Muhammad Ali dies at 74
Matt Schudel, Bart Barnes
THE WASHINGTON POST – June 4, 2016
Muhammad Ali, the charismatic three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world and Olympic gold medalist who transcended the world of sports to become a symbol of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ultimately a global ambassador for cross-cultural understanding, died Friday night at a hospital in Phoenix, where he was living. He was 74.
The Associated Press and other news outlets confirmed the death. The boxer had been hospitalized with respiratory problems related to Parkinson’s disease, which had been diagnosed in the 1980s.
Mr. Ali dominated boxing in the 1960s and 1970s and held the heavyweight title three times. His fights were among the most memorable and spectacular in history, but he quickly became at least as well known for his colorful personality, his showy antics in the ring and his standing as the country’s most visible member of the Nation of Islam.
When he claimed the heavyweight championship in 1964, with a surprising upset of the formidable Sonny Liston, Mr. Ali was known by his name at birth, Cassius Clay. The next day, he announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, a move considered shocking at the time, especially for an athlete. He soon changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he said at the time, signaling his intent to define his career on his own terms. “I’m free to be what I want.”
Mr. Ali came to represent a new kind of athlete, someone who created his own style in defiance of the traditions of the past. Glib, handsome and unpredictable, he was perfectly suited to television, and he became a fixture on talk shows as well as sports programs.
He often spoke in rhyme, using it to belittle his opponents and embellish his own abilities. “This is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today,” he said before his 1964 title bout. “The brash young boxer is something to see, and the heavyweight championship is his destiny.”
One of his assistants, Drew “Bundini” Brown, captured his lithe, graceful presence in the ring, saying Mr. Ali would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The description entered the popular lexicon.
A funeral for Mr. Ali will be held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, according to The Associated Press. City officials scheduled a memorial service Saturday.
Mr. Ali appealed to people of every race, religion and background, but during the turbulent, divisive 1960s, he was particularly seen as a champion of African Americans and young people. Malcolm X, who recruited Mr. Ali to the Nation of Islam, once anointed him “the black man’s hero.”
In 1967, after Mr. Ali had been heavyweight champion for three years, he refused to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Despite the seeming contradiction of a boxer advocating nonviolence, he gave up his title in deference to the religious principle of pacifism.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam,” Mr. Ali said in 1967, “while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
His title was immediately taken away, and he was banned from his sport for more than three years. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but a prolonged appeals process kept him from serving time.
Mr. Ali’s decision outraged the old guard, including many sportswriters and middle Americans, who considered the boxer arrogant and unpatriotic. But as the cultures of youth and black America were surging to the fore in the late 1960s, Mr. Ali was gradually transformed, through his sheer magnetism and sense of moral purpose, into one of the most revered figures of his time.
A casual statement he made in 1966 — “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” — distilled the antiwar views of a generation.
“Ali, along with Robert Kennedy and the Beatles in the persona of John Lennon, captured the ’60s to perfection,” writer Jack Newfield told Thomas Hauser, the author of a 1991 oral biography, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.”
“In a rapidly changing world,” Newfield added, “he underwent profound personal change and influenced rather than simply reflected his times.”
Later, as Mr. Ali’s boxing career receded into the past, and as neurological infirmities left him increasingly slowed and silenced, he became a symbol of unity and brotherhood, someone whose very presence and image acquired an aura of the spiritual. He was greeted by thousands whenever he toured the world.
He “evolved from a feared warrior,” Hauser wrote, “to a benevolent monarch and ultimately to a benign venerated figure.”
In 1996, Mr. Ali stood at the top of a podium during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games in Atlanta in what became one of the most indelible moments in Olympic history. Shakily holding the torch as an estimated 3 billion people watched on television, Mr. Ali lit the Olympic flame, marking the official beginning of the Games. He stood alone before the world, a fragile, yet still indomitable demigod.