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Muhammad Ali dies at age 74

Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion who became a global icon of civil rights and black empowerment, died Friday near Phoenix, Ariz. He was 74. 

Ali had been admitted to hospital for respiratory problems that were exacerbated by Parkinson’s Disease, according to the Associated Press. The boxer had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the 1980s.

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His death brings down the curtain on one of the most extraordinary lives in American sporting and cultural history. 

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Ky., he said that he first learned to box as a boy in order to punish someone who stole his bicycle. He would come to be widely acclaimed as the best heavyweight boxer of all-time — or, to use his own favorite term, “The Greatest.”

His cultural and political significance extended far beyond the boxing ring. The morning after winning the world championship in 1964 by defeating Sonny Liston, he revealed that he had become a member of  the Nation of Islam. He renounced what he called his “slave name” of Clay, and became Muhammad Ali soon afterward.

He was later stripped of his world title after he was drafted for the Vietnam War but refused to be inducted into the military.

His explanation for that decision focused upon racial injustice in the United States and a profound skepticism about the rationale for the war.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, some darker people, some poor hungry people, in the mud, for big powerful America. And shoot them for what?” he asked in one famous interview. “They never called me n****r, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality and raped and killed my mother and father. What am I gonna do? Shoot them for what?”

Such statements were deeply controversial at the time — but Ali’s willingness to stand on principle and to express his views with such vigor made him a hero to the black community and to the broader progressive movement.

Deprived of his livelihood by having his boxing license revoked, Ali toured college campuses and other venues giving speeches. He was, for a time, a close friend of black leader Malcolm X, while his views on racial separatism stoked more flames of controversy.

But Ali’s personal demeanor also played a central part in raising him to heights of celebrity that few other people of his generation scaled. From the beginning of his career, he flamboyantly praised his own abilities and mocked his rivals, often using comic rhymes to do so.

Ali’s braggadocio was also an act of defiance against the suffocating racial norms of the time. Footage can still be found of a white interviewer, early in his career, challenging Ali, “Let me see you close your mouth and just keep it closed.” 

“Well, you know that’s impossible — I’m the Greatest,” Ali responded. “I’m knocking out all bums — and if you get too smart, I’ll knock you out.”

Ali finally won his legal battle to have his boxing license restored in 1970. Despite having lost almost four years of his physical prime, he came back to win the world title in 1974, defeating George Foreman in a legendary bout —“the Rumble in the Jungle” — in what was then Zaire.

The following year, he won perhaps the most brutal fight of his career, beating Joe Frazier in Manila, Philippines. It was the final of three encounters between the two men — Ali won twice, Frazier once — and the ill-feeling between them never entirely dissipated.

Ali would lose the title, and regain it once again, in 1978. He was the first person to win the world heavyweight championship on three occasions.

Having been a divisive figure because of his political views during his boxing career, Ali was more universally celebrated in later life. He lit the Olympic flame when Atlanta hosted the Games in 1996 and was hailed as the most important sporting figure of the 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2005. At the ceremony where he received the nation’s highest civilian accolade, Bush called Ali “a fierce fighter and a man of peace.” 

Ali was married four times and had seven daughters and two sons. One of his daughters, Laila Ali, also became a world boxing champion. 

In 2009, President Obama wrote an article for USA Today explaining what Ali — who by then had struggled with Parkinson’s for about 25 years — meant to him.

“Asked why he is so universally beloved, he holds up a shaking hand, fingers spread wide, and says, ‘It's because of this. I'm more human now. It's the God in people that connects them to me.’” Obama wrote.

“This is the Muhammad Ali who inspires us today  — the man who believes real success comes when we rise after we fall; who has shown us that through undying faith and steadfast love, each of us can make this world a better place. He is, and always will be, the champ.”