Muhammad Ali, to some the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in history and to many a charismatic force of nature whose presence changed the way we look at sport forever, died Friday after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
A family spokesperson confirmed the news to NBC News.
Adam Schefter of ESPN provided a full statement from family spokesman Bob Gunnell:
He was 74.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on Jan. 17, 1942, the kid named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. would go on to be a living legend. That Muhammad Ali was destined for greatness was preordained.
You knew that because he told you.
Ali, who won his first heavyweight championship in 1964 while still going by his given name, is the seminal figure in many of boxing’s greatest moments. He gave fans the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila,” fights so indelible their opponents don’t even need to be named. He gave them the greatest rivalry in boxing history with Joe Frazier and helped boost the international profile of George Foreman, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes, among others.
While some have a better record than Ali’s 56-5 (37 KOs), none have given more moments cemented in sports lore. The grace, fluidity and precision with which he fought redefined what it meant to be a heavyweight. No longer was it a division of only brute strength, but one combining power with the style and flair of other divisions.
KENICHI MORI/Associated Press
Ali’s rhetoric redefined boxing promotion and what the public expected of athletes. There are remnants of his effect in everyoverhyped pre-fight press conference and in every overly dissected moment of candor from an athlete.
The legendary fighter taught athletes that the greatest vessel for communication is always yourself.
Ali was one of the first athletes to speak out on race relations and social injustice. That athletes are now expected to have nuanced social opinions was borne from people like Ali and Tommie Smith.
We will never know how long Ali’s championship reign would have lasted had he not refused to fight in the Vietnam War. That cost him three years of his prime, at a point where he’d gone undefeated through his first 29 fights.
But his willingness to accept the aftermath of that decision is what helped make Ali so special.
The three years transformed him from social pariah to hero for a younger generation. His work with the Nation of Islam helped soften the stance of a country still coming to grips with the abolition of racial segregation. His grace and strident nature throughout the ordeal gave hope and confidence to other non-violent protesters of social injustice.
“Muhammad Ali inspired me—from when I was a young boy growing up—he motivated me to chase my dreams inside and out of the ring,” former undisputed world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis wrote in the Telegraph. “I admired the fact that he was concerned about people, enough to oppose the war in Vietnam and young men going there to fight. He is a religious man and he captured my attention because he was always helpful to people.”
He was a fighter, through words, fists and litigation—all of which made him great but also led to his downfall.
Like so many professional boxers, Ali perhaps held on too long. Holmes’ 1980 drubbing of a 38-year-old Ali is chilling in retrospect. That Ali fought Trevor Berbick one year later, with the hand tremors and difficulty speaking having already begun, only made matters worse. Ali lost three of his last four fights, the last coming againstBerbick in 1981.
Three years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We’ll never know how much those last few fights contributed to his diagnosis, but the last three decades of Ali’s life were spent in a constant state of appreciation—with no one sure when he’d make his next public appearance.
DOUG MILLS/Associated Press
The disease slowly eroded his famed whip-smart mind, his ability to communicate effectively, his ability to stand long periods of time. But it did not take away his cultural impact. Despite his condition, Ali served as the U.N. Messenger of Peace, was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom and founded the Muhammad Ali Center—an encompassing Louisville structure built to honor his career and beliefs.
Ali’s public appearances grew fewer and farther between. He was last seen at a Celebrity Fight Night event in Arizona in April. For most of 2015, Ali stayed out of the public eye after being hospitalized due to an infection.
Perhaps the most famous of Ali’s recent public appearances came at the 2012 London Olympics, where he served as an Olympic flag-bearer. Donning sunglasses and an all-white suit, Ali looked little like the man who once dominated the boxing ring.
Yet everyone in that London arena knew what was happening. They rose to their feet and, with the loudest cheer given to anyone that evening, honored Ali one last time on the grandest stage.
Muhammad Ali will be missed. His legacy? It’ll be etched on boxing forever.
Written By: Tyler Conway