PHOENIX: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, a 20th century icon whose fame transcended the sport during a remarkable career spanning three decades, died on Friday at the age of 74.
The beloved sports hero, who had been battling Parkinson’s disease for decades, passed away in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona where he had been admitted for respiratory problems.
Funeral arrangements for Ali would be announced later and he is expected to be buried in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Ali had been living in Phoenix with his fourth wife, Lonnie, whom he married in 1986. He is survived by nine children: seven daughters and two sons.
Concerns for Ali had grown as the family gathered at his bedside on Friday.
Tributes started pouring in as soon as the news of the death broke for “The Greatest”, who was known globally not only for his storied ring career but also for his humanitarian activism.
Long-time boxing promoter Bob Arum said Ali transformed the US and impacted the world with his spirit. “His legacy will be part of our history for all time,” he said. “He is, without a question in my mind, the most transformative person of our time.”
Ali had been hospitalised multiple times in recent years, but he continued to make appearances and offer opinions.
In April, he attended a Celebrity Fight Night Dinner in Phoenix that raised funds for treatment of Parkinson’s. In December, he issued a statement rebuking US presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
His 30-year career, which stretched from 1960 to 1981 and saw him retire with a record of 56-5, which included historic bouts like the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.
Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in Louisville, dazzled fans with slick moves in the ring, and with his wit and engaging persona outside it. His refusal to serve in the Vietnam War saw him banned from the sport for years, but the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft dodging in 1971.
He took the name of Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam in 1964, soon after he had stunned the sport by claiming the title with a monumental upset of Sonny Liston.
He was vilified in some quarters for that conversion and his outspoken stance on Vietnam and civil rights issues. His refusal to fight in Vietnam saw him prosecuted for draft evasion, and led to him being effectively banned for boxing for three years of his prime.
But he held firm to his beliefs and eventually earned accolades as an activist. He received the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2005.
He represented the United Nations as a messenger of peace and was chosen to light the Olympic torch in 1996, when he was already weakened by Parkinson’s.
In a personal condolence statement, President Barack Obama said Ali was a towering champion “who fought for what was right” not just in the ring but outside it as well. He was “a man who fought for us”, he added.
“His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognise today.”
In a condolence message to the family, loved ones and fans of the boxing legend, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Ali had been an inspiration not only for young Americans but also youngsters of the world for the past half a century.
Describing him as “a shining example” of defying odds with perseverance and a positive attitude, the premier said Ali was instrumental figure in changing the social, political and religious narratives surrounding minorities in the West. “We are in his debt. The world is truly poorer without him,” the PM stated.