Muhammad Ali, 'The greatest of all time,' dead at 74

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...

Muhammad Ali 'passed peacefully'

Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself "The Greatest" and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead.

Ali died Friday at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications, a family spokesman confirmed to NBC News. He was 74.

"After a 32-year battle with Parkinson's disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening," Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman, told NBC News.

Ali had suffered for three decades from Parkinson's Disease, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his legendary verbal grace and his physical dexterity. A funeral service is planned in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Ali through the years:

53 PHOTOS
Muhammad Ali through the years
See Gallery
Muhammad Ali, 'The greatest of all time,' dead at 74
Eighty-five pound Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., is shown posing at twelve, prior to his amateur ring debut in 1954, a three minute, three round split decision over another novice named Ronnie O'Keefe, in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) of Louisville, Ky., member of the West team in Golden Gloves action in New York on March 21, 1960, leads with a right against Gary Jawish of Chevy Chase, Md., in their heavyweight championship bout. Ali won by TKO in the third round. (AP Photo/John Lent)
Cassius Clay, 18-year-old from Louisville, Ky., throws a right at Tony Madigan of Australia, left, during the light heavyweight boxing semi-finals at the Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, Sept. 3, 1960. Clay won the bout with all five votes of the judges. (AP Photo)
A trio of U.S. boxers wear gold medals at the Olympic village in Rome, Sept. 6, 1960. From the left are: Wilbert McClure of Toledo, Ohio, light middleweight; Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky, light heavyweight; and Edward Crook of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, middleweight. (AP Photo)
19-year old Cassius Clay, last year's Olympic gold medalist who recently turned professional, connects with a straight right to the jaw of Kolo (Duke) Sabedong during a 10-round heavyweight bout in Las Vegas, Nevada June 26, 1961. Clay, who maintains he will be world champion before he turns 21, scored a unanimous decision, to run his professional winning streak to seven straight. Clay, of Louisville, Ky., weighed in at 197 1/2 lbs., while Sabedong, of San Francisco, Calif., tipped the scales at 226. (AP Photo)
Young heavyweight fighter Cassius Clay is seen at City Parks Gym in New York, Feb. 8, 1962. (AP Photo/Dan Grossi)
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) (right) lands on Don Warner's jaw in an early exchange of their fight in Miami Beach, Fla., February 28, 1962 with a straight right. It was the same punch which knocked Warner through the ropes in Round 4 and headed him for a technical knockout as the fight was stopped soon after he climbed back to the canvas. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo, young heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, points to a sign he wrote on a chalk board in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, predicting he'd knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he went on to do. The sign also predicts Clay will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. He did it in seven rounds. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Harold P. Matosian, File)
Young boxer Cassius Clay is seen with his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, April 2, 1963, at an unknown location. (AP Photo)
Cassius Clay, young heavyweight fighter, thrusts his fist out, Feb. 19, 1964, as he tells a crowd at Surfside, Fla., how he'll hit champion Sonny Liston in their upcoming bout at Miami Beach. Clay and his followers paid an unexpected visit to Liston's Surfside camp. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)
Sonny Liston, right, lowers his head and works in close during 6th round of heavyweight championship fight with Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) in Miami Beach, Fla. on Feb. 25, 1964. Liston suffered a cut left eye and a strained left shoulder before the fight was stopped at the end of the round. (AP Photo)
American boxer and sometime actor Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) as Eric Sevareid interviews him during an episode of the CBS Evening News, New York, March 24, 1964. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
World heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali is held back by referee Joe Walcott after Ali knocked out challenger Sonny Liston in 1 minute, 42 seconds of the first round of the scheduled 15 round championship bout in Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965. (AP Photo/stf)
Muhammad Ali reacts after the referee stopped the bout between Ali and European champ Karl Mildenberger, Sept 10, 1966, in Frankfurt, Germany. Ali won by technical knockout. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali lands with a left to the head of Ernie Terrell in the seventh round of their 15-round heavyweight championship fight in Houston, Tex., Feb. 6, 1967. Ali battered Terrell throughout the entire fight to win by a unanimous decision. (AP Photo)
Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali sits in the back seat of a limousine with his wife Belinda after he was released from Dade County jail in Miami, Dec. 23, 1968. Ali served 8 days of a 10-day sentence on a 1967 traffic charge. He was among 50 prisoners released early on Christmas amnesty. (AP Photo/Harold Valentine)
Muhammad Ali delivers a hard right to Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970 in a scheduled 15 round fight at Atlanta, Ga. Ali was declared the winner after Quarry didn't answer the bell for the fourth round. Quarry had a gash over his left eye that required 11stitches to close. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway Jr.)
Muhammad Ali holds his 2 year old daughter, Maryum Ali, while waiting to tape a show for ABC "Wide World of Sports" in New York on Oct. 29, 1970. With the fighter is his wife, Belinda. (AP Photo/ Anthony Camerano)
Muhammad Ali has his right cocked as he punishes the heavy bag with lightning-quick lefts during training in Miami Beach, Fla, on Monday March 4, 1971 for his heavyweight title fight with champion Joe Frazier in New York. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali lands a blow to the face of Jimmy Ellis in the 11th round of their 12-round heavyweight fight in Houston on July 26, 1971. Ali landed blows freely in the 11th round and the fight was halted in the 12th round with Ali getting a TKO. (AP Photo)
FILE--Muhammad Ali lies on canvas after being knocked down by heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in this March 8, 1971 file photo. The heavyweight championship fight between Frazier and Ali was billed as The Fight, and 25 years later, it still is The Fight, secure in its place in boxing legend. (AP Photo/File)
Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali tells European heavyweight champ Joe Bugner, seen Dec. 18, 1972, that he will stop him in seven rounds in their 12-round match in Las Vegas on Feb. 14. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali, right, winces as Ken Norton hits him with a left to the head in their scheduled 12-round re-match, Sept. 10, 1973 at the Forum in Inglewood, California. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali, left, and Joe Frazier in the 12 round non-title fight that took place at Madison Square Garden in New York, January 28, 1974. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Oct. 30, 1974 file photo, Challenger Muhammad Ali watches as defending world champion George Foreman goes down to the canvas in the eighth round of their WBA/WBC championship match in Kinshasa, Zaire, on Oct. 30, 1974. Foreman was counted out by the referee and Ali regained the world heavyweight crown by knockout in the bout dubbed "Rumble in the Jungle." (AP Photo/File)
**FILE** Spray flies from the head of challenger Joe Frazier, left, as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali connects with a right in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines, Oct. 1, 1975. Ali won the fight on a decision to retain the title. (AP Photo/Mitsunori Chigita, File)
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali gets in a little road work escorted by two automobiles and a police cruiser in a park in Greenbelt, Maryland, April 28, 1976. He will fight challenger Jimmy Young in a championship bout on Friday. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali waves with his fists behind the balance during weigh-in ceremony on May 23, 1976 in Munich for his upcoming title fight against British champion Richard Dunn on May 24, 1976 in Munich?s Olympic hall. (AP Photo)
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali knocks challenger Ken Norton back with a right hand punch in the 14th round of their title fight Tuesday night, September 28, 1976. Ali retained his title with a decision win in the 15-round fight in New York's Yankee Stadium. (AP Photo)
Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali prepares his right as he jabs at challenger Leon Spinks with his left during the first round at their 15-round title bout at the Hilton Pavillion in Las Vegas, Nev., Feb. 16, 1978. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali, noted mouthpiece of the boxing world, has to listen here as heavyweight champion Leon Spinks has the floor for a word during their contract signing in New Orleans, April 11, 1978. The fighters will meet on September 15 in the Superdome. (AP Photo)
Former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, right, trades punches with a Soviet boxer in one of three two-round unscored exhibition bouts on Tuesday, June 20, 1978 in Moscow. Afterwards, Ali said he thought that he had lost one of the bouts, and added on an uncharacteristic modest note: ?Me, I?m finished. My day is over. I?m going on guts and courage and native ability.? (AP Photo/Yurchenko)
Muhammad Ali ponders a question at news conference following his WBA heavyweight title bout with Leon Spinks in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 16, 1978. Ali regained his title with a 15-round unanimous decision. ?Thank God it?s over,? said Ali. (AP Photo)
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 2,1980: Muhammad Ali (L) throws a punch against Larry Holmes during the fight at Caesars Palace, on October 2,1980 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Larry Holmes won the WBC heavyweight title by a RTD 10. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
