Muhammad Ali, the eloquent, colorful, controversial and brilliant three-time heavyweight boxing champion who was known as much for his social conscience and staunch opposition to the Vietnam War as for his dazzling boxing skills, died Friday.
Ali, who had a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, was taken to a Phoenix area hospital earlier this week where he was being treated for a respiratory issue. He was 74.
Once the most outrageous trash talker in sports, he was largely muted for the last quarter century of his life, quieted by a battle with Parkinson’s.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky., Ali learned to box after his bicycle was stolen when he was 12 years old. When young Clay vowed to “whoop the behind” of the thief, a local police officer encouraged him to learn to box to channel his energy.
He would go on to become known as “The Greatest,” and at his peak in the 1970s was among the most recognizable faces on Earth.
He was known for his tendency to recite poems while making predictions about his fights – “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” – as well as for giving opponents often unflattering nicknames. He referred to Sonny Liston as “the big ugly bear,” George Chuvalo as “The Washerwoman,” Floyd Patterson as “The Rabbit” and Earnie Shavers as “The Acorn.”
But his most controversial, and some would say cruel, nicknames were reserved for his fiercest rival, Joe Frazier. He first dubbed Frazier “Uncle Tom” and then later called him “The Gorilla.”