Muhammad Ali—a political activist, author, and one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century—has died, the Associated Press reports. Ali, who was hospitalized in Phoenix recently due to complications from a respiratory complaint, was 74 years old.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., and boxing for several years under the name Cassius Clay, Ali first stepped into the ring when he was 12 years old. Ten years later, he was the heavyweight champion of the world, defeating champ Sonny Liston and becoming the youngest man ever to win the title through a direct contest (a record Mike Tyson would subsequently claim for himself in 1986). Ali was known both for his speed in the ring and his love of verbally sparring with opponents—coining irresistible phrases like “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see” in the lead-up to his bout with Liston. His attitude was often derided by the sporting press, whose traditionalists viewed his taunting—and his alleged tendency to toy with opponents who had angered him, prolonging fights to inflict maximum punishment—as poor sportsmanship.
Shortly after winning the title, Clay converted to the Nation Of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He also participated in—and won—a number of title defenses before running afoul of the U.S. government over his opposition to serving in the Vietnam War. (When asked his reasons for resisting the draft, Ali told reporters, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.”) In response to his stance, Ali was eventually stripped of his title, his passport, and his boxing license as his appeal against charges of draft dodging made its slow way through the U.S. justice system. During that time, he became a countercultural figure, speaking at colleges and protesting the war.
Ali was eventually allowed to return to boxing in 1970 after a series of legal victories (which culminated in a 1971 Supreme Court decision recognizing his appeal and overturning his conviction). Having been stripped of the heavyweight title, Ali was quickly pitted against Joe Frazier, the man who had claimed it in his absence. The “Fight Of The Century” between the two undefeated heavyweight champions was a national sensation. It was also Ali’s first professional loss. The two men—who developed a bitter enmity for each other after Ali repeatedly categorized his opponent as an “Uncle Tom”—would fight twice more, with Ali winning both bouts. After the third fight, the grueling “Thrilla In Manilla,” Ali told reporters that it “was the closest thing to dying that I know” and called Frazier “the greatest fighter of all times, next to me.”
Beyond the Frazier fights, Ali’s most celebrated battle was with heavyweight champion George Foreman, who he fought in 1974 in “The Rumble In The Jungle.” The fight emphasized both Ali’s skills as a showman and as a strategist in the ring. Ali sapped his opponent’s stamina with the now-famous “rope-a-dope” tactic, using the ring’s ropes to deflect and absorb Foreman’s crushing blows. Ali won by knockout in the eighth round.
Ali’s talent as a fighter diminished in the late ’70s, ending with a final bout in 1981. He eventually settled into his role as an elder statesman of the sport: He was honored in an Olympic torch-lighting ceremony, presented with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, and portrayed by Will Smith in a 2001 biopic (earning Smith an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). Yet Ali’s legacy stays centered on the legend of his youth. A young black man who refused to be humbled, who declared himself “The Greatest,” and who openly demanded that people recognize his talents, Ali was a new kind of black sports hero, one who refused to smile and nod along.