Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead.
Ali died Friday at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications, a family spokesman confirmed.
He was 74. “After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74.
The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening,” Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman.
Ali had suffered for three decades from Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his legendary verbal grace and his physical dexterity.
A funeral service is planned in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Even as his health declined, Ali did not shy from politics or controversy, releasing a statement in December criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,”
The remark bookended the life of a man who burst into the national consciousness in the early 1960s, when as a young heavyweight champion he converted to Islam and refused to serve in the Vietnam War, and became an emblem of strength, eloquence, conscience and courage.
Ali’s fiery commentary was praised by antiwar activists and black nationalists and vilified by conservatives, including many other athletes and sportswriters.
His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali’s stance wasn’t motivated by religious belief.
Ali was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion.
His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles.
Ali successfully defended his title six times, including a rematch with Liston.
Then, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army.
He’d said previously that the war did not comport with his faith, and that he had “no quarrel” with America’s enemy, the Vietcong. He refused to serve.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?”
Ali said in an interview.
“They never called me nigger. They never lynched me.
They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
His stand culminated with an April appearance at an Army recruiting station, where he refused to step forward when his name was called.
The reaction was swift and harsh. He was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
Released on appeal but unable to fight or leave the country, Ali turned to the lecture circuit, speaking on college campuses, where he engaged in heated debates, pointing out the hypocrisy of denying rights to blacks even as they were ordered to fight the country’s battles abroad.
“My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese,”
Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance.
“You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice.
You my opposer when I want equality.
You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”