Muhammad Ali was the most recognisable person on earth, untouchable as a boxer and treasured as a human being. When he said in his own immortal words: “I am The Greatest,” few would argue.
He wasn’t just the first person to become a three time world heavyweight champion, but a worldwide idol and an inspiration to every man who is courageous enough to step into the ring.
As a boxer, he brought unparalleled speed and elegance to his sport, while his charisma and humour transcended boxing.
When Ali spoke people listened and made them want to be a winner.
We live in an era of sporting debates about who merits accolades, but nobody argued when Muhammad was named Sportsman of the Century by the BBC and Sports Illustrated in 1999. His epic battles against fellow Hall of Fame greats like Joe Frazier and George Foreman will remain etched in history forever.
Like so many boxers be it legends or journeymen, he wrongly came out of retirement and there are many who believed it contributed to his Parkinson’s syndrome.
He had the first of his 61 professional contests in October 1960, a few months after becoming Olympic Champion in Rome.
‘The Greatest’ finally hung up his gloves after losing to Trevor Berwick in the Bahamas, over 21 years later when he was shadow of his former self. Ali hardly landed a blow and after ten unbearable rounds, and at the final bell faithful trainer Angelo Dundee told him: “That’s it, no more; it’s the end of the ballgame.” He ended with a 56-5 record.
Muhammad’s life was headline news wherever he went, and his public embrace of the Nation of Islam after beating Sonny Liston in their first fight is an historical moment. His insistence on being called Muhammad Ali, instead of his birth name Cassius Clay signaled a new era in black pride.
Ali refused to be drafted into the US Army because he wouldn’t fight for a country that didn’t give him equal rights. That saw him sentenced to five year in prison and almost ended his career.
Following his death, report say hundreds of tributes has been pouring in on Saturday for boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who died in hospital in the south-western US state of Arizona the previous day, according to his family.
He was being treated for respiratory complications near his home in Phoenix. He had suffered for more than 30 years from Parkinson’s disease, which contributed to his physical deterioration.
The three-time heavyweight champion known as The Greatest – a nickname he bestowed upon himself – retired from boxing in 1981.
Ali was born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. He won the Olympic gold medal in the light-heavyweight division, and turned professional shortly afterward.
At the age of 22, he knocked out heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in a quick and stunning upset. He then joined the Nation of Islam and became Ali, publicly rejecting his “slave name.”
He became a polarizing figure as a brash representative of the US civil rights movement, and as a potent symbol of resistance to the nation’s war in Vietnam, when he refused to be conscripted into the military.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he declared. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
He was convicted of draft evasion, and had his boxing title stripped from him, but appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction in 1971.
He would go on to regain and lose the title twice more.
Ali’s most famous fights were the three epic battles he waged against Joe Frazier, and his upset defeat of George Foreman at the relatively advanced age of 32.
He used his international fame to spread the appeal of the sport, bringing the third Frazier bout to Manila, Philippines, and to stage the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, now named Democratic Republic of Congo.
The BBC called Ali the Sports Personality of the Century, and he was one of the most recognized people worldwide.
Former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary led the political tributes, sending their condolences to Ali’s family and describing him as “courageous in the ring, inspiring to the young [and] compassionate to those in need.”
“From the day he claimed the Olympic gold medal in 1960, boxing fans across the world knew they were seeing a blend of beauty and grace, speed and strength that may never be matched again,” the Clinton statement read.
“We watched him grow from the brash self-confidence of youth and success into a manhood full of religious and political convictions that led him to make tough choices and live with the consequences,” it added.
Hillary’s rival for the US presidency, Donald Trump, tweeted, “Muhammad Ali is dead at 74! A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all!”
British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted, “Muhammad Ali was not just a champion in the ring – he was a champion of civil rights, and a role model for so many people.”
Tributes also poured in from the worlds of sport and show business.