He was fast of fist and foot — lip, too — a heavyweight champion who promised to shock the world and did. He floated. He stung. Mostly he thrilled, even after the punches had taken their toll and his voice barely rose above a whisper.
He was The Greatest.
Muhammad Ali died Friday at age 74, according to a statement from the family. He was hospitalized in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems earlier this week, and his children had flown in from around the country.
“It’s a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die,” Don King, who promoted some of Ali’s biggest fights, told The Associated Press early Saturday. “Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world.”
A funeral will be held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The city plans a memorial service Saturday.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer ordered flags lowered to half-staff to honor Ali.
“The values of hard work, conviction and compassion that Muhammad Ali developed while growing up in Louisville helped him become a global icon,” Fischer said. “As a boxer, he became The Greatest, though his most lasting victories happened outside the ring.”
With a wit as sharp as the punches he used to “whup” opponents, Ali dominated sports for two decades before time and Parkinson’s disease, triggered by thousands of blows to the head, ravaged his magnificent body, muted his majestic voice and ended his storied career in 1981.
He won and defended the heavyweight championship in epic fights in exotic locations, spoke loudly on behalf of blacks, and famously refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War because of his Muslim beliefs.
Despite his debilitating illness, he traveled the world to rapturous receptions even after his once-bellowing voice was quieted and he was left to communicate with a wink or a weak smile.
“He was the greatest fighter of all time but his boxing career is secondary to his contribution to the world,” promoter Bob Arum told the AP early Saturday. “He’s the most transforming figure of my time certainly.”
Revered by millions worldwide and reviled by millions more, Ali cut quite a figure, 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds in his prime. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” his cornermen exhorted, and he did just that in a way no heavyweight had ever fought before.
He fought in three different decades, finished with a record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts — 26 of those bouts promoted by Arum — and was the first man to win heavyweight titles three times.
He whipped the fearsome Sonny Liston twice, toppled the mighty George Foreman with the rope-a-dope in Zaire, and nearly fought to the death with Joe Frazier in the Philippines. Through it all, he was trailed by a colorful entourage who merely added to his growing legend.
“Rumble, young man, rumble,” cornerman Bundini Brown would yell to him.
And rumble Ali did. He fought anyone who meant anything and made millions of dollars with his lightning-quick jab. His fights were so memorable that they had names — “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila.”
But it was as much his antics — and his mouth — outside the ring that transformed the man born Cassius Clay into a household name as Muhammad Ali.