DAPHNE, Ala. — The United States Sports Academy is mourning the loss of Muhammad Ali, whose success in the boxing ring and stands for human rights made him an international figure considered by many to be the greatest and most important athlete of all time.
Ali died 3 June 2016 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years and died of organ failure related to respiratory issues. He was 74.
“No one commanded a worldwide audience like Muhammad Ali,” said Academy President Emeritus Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich. “He was one of the greatest boxers of all time.”
Rosandich, who coached track and field for Malaya (now Malaysia) in the 1960 Olympics, met Ali on a plane returning from the Olympics where the boxer had just won a gold medal. The Academy also presented Ali with its Distinguished Service Award in 2007.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., in 1942 in Louisville, Ky. He grew up during a time of segregated public facilities, which shaped his activist attitudes toward civil and human rights.
Ali took up boxing at age 12 and had immediate success in the amateur ranks. At age 18, just a few months out of high school, he burst onto the international boxing scene by winning a gold medal in the 175-pound division at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. He then began one of the most successful professional boxing careers in history.
Ali was a master at creating interest in his bouts and became highly regarded for his charm and personality. He captured worldwide media attention through catchy phrases and public taunts to his opponents, often predicting in which round he would knock out his challenger. His description of his boxing style — “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” — became internationally recognized. He dubbed himself “The Greatest,” a title that many agreed upon and embraced.
A breakout moment in Ali’s career occurred in 1964, when he challenged and defeated the great Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Days later, Ali announced that he had accepted the teachings of the Nation of Islam and he took the name Muhammad Ali.
For the next three years, Ali dominated his sport with triumphs over the world’s top names in boxing.
Ali’s career fortunes changed in 1967 when, citing his religious beliefs, he refused induction into the U.S. Army to serve in the war in Vietnam. Many Americans condemned Ali’s stand, as it came at a time when most people in the United States still supported the war. Later his viewpoint on the war would become a more mainstream attitude. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship and was prohibited from fighting for more than three years. He was convicted in 1967 of refusing induction and initially sentenced to prison, but four years later the conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Returning to boxing 1970 after more than three years, Ali immediately attracted global attention and was involved in many highly celebrated matches. These include:
• Being defeated by heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in 1971 in what was called “The Fight of the Century,” and then later defeating Frazier twice, including the rematch known as the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975;
• Being defeated by Ken Norton in 1973 and then avenging the loss with a victory over Norton the same year;
• Defeating world heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1974 in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire; and
• Losing his heavyweight title to Leon Spinks in 1978 and winning it back again from Spinks later that year.
As his career came to a close in the early 1980s, Ali had amassed a final record establishing him as one of the greatest professional boxers of all time: 56 wins, 5 losses and 37 knockouts. Ali was the first fighter to win the world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions. Among his many honors, Sports Illustrated magazine in 1999 named him “Sportsman of the Century.”
During and after his boxing career, Ali was a global figure known for his public pronouncements against racism, oppression, poverty, and other ills of society. He called for unity of the races and equal rights for all. He became the voice of the underdog and captured the public’s attention for his willingness to stand up for his beliefs even when it was not in his best interest.
After his boxing career, Ali began a struggle with Parkinson’s disease brought on by his many blows to the head and resulting in slurred speech and slowed movement. He became a public symbol of perseverance and continued to be a global voice in upholding the rights of all humanity.
Ali made numerous humanitarian contributions, including helping secure the release of 15 U.S. hostages in Iraq during the first Gulf War; goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea; delivery of medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba; and meeting with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in South Africa, among many others.
Ali has won numerous humanitarian awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the United Nations Messenger of Peace; and Amnesty International’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix, Ariz., and the Muhammad Ali Center, an educational and cultural center in Louisville, Ky.
“The service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth,” Ali said.
In appreciation for his storied career and his efforts on behalf of humanity, Ali was chosen to light the Olympic Cauldron at the start of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. He was also chosen to carry the Olympic Flag in London in 2012.
The United States Sports Academy is an independent, non-profit, accredited, special mission Sports University created to serve the nation and world with programs in instruction, research, and service. The role of the Academy is to prepare men and women for careers in the profession of sports. For more information about the Academy visit www.ussa.edu.