeats, to Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981, after which he retired, a little over a month short of his 40th birthday.

Ali’s career demanded he overcame his fear of flying, which he appeared to do with alacrity, delighting fans wherever he travelled in the world. Between 1969 and 1986 he made several trips to the UAE. In 1974, months before his defeat of Foreman in Kinshasa, he was the guest of Sheikh Zayed. In 1982, the year after he had hung up his gloves, he fought a series of exhibition bouts at the Al Nasr Sport Stadium in Dubai en route to the Haj in Mecca. Such events were, he told the media, to raise money to build mosques “and help spread the faith in America”.

By all accounts, the Ali who shuffled out onto the canvas in Dubai was a shadow of the giant who had once bestrode the world of boxing.

But this, however, was not how the world remembered the champion yesterday. In the words of former US president Bill Clinton, we “watched him grow from the brash self-confidence of youth and success into a manhood full of religious and political convictions that led him to make tough choices and live with the consequences”.

Along the way, Ali had been “courageous in the ring, inspiring to the young, compassionate to those in need, and strong and good humoured in bearing the burden of his own health challenges”, he added, referring to the more than 30 years Ali spent living with Parkinson’s.

For George Foreman, now 67, Ali was “one of the greatest human beings I have ever met ... one of the best people to have lived in this day and age [and] to put him as a boxer is an injustice.”

In the end, said Mr Clinton, Ali was a man who became “even greater than his legend”.

But perhaps the most fitting and poetic tribute came from the most unlikely source, Mike Tyson. The US boxer, who is not known for his eloquence, summed it all up on Saturday with this brief, solemn comment: “God came for his champion. So long, great one. Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. RIP.”