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Muhammad Ali

Death of a legend: Boxing titan Muhammad Ali, the fighter who embraced China, dies at 74

The three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world was known for his civil rights activism as well as his sporting career. On a visit to China in 1979, Ali met with Deng Xiaoping and revived interest in boxing on the mainland.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 June, 2016, 10:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 12:03pm

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, widely acknowledged as “the Greatest Of All Time”, has died in hospital at the age of 74, it was announced early on Saturday.

“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74,” spokesman Bob Gunnell said.

Ali, whose fame transcended sport during a remarkable heavyweight boxing career that spanned three decades, had been hospitalised in the Phoenix, Arizona, area with a respiratory ailment this week.

Concern for the three-time heavyweight world champion had grown throughout Friday amid reports that his respiratory trouble was complicated by the Parkinson’s that had left the fighter increasingly frail.

Ali in China

In 1979, Ali visited China and helped revive interest in boxing, which had been banned decades earlier following a death in the ring. His visit, and his meeting with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, also had geopolitical implications.

China had only recently resumed relations with the US and was still isolated. Ali came to China, first through Hong Kong and then Guangzhou, before being invited to Beijing to meet “an important person”. There, he found Deng waiting for him and Chinese officials took him to see the Great Wall of China.

The image of Ali shaking hands with Deng sent a powerful signal to Washington and the rest of the world about China’s willingness to engage.

On a subsequent visit, Ali told Chinese media: “Now that you are open to the world, never lose your culture, because others will try to give you their culture. It will be a great fight.”

China’s two-time Olympic champion boxer Zou Shiming tearfully mourned the passing of Muhammad Ali, vowing to win a professional title to honour the legendary boxer.

“I planned to go visit my idol Mr. Muhammad Ali after winning a professional bout. But now, I can only pray he is at peace in heaven, and free from illness and pain,” the 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion posted on his Weibo account.

In a tearful interview, Zou said: “I am deeply grieving over the passing of the legend Mr. Ali, for whom I have great respect. He has been a great inspiration to me.”

After hearing Ali was hospitalised “in grave condition” earlier in the day, Zou wrote on his Weibo account: “God bless him. Hope he will regain health.”

Legacy of a legend

Ali’s death sparked a global outpouring of grief and tributes.

“Muhammad Ali transformed this country and impacted the world with his spirit,” said longtime boxing promoter Bob Arum. “His legacy will be part of our history for all time.”

Ali, known globally not only for his storied ring career but also for his civil rights activism, had been hospitalised multiple times in recent years.

He spent time in hospital in 2014 after suffering a mild case of pneumonia and again in 2015 for a urinary tract infection.

In April, he attended a Celebrity Fight Night Dinner in Phoenix that raised funds for treatment of Parkinson’s.

In December, he issued a statement rebuking US presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Ali – whose legendary boxing career stretched from 1960 to 1981 – dazzled fans with slick moves in the ring, and with his wit and engaging persona outside it.

His opposition to the Vietnam War saw him banned from the sport for years, but the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft dodging in 1971.

Once vilified in some quarters for his conversion to Islam and his outspoken stance on civil rights issues, Ali held firm to earn dozens of tributes, lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta and being named a UN messenger of peace in 1998.

He received the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2005.

Ali in his own words

Muhammad Ali was not only a boxing champion, he was a championship talker. Here are some of his most famous quotations:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”

“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”

“At home I am a nice guy but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”

“I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, and throw thunder in jail. You know I’m bad. Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”

“I’m not the greatest. I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today.”

“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

“I may not talk perfect white talk-type English but I give you wisdom.”

“If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how. Hitch him up!”

“I’m the onliest person that can speak to everybody in the whole world. My name is known in Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco. These are countries that don’t follow the Kentucky Derby.”

“Sometimes I feel a little sad because I can see how some things I said could upset some people. But I did not deliberately try to hurt anyone. The hype was part of my job, like skipping rope.”

“Now the things that once were so effortless - my strong voice and the quickness of my movements - are more difficult. But I get up every day and try to live life to the fullest because each day is a gift from God.”

Key fights in Muhammad Ali’s career

Sept. 5, 1960 - Wins the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal in Rome in a unanimous decision over Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland.

Oct. 29, 1960 - Makes his professional debut in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, winning a six-round unanimous decision over Tunney Hunsaker, whose day job was police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Feb. 25, 1964 - Boasting a 19-0 record, wins the heavyweight title at age 22 by beating Sonny Liston, who surrenders after six rounds, in Miami Beach.

March 22, 1967 - Ali knocks out Zora Folley in the seventh round in New York. It was his last fight before losing his titles and facing prison for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army.

Oct. 26, 1970 - After a 3 1/2-year layoff due to his legal troubles, Ali returns to the ring in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry and wins by TKO in the third round.

March 8, 1971 - Ali faces Joe Frazier, who had become heavyweight champ during Ali’s hiatus, in a greatly anticipated match that promoters called “the fight of the century” in New York. Both men were undefeated going into the bout, which pitted Ali’s speed and reach against Frazier’s doggedness and stronger punching power. Ali started strong but Frazier dominated the latter part of the 15-round fight and won by unanimous decision.

March 31, 1973 - Ali’s second loss is a split decision against Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw. Six months later Ali wins a rematch with Norton.

Jan. 28, 1974 - Ali beats Frazier, who had lost his title to George Foreman, by unanimous decision.

Oct. 30, 1974 - Ali is a decided underdog going into the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, against the fearsome and younger Foreman. Instead of his usual dancing footwork, Ali spends much of the fight covering his face with his arms and leaning against the ropes in a strategy called the “rope-a-dope.” His plan is to let Foreman tire himself out by throwing punches that did no serious damage and it works, allowing Ali to knock him out in the eighth round and reclaim the major boxing championships.

Oct. 1, 1975 - The second rematch with Frazier is called the “Thrilla in Manila” and part of the pre-fight hype includes Ali calling Frazier a gorilla. Ali wins when Frazier is unable to come out for the 15th and final round. The temperature approached 100 degrees (38 C) and Ali describes the fight as the closest he had come to death.

Feb. 15, 1978 - Ali, now 36, loses his titles by split decision to Leon Spinks, 25, who had only seven professional fights after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics.

Sept. 15, 1978 - Ali gets the a heavyweight title back by beating Spinks in a 15-round unanimous decision, making him the first man to reign as champion three times. He then retires.

Oct. 2, 1980 - At age 38 he attempts a comeback in a title fight against Larry Holmes, a former Ali sparring partner, but his skills are clearly eroded. Ali’s trainer stops the fight after 10 rounds, marking the only time in his career that Ali lost by anything other than a decision.

Dec. 11, 1981 - Ali’s final fight is a unanimous decision loss to Trevor Berbick.

Additional reporting by staff writers , Reuters, Xinhua