Muhammad Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, died Friday of septic shock due to unspecified natural causes, a family spokesman said. He was 74.
He was hospitalized in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems earlier this week, and his children had flown in from around the country. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said at Saturday news conference Ali died at 9:10 p.m. MT. A funeral will be held Friday in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, at the KFC YUM! Center.
President Bill Clinton, Bryant Gumbel and Billy Crystal will eulogize "The Greatest of All Time" at his funeral service.
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In addition to the funeral, there will be a procession throughout Louisville on Friday. The route includes locations that were historically important to Ali, Gunnell said.
Ali's professional boxing career spanned 22 years, during which he was history's only three-time heavyweight champion. He transformed himself from one of the most controversial men in America to one of the most beloved in the world.
Handsome, talented, brash, funny and unafraid, Ali was just as electrifying a figure outside the ring as he was inside it.
"It's a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die," Don King, who promoted some of Ali's biggest fights, told The Associated Press. "Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world."
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, he took the art of trash talk to new heights with his poetic taunts of opponents and media alike, was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War — a stance that would cost him three years of boxing in the prime of his career — and for many Americans was their introduction to Islam.
The former boxing champ was diagnosed in 1984 with Parkinson's disease, but he remained in the public eye for a few years, serving as a guest referee at the first WrestleMania, flying to Iraq in 1990 to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of 14 American hostages, and lighting the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
His athletic prowess and global appeal were so great that in 1999, Sports Illustrated named Ali Sportsman of the Century, the BBC crowned him Sports Personality of the Century, and Wheaties put him on a box of cereal 18 years after his last fight. In 2005, President George Bush awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But eventually the disease began to slow Ali, and he progressively withdrew from the spotlight, making rare appearances to promote the 2001 biopic "Ali," or visiting Afghanistan the following year as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
Ali attended a ceremony in his hometown of Louisville for the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards in September 2014, though he did not speak.
Most recently, he criticized what he called “so called Islamic Jihadists” and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the United States.
In a statement to NBC News in December 2015, he said “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
He did not name Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, but referred to the ban Trump has proposed in the statement’s headline. He also condemned the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, killings linked to or inspired by ISIS.
Ali was hospitalized on June 2, 2016, for what his spokesman, Bob Gunnell, said was a respiratory issue. Gunnell said that Ali was in fair condition and was expected to be in the hospital for a brief stay.
Ali was also hospitalized on Dec. 20, 2014, with what was initially believed to be a mild case of pneumonia. Doctors later determined he was suffering from a urinary tract infection, not pneumonia, Gunnell said.
Ali, then still known as Clay, first made his name known on the world stage by winning a Gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Four years later, he won the world heavyweight title with a stunning upset of Sonny Liston, in a fight that ended when the champ was unable to come out of his corner for the seventh round.
In the moments after being declared winner, Ali screamed for all the world to hear, “I’m king of the world, I am the greatest. I shook up the world, I’m king of the world, I’m pretty, I’m pretty, I’m a bad man. I’m king of the world. I’m 22 years old and I ain’t got a mark on my face. I’m pretty!”
A rematch the following year again ended with Ali victorious. Halfway through the opening round, Ali took a vicious swing at Liston, who promptly fell to the canvas. Ali stood over his opponent shouting, "Get up and fight, sucker!" a moment that was captured by Neil Leifer in one of sport's most iconic photos.
Shortly after winning the title, Clay joined the Nation of Islam, changing his name first to Cassius X, before settling on Muhammad Ali. Howard Cosell of ABC Sports was one of the few American journalists of the time to recognize Ali's new name, and that show of respect led to an unlikely friendship that would endure for years, and served both men well.
Over the next five years, Ali defended his title nine times, running his record to 29-0. Just 25 years old and in the prime of his career, Ali seemed unstoppable— until he ran afoul of the Selective Service System.
Ali was drafted in 1964, but he declared himself a conscientious objector, famously saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." In 1967, his request for C.O. status was denied, and he was arrested for refusing induction into the U.S. Army.
In short order he was stripped of his passport and his boxing titles, and effectively banned from fighting for three years, until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and his passport was returned.
In March 1971, Ali squared off against Joe Frazier, the man who had been given the titles of which Ali had been stripped, in a bout known as "The Fight of the Century," a 15-round epic that saw Ali take the first loss of his career, in a unanimous decision.
The fight was the beginning of the most storied rivalry in the history of boxing, the first of three bouts that culminated with "The Thrilla in Manila," with Ali taking the rubber match.
Between Ali-Frazier II and III, however, there was 1974's "The Rumble in the Jungle" (brilliantly chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary "When We Were Kings), in which Ali faced reigning champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Foreman was considered an overwhelming favorite, but Ali went into the ring packing a secret weapon, the rope-a-dope, whereby he would unleash a flurry of punches and then retreat, letting the ropes keep him on his feet while Foreman "punched himself out." By the eighth round, when Foreman was visibly tired and unable to defend himself, Ali went in for the kill, punching his foe square in the face and dropping him on the canvas for a knockout.
After Manila, Ali fought a string of seven successful title defenses, before suffering a shocking loss at the hands of an unheralded heavyweight named Leon Spinks, in a 1978 split decision.
Ali would avenge the loss and regain the crown a year later, but he lost his title for a third and final time in 1980, to his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes. The following year Ali lost to Trevor Berbick in a 10-round unanimous decision, bringing his final record to 56-5-0, with 37 knockouts, and 19 decisions.
Ali is survived by his wife Yolanda "Lonnie" Ali, and their adopted son, Amin, as well as two ex wives, and eight other children, two of whom were born to women whom he never married. His first wife, Sonji Roi-Ali, died in 2005.
"He was the greatest fighter of all time but his boxing career is secondary to his contribution to the world," promoter Bob Arum told the AP. "He's the most transforming figure of my time certainly. He did more to change race relations and the views of people than even Martin Luther King."