Trevor Berbick, left, and Muhammad Ali seem to have an equal reach as they slug it out during a Friday night boxing match on Dec. 12, 1981 in Nassau, Bahamas. Berbick won the 10 round bout with a unanimous decision. (AP Photo)
JUL 14 1981; Ali, Muhammad (Boxer) - Ind.; (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, clowns around as he takes a "punch" to the nose by the Rocky Marciano award during a photo session at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, Nov. 19, 1984. The award was presented to Ali during the organization's annual Salute to Boxing Greats. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Muhammad Ali watches as the flame climbs up to the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics Friday, July 19, 1996, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
Muhammad Ali poses with Dream Team members from left: Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton after receiving the gold medal, which replaces the 1960 gold medal he lost, during half time ceremonies at the gold medal game of basketball competition at the Centennial Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta Saturday, August 3, 1996. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch presented the medal to Ali. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)
Muhammad Ali playfully spars with a photographer while on a tour bus to visit Alain Leroy Locke High School, Tuesday, December 3, 1996, in South-Central Los Angeles. Ali visited two high schools and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to promote his new book, "HEALING: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding," with co-author Thomas Hauser. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Muhammad Ali, known as "The Greatest," poses next to a Wheaties "The Breakfast of Champions" poster during the unveiling of the 75th Anniversary cereal box in his honor in New York, Thursday Feb. 4, 1999. "Muhammad Ali is quite possibly the most recognized sports figure of our time," said Wheaties market manager Jim Murphy. "That's why we are especially proud to recognize him on our box during our 75th anniversary celebration." (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Johnny Grant, right, honorary mayor of Hollywood, reaches over to shake the hand of Muhammad Ali after the boxing legend's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled Friday, Jan. 11, 2002, in Los Angeles' Hollywood district. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Actor Will Smith applauds as he presents the humanitarian award to boxing great Muhammad Ali during the 2nd Annual BET Awards Tuesday, June 25, 2002, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Former heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali waves to the crowd below as his daughter IBA super middleweight champion Laila Ali, touches him after they unveiled a new giant three-paneled wallscape in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)
Muhammad Ali listen to fans as he prepares to promote his latest book "The Soul Of A Butterfly," co-authored with his daughter Hana Ali, in Harlem, New York, Wednesday Dec. 1, 2004. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2005 file photo, President Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to boxer Muhammad Ali in the East Room of the White House. He is now so much a part of the nation's social fabric that it's hard to comprehend a time when Ali was more reviled than revered. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
** FILE ** Golf great Arnold Palmer, left, greets boxing legend Muhammad Ali, center, and Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, right, prior to the coin toss at the Orange Bowl football game between Wake Forest and Louisville Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2007, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Former boxing heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali watches from the audience during the opening plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting Wednesday, Sept 24, 2008 in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Producer Jerry Weintraub, left, greets Muhammad Ali at the UNICEF Ball honoring Weintraub in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Muhammad Ali waves to the crowd during Muhammad Ali Celebrity Fight Night XVII on Saturday March. 19, 2011, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Retired boxing champion Muhammad Ali, center, is presented with the Liberty Medal by his daughter Laila Ali, right, as his wife Lonnie Ali, left, looks on during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, in Philadelphia. The honor is given annually to an individual who displays courage and conviction while striving to secure liberty for people worldwide. His sister-in-law Marilyn Williams is at right. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Former boxing legend Muhammad Ali arrives for the coin toss prior to the start of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game between Florida and Louisville on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Even as his health declined, Ali did not shy from politics or controversy, releasing a statement in December criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. "We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," he said.

