Muhammad Ali, Legendary Boxer & Activist, Dies At 74

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Muhammad Ali has died after being hospitalized with a respiratory condition.

The boxing legend, 74, was notable for a long career both in and out of the ring, serving as an iconic talker both for himself and for racial equality.

Ali's most famous fights came first against the government and, afterwards, against a pair of opponents legendary in their own rights.

Born in 1942, Ali burst onto the boxing scene as Cassius Clay, winning two national Gold Gloves titles and Olympic gold by 1960. His first major professional bout was against Sonny Liston, the then-heavyweight champion of the world. Ali compared Liston to a "big ugly bear" and said he would "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."

"Liston even smells like a bear," Ali said. "After I beat him I'm going to donate him to the zoo."

Ali won by TKO after Liston refused to answer the seventh round bell. There were allegations that Liston put a foreign agent on his gloves to blind Ali, but to no avail.

After the fight, then-Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam and becoming a Muslim.

Liston's second bout with Ali was by far the more famous of the two. Though the fight itself lasted less than two minutes, it produced the most iconic image of Ali and perhaps of any boxer ever. The photograph shows Ali standing over a prone Liston, flexing and yelling.

Ali faced criticism for his conversion to Islam, notably from challenger Floyd Patterson. During their fight, Ali refused to throw a single punch during the first round. Many have speculated that Ali extended the fight to twelve rounds, at which time he won by TKO, in order to inflict maximum punishment on Patterson.

The next most famous opponent Ali faced was the United States government. On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion after he refused to be drafted into military service during the Vietnam War.

"I ain't got nothing against no Vietcong; no Vietcong never called me nigger," Ali famously said.

It was four years, all during his prime, before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. Ali was 29.

Ali fought a few more times before he faced his next famous opponent. Joe Frazier and Ali both entered their fight undefeated, a first in a heavyweight title bout. Dubbed "The Fight of the Century," the two boxers squared off in Madison Square Garden to unbelievable fanfare. This was like if the Super Bowl and Game 7 of the NBA Finals were held in the same building, at the same time, involving on two people, and the people were punching each other. Ali helped hype the fight by claiming that Frazier was a puppet of the white establishment, leading to a lifelong animosity between the two.

"Frazier is too ugly to be champ," Ali said of his opponent. "Frazier is too dumb to be champ."

Frazier handed Ali his first loss in a unanimous decision after the 15th round.

But they weren't done with each other yet. They fought again, three years later, at Madison Square Garden. This time, Ali won.

This all sets the stage for Ali's most famous fight, "The Rumble in the Jungle," the subject of an Academy Award-winning masterpiece documentary (When We Were Kings) and a wildly self-serving non-fiction book by Norman Mailer (The Fight).

George Foreman, now famous for naming his children after himself and selling grills, was then the most fearsome fighter imaginable. Prior to their fight, Foreman had knocked Frazier down six times in two rounds before referees called the fight. He had also dismantled Ken Norton, the only boxer to beat Ali besides Frazier at that point. Foreman, at 25 to Ali's 32, was a physical force that nobody thought could be beat.

Ali wasn't so sure.

"I've done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick," he said in a press conference.

Crowds of locals followed Ali chanting "Ali, boma ye!" which means "Ali, kill him!"

The fight was held in 1974 at 4 a.m. in Kinshasa, Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), under the eye of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Before the fight, a festival was held featuring James Brown, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Bill Withers, The Crusaders, and Manu Dibang.

During the fight, Ali employed the now-famous "Rope-A-Dope" strategy. That meant Ali leaned against the ropes and protected his head and body, letting Foreman tire himself out before Ali went in for the knockout blow. That happened in the eighth round, to much jubilation.

But Ali wasn't done yet. He fought Frazier again, for the third time, in "The Thrilla in Manila." That fight was less remarkable, but just as brutal as any that had come before. After employing "Rope-A-Dope" once again, Ali won by TKO in the 15th round.

His decline was sad as it was precipitous. The less said about it the better, except that a declining Ali accepted bouts against lesser fighters that continually punished him and eventually beat him consistently. Perhaps the best part of it was this question and answer about his eventual retirement.

President Obama spoke out on Ali’s passing in a statement on Saturday, calling him “a man who fought for us.”

“He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t,” the president said, continuing that Ali refused to give ground on his beliefs. “His victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”

The president tweeted a photo of him sitting with the iconic photo of Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston in his private study. The caption reads, “He shook up the world, and the world’s better for it. Rest in peace, Champ.”

Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a disease that can result from repeated trauma to the head, in 1984.

Still, he remained active. He was selected to personify the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights during its 200th birthday celebration at the Tournament of Roses Parade in 1987. In 1996, he lit the flame at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and did so again in London in 2012.

Ali is survived by nine children, two ex-wives, and widow Yolonda.

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