This story originally appeared on June 4, 2016, just after midnight Eastern time, shortly after the death of Muhammad Ali was announced by his family.
Muhammad Ali has died. The three-time heavyweight champion of the world, who became the most recognized human being in the world, departed this world on Friday, after a brief bout with respiratory illness and a decades-long battle against Parkinson’s disease, according to a spokesperson for the family. He was 74.
Three police officers from Louisville left town for Scottsdale, Ariz., Thursday night for the grim task of bringing ‘The Greatest’ home for the final time. A memorial service is planned for this week, with more details expected during a noon news conference today. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer will order flags in the city to be flown at half-staff in a 10 a.m. ceremony at Metro Hall.
Ali’s death, like his life, will reverberate around the world. It will hit nowhere harder than Louisville, his hometown, which shaped him, discovered him, struggled with him, and sent him off into the world only to see him return a different man, with a different name, a man who belonged to everyone.
Ali was bigger than life long before his death. Like all great figures in history, he came to mean very different things to many different people. His devastating grace as a fighter, his brash way of speaking, his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, his conversion to Islam, his advocacy for people of color, and then for all people, and for peace, led to a mythology of the man.
“He was received by kings, queens, presidents,” his longtime friend and business manager Gene Kilroy said. “And he was embraced by everyday people, on the street, wherever he went. Everybody loved him because he had that innocence of boyhood but still had the dignity of man.”
Through everything, Ali always came back home. He came back after winning the Olympic Gold in Rome in 1960. He came back after the victories. He came back after the losses. When the time came to establish a museum of his life, beliefs and career, the Muhammad Ali Center was established in Louisville. It opened in 2005. In 2007, Ali and his wife, Lonnie, purchased a home in eastern Jefferson County, where they have lived part-time ever since.
Longtime friend Wade Houston remembered the early days.
“He’d come back in the neighborhood after most of his fights,” Houston said. “He’d always come back driving that recreational vehicle, down Grand Street, and police would pull him over, look in the window, and see Ali, then say, ‘Slow that thing down, champ.’ And he’d keep on driving. He loved driving back home.”
He came back to be reminded of his humble roots, the little pink home at 3302 Grand Avenue where he grew up; his father, Cassius Clay Sr., a sign painter and aspiring artist, for whom he was named, and his mother Odessa O’Grady “Mama Bird” Clay. His little brother, Rudy Clay, used to throw rocks at him in a small alley beside the house, the first dodges and ducks of a boy who would become the fastest heavyweight who ever lived.
“I got to go down with him, stayed at his home in Louisville with his mom and dad and his brother, and all the people around there, and it was something,” Kilroy said. “I remember one time we were in a restaurant, and some guy walked up to us and said, ‘Cassius?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I was in school with you. You were the dumbest guy in the school.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I was dumb. But I came a long way, didn’t I?’ And we laughed. And driving away in the car, he said, ‘I really have to get away from Louisville to get respect.’ You know he traveled all over the world and people were in awe. But he always loved Louisville.”
THE LOUISVILLE LIP
It all started here when Ali was 12 years old. He and his younger brother rode the bikes they’d gotten for Christmas to a home show. When they came out, their bikes were gone. They were upset, and went looking for a policeman. They were directed down some steps.
“We went down a long flight of steps, and it was a boxing gym,” Rahman Ali remembered.
They found Louisville policeman and boxing coach Joe Martin.
“He was all hostile and wanted to whip somebody,” Martin said. “I said you never fight if you don’t know how. I said has anybody ever taught you how to fight? And he said no. And I said you should come down here and learn how to fight first before you start picking fights. So that was the beginning of it. He started coming to the gym, and he was a very religious trainer. He got so he was there when I got there and he was there when I left. He was 12 years old, and weighed 87 pounds. That’s how he got started.”
Clay studied the game. He went to trainer Angelo Dundee and asked how his fighters trained, how far they ran, what they ate. He had always talked big to his friends and anyone else who would listen, now he had a framework on which to hang his dreams. He gained notoriety. He appeared on a weekly televised boxing show in Louisville called, “Tomorrow’s Champions.” He was the national light-heavyweight Golden Gloves champion in 1959 and won again in the 1960s ahead of the Olympic trials.
Within six years of putting on the gloves for the first time, he won the Olympic Gold medal in the 1960 Games in Rome. Within a decade he was heavyweight champion, beating Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, at the age of 22, then the youngest man ever to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion.
