One of boxing’s most legendary fighters, Muhammad Ali, died Friday, June 3, in Arizona after being hospitalized for respiratory problems. He was 74. Ali had long been in decline as a result of the Parkinson’s symptoms he developed soon after his boxing career ended. As celebrated as he was for his performance inside the ring—amassing 56 wins, 37 of them knockouts, in a career that spanned more than 20 years—his status beyond the ring evolved over the decades. The brash, graceful young athlete who targeted his opponents with boastful yet poetic taunts became a political warrior vilified for his controversial positions during the civil rights era, before becoming a beloved, if increasingly silenced, elder statesman in retirement.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942, he started boxing at age 12, winning his first bout in 1954 by split decision. Clay won the 1956 Golden Gloves Championship for novices in the light-heavyweight class and three years later won the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. He turned pro soon after winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
At 6 feet 3 and 190 pounds, Clay used his quick feet and sharp jabs to dominate in the ring. He would use his mouth just as effectively, and from the start often held court at press conferences. In one of his most famous self-appraisals, he declared that he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He backed up his statements in the ring, knocking out British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in 1963 and taking out Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the world heavyweight champion. Clay proclaimed in the ring after the bout that he “shook up the world!”—and provided more evidence the next morning, when he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
A year later, Ali knocked out Liston in the first round of a controversial rematch, but he would face far greater controversy—and one of his biggest battles—in 1966 after he stated that he would not serve in the military, citing his religious beliefs and declaring himself a conscientious objector. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n—ger,” he reportedly said. At his scheduled induction into the armed forces in 1967, Ali refused to step forward when his name was called. Even after being told that he was committing a felony, Ali stood his ground—and was arrested.
The New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and revoked his heavyweight champion title. Ali, at the height of his physical powers, had been banned from boxing; it would be more than three years before he returned to the ring. The Justice Department, which had denied his conscientious-objector status, also pursued a court case against him, and he was convicted of refusing to be inducted.
While his case was being appealed (a federal appeals court would uphold the conviction but would be overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971), Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, first in Georgia, where he knocked out Jerry Quarry. But in a career first for Ali, he lost in 1971 to Joe Frazier in a 15-rounder in New York that was dubbed “the Fight of the Century.” (He would go on to fight Frazier two more times, defeating him in both encounters. Their final confrontation, the “Thrilla in Manilla,” was in 1974.)
Another legendary bout, against the mighty reigning champ George Foreman, took place in 1974. Promoter Don King, who held it in Kinshasa, Zaire, billed it as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali won the title back in a battle that lived up to its hype. He utilized a strategy that was later termed the “rope-a-dope,” in which he leaned against the ropes and invited Foreman to hit him. Foreman obliged and eventually punched himself into exhaustion.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ali’s career was in decline. He lost his last fight, to Trevor Berbick, in 1981 and retired the next day. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, although he had been experiencing symptoms for several years, including tremors and changes in speech and walking. The link between his development of Parkinson’s and the beatings he took in the ring is still disputed.
Ali was married four times and had nine children. Laila Ali, a daughter from his third marriage, to Veronica Porsche, forged a successful boxing career—although her father frowned upon female boxers. His last wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, whom he married in 1986, first met her future husband in 1963, when she was 6.
In retirement he dedicated himself to philanthropic work, raising money for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix. He also supported the Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation. In 1996 the world watched a trembling Ali light the Olympic Flame at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Ali was appointed a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998, and in 2005 the man whose racial, religious and political beliefs had so polarized a nation received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. Ali once said, “I’m an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself and I believe in the goodness of others.”
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.