Goodbye to The Greatest
World pays tribute to boxing icon Muhammad Ali
Inspirational, funny, iconic or simply just The Greatest; the world paid tribute to Muhammad Ali yesterday after the former world heavyweight boxing champion and one of sport’s most influential individuals died at the age of 74.
The three-time heavyweight champion, who had battled Parkinson’s disease for 32 years, had been admitted to hospital earlier in the week with a respiratory condition.
The news of his passing led to an outpouring of emotion from across the globe, with Ali having inspired many with his actions both inside and outside the ring.
Whether touched by his sublime boxing ability, captivated by his skills on a microphone or moved by his battle for civil rights; the reach of Ali went beyond his sport.
“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it,” US President Barack Obama said.
George Foreman, who famously lost to Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, said: “Beauty is how you would describe him. Forget about boxing, he was one of the greatest men to appear in the media. The man was the greatest.”
Some chose to remember his classic battles, while others recited his melodic phrases. Ali transcended sport unlike any other and few will dispute his moniker as ‘The Greatest’.
He was fast of fist and foot - lip, too - a heavyweight champion who promised to shock the world and did. He floated. He stung. Mostly he thrilled, even after the punches had taken their toll and his voice barely rose above a whisper. He was The Greatest. Muhammad Ali died yesterday at age 74 after being hospitalised with respiratory problems - and the world paid its tribute.
“It’s a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die,” said Don King, who promoted some of Ali’s biggest fights.
“Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world.”
With a wit as sharp as his punches, Ali dominated sport for two decades before time and Parkinson’s disease, triggered by thousands of blows to the head, ravaged his magnificent body, muted his majestic voice and ended his storied career in 1981.
He won and defended the heavyweight championship in epic fights in exotic locations, spoke loudly on behalf of the black community, and famously refused to be drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War because of his Muslim beliefs.
Despite his debilitating illness, he travelled the world to rapturous receptions even after his once-bellowing voice was quieted and he was left to communicate with just a wink or a weak smile.
“He was the greatest fighter of all time but his boxing career is secondary to his contribution to the world,” said promoter Bob Arum. “He’s the most transforming figure of my time certainly.”
Revered by millions worldwide and reviled by millions more, Ali cut quite a figure, 6ft 3in and 95kg in his prime. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” his cornermen exhorted, and he did just that in a way no heavyweight had ever fought before.
He fought in three different decades, finished with a record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts - 26 of those bouts promoted by Arum - and was the first man to win heavyweight titles three times.
He beat the fearsome Sonny Liston twice, toppled the mighty George Foreman in Zaire, and nearly fought to the death with Joe Frazier in the Philippines. Through it all, he was trailed by a colourful entourage who merely added to his growing legend.
“Rumble, young man, rumble,” cornerman Bundini Brown would yell to him.
And rumble Ali did. He fought anyone who meant anything and made millions of dollars with his lightning-quick jab. His fights were so memorable that they had names - “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila”.
But it was as much his antics - and his mouth - outside the ring that transformed the man born Cassius Clay in 1942 into a household name as Muhammad Ali.
“I am the greatest,” Ali thundered again and again. Few would disagree.
Ali spurned white America when he joined the Black Muslims and changed his name. He defied the draft at the height of the Vietnam war - “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” - and lost three-and-a-half years from the prime of his career. He entertained world leaders, once telling Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos: “I saw your wife. You’re not as dumb as you look.”
THE BEST: Muhammad Ali is held back by referee Joe Walcott, left, after knocking out challenger Sonny Liston in the first round of their title fight in Lewiston in 1965
THE GREATEST: Ali connects with Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila; (below) Ali with Dr Martin Luther King