His style shocked people. They hadn’t seen — or heard — anything like it. He insulted his opponents, both in the ring and to their face. He spoke in rhyme. He talked about more than just boxing.
Liston had been a heavy favorite. Ali told reporters before the fight: ” …now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing; And raises the bear straight out of the ring; Liston is rising and the ref wears a frown; For he can’t start counting ’til Liston comes down; Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic; But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic; Who would have thought when they came to the fight; That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite? Yes the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money; That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
A NEW NAME, AND EXILE
Shortly after winning the heavyweight title, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, having joined the Nation of Islam. For that reason, in June of 1964, the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title. He continued to defend his World Boxing Council title. And he kept talking.
“In the past, everybody talked but the fighter,” his longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee said. “But now, people wanted to know the star. When I was around this kid for four years, they thought I was a mute, because I never put a word in. Talk to my guy, please.”
He toyed with Floyd Patterson. He stopped Henry Cooper in six rounds in a bout in London. In February of 1967, he defeated Ernie Terrell to win his WBA title back.
Less than two months later, with a professional record of 29-0, Ali was stripped of all his heavyweight titles when he would not step forward for induction into the armed forces for the Vietnam War.
The Courier-Journal the next day included, at the bottom of the front page, this headline: “Clay refuses induction; to lose boxing crown.”
From the wire service story: “Clay — or as his induction papers said, ‘otherwise known as Muhammad Ali’ — made good his promise not to take the traditional step forward that would have symbolized and confirmed his induction. He said his decision was based on his conviction that he could not remain true to his religious beliefs and serve in the military. He is a member of the Black Muslim faith.”
Ali was arrested, but avoided jail as legal appeals were pursued. Meeting with the press after his induction hearing, for once, Ali spoke not a word, but issued a statement, which read, “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given to the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: Either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice.”
More famously, later, he was quoted as saying: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, no Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger.'”
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his conviction.
But during those three years, he would not be able to box. Dundee always reminded reporters that in that time, Ali was in his prime. He lost millions of dollars in earnings. When British interviewer David Frost asked him about that, saying that, “You have thrown away perhaps the greatest sports career since the war,” Ali was indignant.
“I haven’t thrown it away, I haven’t lost it. I would say I turned it down,” Ali said. “See, the greatest sports title means nothing, Mister, if you cannot be free. See? Boys in Vietnam are throwing away, you may say, their lives. I haven’t did that much. I’m still living. They are dying today to free somebody they don’t know. So what the hell is a heavyweight title, and a few stinky dollar bills, for my people’s freedom?”
Public opinion swung against Ali in the early days. But not everywhere. As a schoolboy in Manhattan, a young Lew Alcindor, who would become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, remembered Ali’s style as a revelation.
“I think Ali’s impact on, on young people was, was very formidable,” he said in an interview with Washington University. “I remember when I was in high school, the teachers at my high school didn’t like him because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it, and they didn’t like that at all. The fact that he was proud to be a Black man, and that he was, had so much talent and could enjoy it in a way that was not seen to be, didn’t have the dignity that they assumed that it should have. I think that was something that really made certain people love him and made other people think that he was, he was dangerous. But, for those very reasons, that, that’s why I enjoyed him.”
Abdul-Jabbar was part of a group of high-profile black athletes who met with Ali and backed his stance.
Over time, while a segment of the public may never forgive him for not making himself available to the military, his stance became more accepted, as the popularity of the war waned and protests proliferated.
BACK TO THE TOP
After winning his appeal, Ali set about winning back his title. It would not be easy. After two victories upon returning, he lost a 15-round decision to Joe Frazier, his first professional loss, in what many called The Fight of the Century. He won 10 fights in a row, then lost to Ken Norton, suffering a broken jaw in the process. Six months later, he faced Norton again and beat him.
In January of 1974, he avenged his loss to Frazier by a unanimous decision in 12 rounds. His pro record was 44-2, and he was poised for a chance to regain his WBA and WBC titles. He would face George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in a fight known ever since as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Frazier, remembering the fight for the documentary, I Am Ali called it a life-altering experience.