The remark bookended the life of a man who burst into the national consciousness in the early 1960s, when as a young heavyweight champion he converted to Islam and refused to serve in the Vietnam War, and became an emblem of strength, eloquence, conscience and courage. Ali was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion. His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles.

Born Cassius Clay on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, to middle-class parents, Ali started boxing when he was 12, winning Golden Gloves titles before heading to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight.

He turned professional shortly afterward, supported at first by Louisville business owners who guaranteed him an unprecedented 50-50 split in earnings. His knack for talking up his own talents — often in verse — earned him the dismissive nickname "the Louisville Lip," but he backed up his talk with action, relocating to Miami to train with the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee and build a case for getting a shot at the heavyweight title.

As his profile rose, Ali acted out against American racism. After he was refused services at a soda fountain counter, he said, he threw his Olympic gold medal into a river.

Recoiling from the sport's tightly knit community of agents and promoters, Ali found guidance instead from the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected the pacifism of most civil rights activism. Inspired by Malcolm X, one of the group's leaders, he converted in 1963. But he kept his new faith a secret until the crown was safely in hand.

Related: 'Blood Brothers': The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

That came the following year, when heavyweight champion Sonny Liston agreed to fight Ali. The challenger geared up for the bout with a litany of insults and rhymes, including the line, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." He beat the fearsome Liston in a sixth-round technical knockout before a stunned Miami Beach crowd. In the ring, Ali proclaimed, "I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I'm the king of the world."

A Controversial Champion

The new champion soon renounced Cassius Clay as his "slave name" and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali — bestowed by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. He was 22 years old.

The move split sports fans and the broader American public: an American sports champion rejecting his birth name and adopting one that sounded subversive.

Ali successfully defended his title six times, including a rematch with Liston. Then, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army.

He'd said previously that the war did not comport with his faith, and that he had "no quarrel" with America's enemy, the Vietcong. He refused to serve.

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?" Ali said in an interview. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me."

His stand culminated with an April appearance at an Army recruiting station, where he refused to step forward when his name was called. The reaction was swift and harsh. He was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.

Released on appeal but unable to fight or leave the country, Ali turned to the lecture circuit, speaking on college campuses, where he engaged in heated debates, pointing out the hypocrisy of denying rights to blacks even as they were ordered to fight the country's battles abroad.

"My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese," Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance. "You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won't even stand up for me here at home."

Rumble in the Jungle: Ali vs. Foreman:

14 PHOTOS
Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman
See Gallery
Muhammad Ali, 'The greatest of all time,' dead at 74
TO GO WITH AFP STORIES In this photo taken on October 30, 1974 shows the fight between US boxing heavyweight champions, Muhammad Ali (L) (born Cassius Clay) and George Foreman in Kinshasa. On October 30, 1974 Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a clash of titans known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle', watched by 60 000 people in the stadium in Kinshasa and millions elsewhere. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Defending world heavyweight champion George Foreman, left, watches a right from challenger Muhammad Ali that ended their title bout in the eighth round at Kinshasa, Zaire, Oct. 30, 1974. Foreman fell to the canvas and was counted out by referee Zack Clayton, right, in the match dubbed Rumble in the Jungle. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)
Perspiration flies from the head of George Foreman as he takes a right from challenger Muhammad Ali in the seventh round in the match dubbed Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire, Oct. 30, 1974. Foreman was knocked out in the eighth round. The referee, left, is Zack Clayton. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)
FILE - In this Oct. 30, 1974, file photo, perspiration flies from the head of defending champion George Foreman as he takes a right from challenger Muhammad Ali in the seventh round in their world heavyweight championship bout dubbed "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali regained the world heavyweight crown by knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)
Challenger Muhammad Ali watches as defending world champion George Foreman goes down to the canvas in the eighth round of their WBA/WBC championship match in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. Foreman is counted out by the referee and Ali regains the world heavyweight crown by KO in the bout dubbed 'Rumble in the Jungle.' (AP Photo)
Challenger Muhammad Ali winces as he is hit with a powerful left jab to the body by defending world champion George Foreman in their WBA/WBC championship bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. Ali regained the heavyweight crown by knocking out Foreman in the eighth round of the fight dubbed 'Rumble in the Jungle.' (AP Photo)
FILE - This is a Oct. 30, 1974 file photo of Muhammad Ali winces as he takes a George Foreman left to the jaw in fifth round of their heavyweight championship bout in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round to regain the title. It was 40 years ago that two men met just before dawn on Oct. 30, 1974, to earn $5 million in the Rumble in the Jungle. In one of boxing's most memorable moments, Muhammad Ali stopped the fearsome George Foreman to recapture the heavyweight title in the impoverished African nation of Zaire. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky, File)
FILE - This is a Oct. 30, 1974 file photo of Muhammad Ali as he watches George Foreman head for the canvas after being knocked out in the eighth round of their match in Kinshasa, Zaire. It was 40 years ago that two men met just before dawn on Oct. 30, 1974, to earn $5 million in the Rumble in the Jungle. In one of boxing's most memorable moments, Muhammad Ali stopped the fearsome George Foreman to recapture the heavyweight title in the impoverished African nation of Zaire. (AP Photo, File)
Challenger Muhammad Ali watches as defending world champion George Foreman struggles to keep his balance during the WBA/WBC championship bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. Ali regained the heavyweight crown by knocking out Foreman in the eighth round of their fight dubbed 'Rumble in the Jungle.' The referee is Zack Clayton. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali looks down at George Foreman during their bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, Oct. 30, 1974. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Oct. 30, 1974 file photo, referee Zack Clayton, right, steps in after challenger Muhammad Ali looks on after knocking down defending heavyweight champion George Foreman in the eighth round of their championship bout in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali regained the world heavyweight crown by knockout in the eighth round of the fight dubbed "Rumble in the Jungle." (AP Photo/File)
In this photo taken on October 30, 1974 shows the fight between US boxing heavyweight champions, Muhammad Ali (L) (born Cassius Clay) and George Foreman in Kinshasa. On October 30, 1974 Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a clash of titans known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle', watched by 60 000 people in the stadium in Kinshasa and millions elsewhere. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORIES In this photo taken on October 30, 1974 shows US boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (C) (born Cassius Clay) during a press conference after the heavyweight world championship in Kinshasa. On October 30, 1974 Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a clash of titans known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle', watched by 60 000 people in the stadium in Kinshasa and millions elsewhere AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Ali's fiery commentary was praised by antiwar activists and black nationalists and vilified by conservatives, including many other athletes and sportswriters.

