Phoenix, UNITED STATES
VIJAY SHAH via BBC
Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who dominated the world’s rings in the 1960s and 1970s, has passed away today at the age of 74, BBC News has reported. The three-times world heavyweight champion, who was famous for the epic ‘Rumble in the Jungle‘, was admitted to hospital recently in the US after suffering a respiratory illness.
Formerly known as Cassius Clay, the sportsman changed religion to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Ali, was plagued by Parkinson’s disease in his later years, but still made an imposing figure in the sports world, and inspired a generation of boxers such as Mike Tyson.
He passed away at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona USA. He was admitted there on Thursday after suffering breathing complications.
Billed as the ‘ultimate fighter’, Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky on the 17th January 1942. His father painted signs while his mother worked as a house cleaner. Of African-American heritage, Ali was born at a time when Kentucky, as with much of the southern United States at that time, was racially segregated, and black families such as his were forced to live in separate neighbourhoods, use separate shop entrances, and study at separate schools. His mother, Odessa Grady Clay, remember her son as a particularly active child, never sitting still, and was talking and learning well ahead of his years.
On his 12th birthday, a bike that was given to Ali as a gift was stolen. He visited a local police station to report the theft and told officer Joe Martin he wanted to beat up the thief. Martin, who was also a part-time boxing instructor, told Ali he should first learn how to fight before making threats. Ali took up Martin on his offer, and the officer became Ali’s first trainer and mentor. Soon Ali was picking up his first boxing titles at local rings.
Six years later, Ali appeared for the American Olympic team in Rome. His affable and energetic personality caught the attention of the world’s media and endeared him to his team members and fellow athletes. He won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division, and later turned professional, beginning his path to boxing glory.
Clay had immense confidence in his speed and agility, often leaving his guard down and leaning back to avoid punches. Clay’s showmanship was also evident in early bouts, as he dazzled media and fans with his bravado and predicted the round in which his fights would end. This was also the time when Ali began using his trademark witticisms and slogans, one of the most quoted being “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.
In 1967, Ali famously refused to serve in the draft for the American army as the Vietnam War began to start up. Ali was dragged to court after refusing to sign up, citing his religious beliefs and his anger against the treatment of African-American people. He was stripped of his championship, indicted for draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. Three years later, his conviction was overturned. Away from the ring, Ali toured colleges and spoke out on a variety of social and political issues.
In October 1974, Ali faced hard-striking heavyweight George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now DPR Congo). He entered the ring as a 3-1 underdog. Avoiding Foreman’s colossal punches, Ali laid low around the ropes until his opponent tired out in the middle rounds. It was this strategy, which Ali affectionately called ‘rope-a-dope’, that was to pay off by round eight, Ali came alive with a serious of fast punches, utterly capitulating Foreman.
Ali’s victory over Foreman in central Africa firmly planted him in the limelight. He won a crew of celebrity fans, including Elvis Presley, Bertrand Russell and Nelson Mandela. In 1975, Ali destroyed Joe Frazier in a low key rematch in the Philippines, dubbed the ‘Thriller in Manila’. The match lasted an astonishing 14 rounds, fuelled by a wordy animosity between the two sports personalities.
After a few losses however, Ali called it quits in 1978, retiring permanently at the age of 40 with a ring record of 56 wins and five losses. After retirement, Ali began to appear on the world stage in a political sphere. In 1980, then US President Jimmy Carter asked Muhammad Ali to visit the African continent to drum up support for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and during the First Gulf War in 1990, Ali made a personal visit to Iraq to help negotiate the release of American hostages captured after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Fifteen hostages were released, aided by Ali’s profile.
Sadly, in 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s after he began to slur his speech and tremble in his hands. The degenerative conditions was believed by Ali’s doctors to have come from enduring repeated blows to the head from his numerous matches. In the ensuing years, Ali became a visible symbol of courage in the face of physical disability and helped raise millions of dollars for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. Ali also began to devote himself to humanitarian causes and became a well-respected philanthropist. In 1999, the United Nations nominated Ali as a Goodwill Ambassador, and the biographical film Ali, starring Will Smith in the titular role, was released in the boxer’s honour in 2001.
Beyond the ring, he will be remembered for his belief in social justice and support for Black civil rights. Truly a cultural icon, Ali’s passion, skill, intelligence and wit gave him a global appeal unmatched by few, if any, other sporting figures and inspired millions.
Muhammad Ali’s funeral will be held in his hometown, according to his family.
He leaves behind wife Lonnie and two daughters, Tatyana and Hana.
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