“I got in the ring with the guy, I bluffed him, I beat him up, basically done everything for five or six rounds, I thought it was easy,” Foreman said. “Then about the sixth round he whispered in my ear, after I’d hit him in the side, ‘That all you got, George?’ And that was about all I had. It turned into a nightmare then. Everybody expected me to win that match. All the oddsmakers had me, by knockout in fact. And once I lost that fight I was devastated. I didn’t understand losing. He knew something about that, so he prepared himself, reserved his power and strength. But I had nothing. I laid in devastation. After I left boxing, I became a minister in the church of Jesus Christ. After I retired, a reporter asked me, ‘What happened in Africa, George? Surely something happened.’ And I admitted, I lost a boxing match, and from that point on I was able to cope. I accepted that I hadn’t just lost a boxing match, but I’d lost to the greatest man I’d ever met.”
A year later, Ali would put his titles on the line, and look to settle things with Frazier, in the “Thrilla in Manila.” Ali had not been good to Frazier. Before their first bout, he had painted Frazier as part of the establishment. Before their fight in the Phillipines he called him a “gorilla.”
Ali held the advantage early. He scored with jabs and moved nimbly around the ring to win in the early rounds. But Frazier was able to land some punches against the ropes in the fourth and fifth round, and he a pair of jarring left hooks in the sixth. Frazier continued to pummel Ali through the middle rounds. But the number of shots Ali was able to land to Frazier’s head and face were taking a toll. Frazier was nearly blind in the ring, and Ali began to zero in, doing further damage to his opponent’s face.
Both men were exhausted. Ali told his corner after the ninth round, “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.” In the 14th round, Ali hit Frazier with a frenzy of punches that would’ve knocked out most boxers. The damage was too much. Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, wouldn’t let him come out for a 15th round.
After the fight, a weary Ali told reporters, “I’m tired of bein’ the whole game. Let other guys do the fightin’. You might never see Ali in the ring again.”
The next morning, he said, “I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”
Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram was one of a few reporters in Frazier’s bedroom of a nearby villa after the fight. He reported Frazier saying, “Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city. Lawdy, Lawdy, he’s a great champion.”
But Ali wasn’t done. He kept going. He won 11 fights in a row over the next three years, until, at the age of 36, he lost a 15-round decision to Leon Spinks. Seven months later, on Sept. 15, 1978, he beat Spinks to get his titles back. His pro record was 56-3.
Most figured that was it. He was nearly 37 years old. He gave up his WBA title a year later.
Still, he wasn’t finished.
On Nov. 20, 1979, he made a phone call to his daughter Maryam, “May May” Ali. For years, Ali had been recording conversations, with his children, with his friends. He recorded phone calls. He told his children he wanted them to have the recordings, for a time when they might not have him. Some of them are played in the Clare Lewins documentary “I Am Ali.”
“My daddy’s sort of psychic,” May May Ali told WDRB in an interview in 2014.
In the interview, he told her he was getting ready to go look at a training camp, and that, “It might be possible that if I like it I might fight again.”
The little girl responded: “Nooo. Don’t fight again, please.”
“Take the title back four times,” Ali responded. “Can you imagine?”
“Don’t fight again,” the daughter said. “You’re getting old.”
He did fight again. On Oct. 2, 1980, he lost his WBC title to Larry Holmes in a technical knockout in the 10th round. It was the only time he was ever knocked out. Again, on Dec. 11, 1981, just a little more than a month shy of his 40th birthday, he lost his final fight, to Trevor Berbick, in a 10-round decision.
Looking back, Dundee and others have speculated that Ali might have been fighting with early indicators of Parkinson’s syndrome in the late 1970s. But he remained active after his retirement from the sport in 1981.
Already one of the world’s most recognizable people because of his global travels and popularity, Ali became an ambassador for his faith, and in some cases, his country.
In 1975, a group of supporters proposed that Armory Place in Downtown Louisville be renamed Muhammad Ali Place. Ali asked that the effort be stopped when Veterans groups protested. In 1975, then Jefferson County Judge Executive Mitch McConnell backed a resolution to rename Central High School after Ali, but the school board wasn’t in favor of it. On Nov. 14, 1975, Louisville’s Board of Aldermen voted to rename Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard in a 6-5 vote. For months, street signs were stolen almost as quickly as they could be replaced.
“I’ll always remember when they named the street for him down there and he said, ‘Can you imagine, ‘Muhammad Ali Boulevard?'” Kilroy said. “And then they told us, everybody keeps stealing the signs and taking them home to their house, so he said, ‘Can I have one?’ And they gave him one.”
In 1991, Ali traveled to Iraq during the Gulf War and met with Saddam Hussein in an effort to secure the release of American hostages.