His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali's stance wasn't motivated by religious belief.

Return to the Ring

Toward the end of his legal saga, Georgia agreed to issue Ali a boxing license, which allowed him to fight Jerry Quarry, whom he beat. Six months later, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, he lost to Joe Frazier in a 15-round duel touted as "the fight of the century." It was Ali's first defeat as a pro.

That fight began one of boxing's and sport's greatest rivalries. Ali and Frazier fought again in 1974, after Frazier had lost his crown. This time, Ali won in a unanimous decision, making him the lead challenger for the heavyweight title.

He took it from George Foreman later that year in a fight in Zaire dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle," a spectacularly hyped bout for which Ali moved to Africa for the summer, followed by crowds of chanting locals wherever he went. A three-day music festival featuring James Brown and B.B. King preceded the fight. Finally, Ali delivered a historic performance in the ring, employing a new strategy dubbed the "rope-a-dope," goading the favored Foreman into attacking him, then leaning back into the ropes in a defensive stance and waiting for Foreman to tire. Ali then went on the attack, knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. The maneuver has been copied by many other champions since.

The third fight in the Ali-Frazier trilogy followed in 1975, the "Thrilla in Manila" that is now regarded as one of the best boxing matches of all time. Ali won in a technical knockout in the 15th round.

Ali successfully defended his title until 1978, when he was beaten by a young Leon Spinks, and then quickly took it back. He retired in 1979, when he was 37, but, seeking to replenish his dwindling personal fortune, returned in 1980 for a title match against Larry Holmes, which he lost. Ali lost again, to Trevor Berbick, the following year. Finally, Ali retired for good.

'He's Human, Like Us'

The following year, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

"I'm in no pain," he told The New York Times. "A slight slurring of my speech, a little tremor. Nothing critical. If I was in perfect health — if I had won my last two fights — if I had no problem, people would be afraid of me. Now they feel sorry for me. They thought I was Superman. Now they can go, 'He's human, like us. He has problems.' ''

He traveled incessantly for many years, crisscrossing the globe in appearances in which he made money but also pushed philanthropic causes. He met with presidents, royalty, heads of state, the Pope. He told "People" magazine that his largest regret was not playing a more intimate role in the raising of his children. But he said he did not regret boxing. "If I wasn't a boxer, I wouldn't be famous," he said. "If I wasn't famous, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now."

In 2005, President George W. Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his hometown of Louisville opened the Muhammad Ali Center, chronicling his life but also as a forum for promoting tolerance and respect.

Divorced three times and the father of nine children — one of whom, Laila, become a boxer — Ali married his last wife, Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams, in 1986; they lived for a long time in Berrien Springs, Michigan, then moved to Arizona.

In recent years, Ali's health began to suffer dramatically. There was a death scare in 2013, and last year he was rushed to the hospital after being found unresponsive. He recovered and returned to his new home in Arizona.

In his final years, Ali was barely able to speak. Asked to share his personal philosophy with NPR in 2009, Ali let his wife read his essay:

"I never thought of the possibility of failing, only of the fame and glory I was going to get when I won," Ali wrote. "I could see it. I could almost feel it. When I proclaimed that I was the greatest of all time, I believed in myself, and I still do."

Even as his health gradually declined, Ali — who switched to more mainstream branches of Islam — threw himself into humanitarian causes, traveling to Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990 to seek the release of American hostages. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, lifting the torch with shaking arms. With each public appearance he seemed more feeble, a stark contrast to his outsized aura. He continued to be one of the most recognizable people in the world.

Read Full Story

People are Reading