By the time I went to bed last night there were already warnings of “grave” circumstances for boxing legend Muhammad Ali running across the news feeds. There had been similar health scares for Ali before in recent years, but this time it turned out to be the end of the road. During the night he passed away following several days battling respiratory complications. (NBC News)
Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead.
Ali died Friday at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications, a family spokesman confirmed to NBC News. He was 74.
“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening,” Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman, told NBC News.
Ali was a significant figure in America whose passing will lead to moments of reflection for many of us, and not solely due to his athletic prowess. He was a complicated figure to say the least and a frequent topic of discussion in my house when I was growing up. As I’ve written here in the past, boxing was one of two sports which my father and I shared a passion for. (The other, of course, being football.) When big fights were on television, we would get together in the living room and watch, as well as the occasional trips to watch the fights live in the city closest to us.
Most of the media attention in those days went to the heavyweight division, as well as the largest prize money, and during the 70s there were few times when Ali wasn’t at the top of the headlines whether he was winning or losing. My father had been a fan of Ali early on when I was still so young that I don’t remember much from that period. By the time I was really engaged in all the spectacle of the sport it was the early 70s, well after his infamous refusal to accept being drafted for the Vietnam War and the beginning of his rotating battles with Foreman and Frazier. By then, my father had grown to despise Muhammad Ali and that obviously cast a shadow on my own perceptions.
My dad, who was not exactly known for being racially sensitive and unbiased (to put it mildly) had no problem with black men boxing and was a huge fan of George Foreman, so it wasn’t a racial thing. As far as the Nation of Islam stuff, my father wasn’t a particularly religious man and didn’t seem to know much about Muslims beyond it having something to do with Africa. No, what my dad really hated was the draft dodging question. I grew up in a military family full of veterans and my father saw Ali’s actions as a betrayal of the country. I’m pretty sure he never forgave him for it.
Still, even with that influence on my young and still forming opinions, I was always excited to watch Ali fight. He truly was one of the all time greats, though his shifting, curious strategies left all of us puzzled at times. (The now famous “rope-a-dope” was the subject of arguments in our house for years.) Whether or not he was truly “the greatest” boxer of all time will remain a judgement for every fan to make over the years but there’s not question that he will remain one of the legendary icons of the sport for all time.
Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.