In 1996, in Atlanta, Ali shocked the world by showing up during the opening ceremonies to light the Olympic flame. His hands trembled, and the latch wouldn’t catch, but he managed to light the cauldron.
In 2002, he traveled to Afghanistan as a United Nations “messenger of peace.” In 2005, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2012, he accepted the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center.
In recent years, he has been silent publicly, except for occasional statements issued on his behalf.
Last September, Sports Illustrated magazine honored him by naming its Legacy Award for lifetime sportsmanship after him.
In 2009, President Barack Obama paid tribute to Ali in a short piece he wrote for USA Today. Obama keeps a picture of Ali standing over Sonny Liston in his office, and referenced it.
“It was this quality of Ali’s that I have always admired the most: his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way.
“This is the quality I’m reminded of when I look at the iconic photo I’ve had hanging on my wall of the young fighter standing over Sonny Liston. And in the end, it was this quality that would come to define not just Ali the boxer but Ali the man — the Ali I know who made his most lasting contribution as his physical powers ebbed, becoming a force for reconciliation and peace around the world.”
As with any public man, the public and private often are two different things. Ali was married four times, the last to Lonnie Williams, in 1986. She has been his caretaker and protector during his declining years.
Ali has nine children, and took pains, though they came from different mothers and varied widely in age, to bring them together from time to time so that they would know each other.
When he gave his daughter Hana a box of tape recordings he had made of the two of them, she said “it was like I was shuffling through a pile of gold.”
“He knew to do it, I think, not just for us, but for the world, because he says that in the recordings,” Hana Ali said. “It’s for us, we have recordings where he’s saying that, and then he has the recordings where he says, you know, this is for the world, too. He wanted to record his own legacy, what was going on behind the scenes, I always tell him, ‘Daddy you created the world’s first reality show, if you think about it.’ So he was ahead of his time, and because he loved life so much, and because he appreciated life so much, and being a father is his most prized role in life, that he enjoyed it.
“With Laila and I growing up, he got to be home more, because he wasn’t boxing as much. So he actually got to see and feel what it was like to be at home as a father with your children every day. So he had more time and he thought it was so beautiful, and he wanted to record that. So that’s why, luckily, thank God, there are so many recordings because of it. And everything going on at the time, the phone ringing constantly off the hook, and everything that was going on in the world, the crises, the ’79 hostage crisis and the government calling him to open the lines of communication with the hostages, him traveling the world talking to different celebrities, talking to his mother, his father, it’s just a beautiful legacy that he left, with his voice, right at the time his voice was beginning to fade. It’s amazing.”
Ali didn’t fear death. He spoke about it openly. He spent time with many writers. It’s hard to find one of any reputation from a certain period who hasn’t written about him. One of the writers he liked best was Dave Kindred, who wrote for The Courier-Journal, then The Washington Post and Sporting News and other places. Kindred said he doesn’t know if Ali ever called him by name. He’d just call him, “Louisville.”
I’m thinking of a passage Kindred wrote, talking about riding in a Cadillac convertible through the Pennsylvania mountains. And Ali’s talk turned to the subject of death.
“You don’t want to die,” Kindred wrote Ali told him. “But you do. The man who built this road is dead. The man who built that house is dead. We’re nobody. Sonny Liston is dead. Zora Folley’s dead. Eddie Machen. These are guys I fought. Now Sonny Liston’s rottin’. We ain’t nothin’.
“We don’t own nothin’, we just borrow it. When you die, another man moves in and your daughter calls him daddy. Death is the tax a soul has to pay for having a name and a form.”
Ali was wrong in one respect. No one is likely to move into his place. His brother, Rahman Ali, remembered sitting with his brother and listening to him talk about his dreams.
“Back in the day when Muhammad and I were young kids, he would say Rudy, I can see it in the stars, God is talking to me,” Rahman Ali said. “He would tell me his destiny, how great he would be. . . . God blessed him with the insight to predict the future. I’m going to be the world’s greatest boxer. I’m going to be a great man. And I will use it to help people.”
These are difficult times in the area of Louisville where Ali grew up. Violence is on the rise. Dreams are in short supply. Ali’s star shines for any with the courage to look up and dream, and work toward their goals.
In I Am Ali, he discussed his retirement with Howard Cosell.
“I was the Concorde of boxing,” Ali said into the phone. “I was at a higher altitude than the rest, moving faster than the rest. But you’ll just have to get used to riding on jets again, because you can’t ride Concorde any more.”
After a remarkable life, Ali has made his final flight home, still the champion.
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