Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world and global icon whose magnetic charm and anti-establishment ethos made him someone Hollywood found impossible to resist, has died. He was 74.
Ali, named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated in 1999, died Friday at a Phoenix hospital. In 1984, the boxer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome — a disease thought to be brought on by head trauma — and spent his last years increasingly shaky, immobile and quiet.
Will Smith received an Oscar nomination for portraying the champ in Michael Mann’s Ali (2001), and the fighter played himself in The Greatest, a 1977 Columbia film adapted from his autobiography. Ali starred as a slave turned U.S. senator opposite Kris Kristofferson in the 1979 NBC telefilm Freedom Road, based on a true story, and he lit the torch to kick off the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
And in the late 1970s, he even voiced his own Saturday morning cartoon, I Am the Greatest!: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali, which saw his character jetting around the world fighting evil.
However seen or characterized onscreen, Ali was never more vital than in When We Were Kings (1996), the Oscar-winning feature documentary that immortalized “The Rumble in the Jungle,” his Oct. 30, 1974, bout with heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.
“I live in America,” Ali says in the film, “but Africa is the home of the black man. I was a slave 400 years ago, and now I’m going home to fight among my brothers.”
Because of legal and financial difficulties, it took director-producer Leon Gast more than 20 years to bring When We Were Kings to the screen.
In the bout, which started at 3 a.m. local time, Ali, then 32, employed a “rope-a-dope” style to wear out the stronger Foreman, 24, before finishing him off in the eighth round to reclaim the crown taken from him in 1967 when he refused to serve in the U.S. military.
That stance, coming after he joined the Nation of Islam and ditched his birth name Cassius Clay, angered many Americans, who called him a coward and a draft dodger. Others, though, considered him a hero – one that would go to Iraq and negotiate with Saddam Hussein to engineer the release of 15 U.S. civilian hostages in 1990 and receive the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ali’s wars came in the squared circle, where he also battled archrival Joe Frazier in three of the greatest boxing matches of all time before retiring from the ring in December 1981 with a 56-5 record and the title as the most recognizable person on Earth.
“When I fly on an airplane,” Ali once told film critic Roger Ebert, “I look out of the window and I think, ‘I am the only person that everyone down there knows about.’ ”
Born in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942, Ali first entered the world spotlight when he captured a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He composed one of his first poems:
“To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russians, and I beat the Pole,
And for the USA won the medal of gold.
Italians said, ‘You’re greater than the Cassius of old.’ ”
Unlike most heavyweight boxers of his day, he had uncommon quickness and elusiveness, describing his style as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Outside the ropes, he showed a witty, intelligent side (even though he suffered from dyslexia and had trouble reading while growing up) and learned from pro wrestler Gorgeous George how to spewed braggadocio. He took verbal assaults to a level never before reached in the annals of sport — then backed up pretty much every boast or prediction he made.
At age 22 in February 1964, he surprised the surly 7-to-1 favorite Sonny Liston in Miami (he clowned around with The Beatles on their first trip to the States before the fight, and George Harrison would later call him “quite cute”) to take the heavyweight title for the first time. “I shook up the world! I shook up the world,” he shouted in the ring.
He beat Liston again 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine; Neil Leifer’s shot of Ali hovering over his fallen competitor is one of the most memorable sports photographs ever taken.
In April 1967, Ali was arrested in Houston after he refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces. The New York State Athletic Commission quickly suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title, and other state commissions followed suit.
On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction. (His legal battle was the subject of two projects in 2013: the HBO telefilm Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight and the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali).
“When I look back, I see only what I have accomplished,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “The price I paid was nothing compared to what I gained. I lost the championship title. I lost three and a half of my prime fighting years. I lost financial security and public acclaim, but I gained something greater by giving it all up — a title no man or government could ever take away: I was the People’s Champion.”
In his third fight since returning from suspension, he lost to Frazier in a 15-round unanimous decision in March 1971 in New York’s Madison Square Garden in “The Fight of the Century.” Frank Sinatra was ringside to photograph the bout for Life magazine.
After avenging that defeat in a non-title bout back at the Garden in January 1974, Ali met his rival again in October 1975 in the Philippines for “The Thrilla in Manilla,” with Ali prevailing when Frazier could not come off his stool for the 14th round. Both fighters were exhausted and struggling to survive.
“I remember telling [trainer] Angelo [Dundee] after I won that it was the closest I’d ever come to dying,” he wrote in his book.
In September 1976, Ali beat Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium in New York in their third meeting, And seven months after a shocking loss to Leon Spinks, he avenged that defeat in New Orleans in September 1978 to become heavyweight champ for an unprecedented third time.
Ali’s other brushes with the world of entertainment included a cameo in the 1962 film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight; appearing as a mystery guest (can you imagine?) on a 1965 episode of What’s My Line?; starring on Broadway during his exile in the 1969 short-lived musical Buck White; as the subject of a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast in 1976; making sportscaster Howard Cosell a frequent foil on Saturday afternoons on ABC’s Wide World of Sports; sparring with Rocky star Sylvester Stallone on stage at the 1977 Oscars; showing up on episodes of Diff’rent Strokes, Vegas and Touched by an Angel; and refereeing Hulk Hogan’s WrestleMania I bout in 1985.
Ali was married four times, the last to the former Lonnie Williams, who survives him, as does his nine children: Maryum, Rasheda, Jamillah, Hana, Laila (a former boxer herself and reality TV star), Khaliah, Miya, Muhammad and Asaad.
In his autobiography, Ali reflected on his legacy and how he would be judged. “When I’m gone, they’ll just have to look at the records and look at my actions. Then it is up to the people to rank me where they want,” he wrote.
“They’ll have to say I was the fastest heavyweight that ever lived. They’ll have to say that I was the best looking — my face was unscratched and unmarked. They’ll have to say that I was the most entertaining and the most clever. They’ll say that even without a college education, I was smart enough to lecture at colleges and debate the best minds on television. They’ll have to say that I was the only real world champion. I fought in such diverse places as Zaire, England, Indonesia, Switzerland, Japan and the Philippines.
“They’ll have to say that I was the most famous man in the world, the most famous fighter in history. They’ll have to say that I invented the rope-a-dope and the Ali Shuffle. They’ll have to say that I was the boxer who could predict the winning rounds of my fights. They’ll have to say that I was the People’s Champion. They’ll have to say that after I stopped boxing, the sport lost its zest and wide appeal. They’ll have to say that I loved the people as much as they loved me.
“And after they review all the facts, they’ll have no choice but to conclude that I AM the Greatest of All Time!”
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.