Ali had been hospitalized in the Phoenix area this week with respiratory issues. The Paradise Valley Police Department told ABC News that an emergency medical services call was made from Ali’s address in the Phoenix area on Tuesday, and the Phoenix Fire Department confirmed it responded to a call for mutual aid for a 74-year-old male with respiratory issues at that time.
Retired from boxing since 1981, Ali had battled Parkinson’s disease for decades. He had been hospitalized a few other times in recent years, including in early 2015, due to a severe urinary tract infection initially diagnosed as pneumonia.
Ali had looked increasingly frail in public appearances, the last coming April 9 when he wore sunglasses and was hunched over at the annual Celebrity Fight Night dinner in Phoenix, which raises funds for treatment of Parkinson’s. He had been living quietly in the Phoenix area with his fourth wife, Lonnie, whom he married in 1986.
Ali’s funeral will take place in his hometown of Louisville, spokesman Bob Gunnell said in the statement. No further details were expected to be released until Saturday morning.
Ali’s death reaches far beyond the sport of boxing.
Ali was one of the world’s most recognized people for his actions in and out of the ring. His stance on the military draft and conversion to Islam polarized America mainly along racial lines. Yet later he unified people with his messages of freedom, peace and equality.
Reaction from the news was immediate.
“Words can’t explain what Muhammad Ali (has) done for the sport of boxing,” Floyd Mayweather told ESPN. “He’s one of the guys that paved the way for me to be where I am today. We lost a legend, a hero and a great man.”
Said Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James: “The reason why he’s the GOAT [Greatest of All Time] is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable. It’s what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for — along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor, obviously who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something. He’s part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We’re free. They allow us to have access to anything we want. It’s because of what they stood for, and Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that.”
Added Bob Arum, who promoted 27 Ali fights: “A true great has left us. Muhammad Ali transformed this country and impacted the world with his spirit. His legacy will be part of our history for all time.”
Ali was born on Jan. 17, 1942, and was named Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Senior, was named after a 19th-century white abolitionist. Clay Sr. made a living painting billboards and signs. His mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked as a domestic servant.
At age 12 he took up boxing under the tutelage of Joe Martin, a Louisville policeman who became Clay’s trainer for his amateur career. During that time Clay won two national Golden Gloves titles and one AAU championship. After graduating from high school he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
After the Olympics, Clay turned professional. Fighting as a heavyweight he won his first 19 bouts and had Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Clay exhibited quick hands, nimble footwork and an active mouth. Proclaiming himself “The Greatest” the brash fighter earned the nickname “Louisville Lip.”
In 1964, Clay got a shot at the heavyweight title against champion Sonny Liston. Leading up to the contest, Clay said he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Despite the bravado, odds-makers had Clay as a 7-1 underdog.
On Feb. 25, Clay fought Liston in Miami Beach, Florida. Clay got off to a quick start but at the end of the fourth round complained his eyes were burning and he couldn’t see. “I didn’t know what the heck was going on,” Dundee told NBC Sports years later. “He said, ‘Cut the gloves off.'”
Dundee said Liston’s corner had used Monsel’s Solution (applied to stop bleeding) on the fighter. After Ali’s eyes were cleaned, he resumed control of the fight. Liston, who some thought was invincible, couldn’t answer the bell for the seventh round. At age 22, Clay was heavyweight champion of the world.
The next day Clay, accompanied by Nation of Islam member Malcolm X, announced at a news conference that he was converting to Islam and changing his name to Cassius X. On March 6, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad bestowed him the name Muhammad Ali. Muhammad meant one worthy of praise, and Ali was the name of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad.
Ali’s proclamation was met with hostility from the mainstream media, many of whom refused to acknowledge his new name. The Nation of Islam preached black pride and black nationalism. Unlike the non-violent teachings of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X justified violence in the act of self-defense.
On May 25, 1965, Ali defended his title in a rematch with Liston in Lewiston, Maine. The fight lasted only one round and ended with what some thought was a “phantom punch.” Ali went on to defend his title eight more times.
In 1966, with the United States becoming more involved militarily in Vietnam, Ali said he was a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said. (Courtesy ESPN)