A celebration of Muhammad Ali

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 15, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

As a writer, I want it to go on and on. I‘m riding in the front passenger seat, watching the nose of Muhammad Ali‘s luxury car begin to drift back and forth across the center lane of a Los Angeles freeway, feeling the traffic slash by closer and closer, seeing the slit of eye between his lids grow smaller … and smaller … and smaller, thinking that in five more seconds I might really have something to write here.

As a human being. ...The fa-dump, fa-dump of the tires striking the little reflective lane dividers is up in my stomach, and I can feel on my skin the speed and nearness of the cars on our flanks.

It is 1984, Ali is 42. He skipped the medicine he is supposed to take for Parkinson‘s syndrome, then exhausted himself hitting the heavy bag and shadowboxing for an hour and a half in a gym. He is fading, fading. ...

I glance at him again without turning my head.

Holy---- … fa-dump, fa- dump. His eyes look shut, fa-dump, fa-dump, his breathing is slow and even, his hands barely touch the bottom of the wheel.

A white sports car lurches away from his right fender; my fingers choke my notepad. We drift again toward the left. Should I do it? Snatch the champion‘s steering wheel, snatch the champion‘s dignity? I can‘t, fa-dump, but I must, fa-dump, because now we are. …

I see two scrawny brown arms snake over Ali‘s shoulders. Ali‘s eyes open to a squint, barely enough to see his 12-year-old son reaching forward from the back seat and taking the wheel—then he lets his eyes droop again. I blow out a long breath and then feel sick inside—sick and sad about everything.

I was younger then, and I didn't understand.

What was this but metamorphosis? What was this but another face of that which made Muhammad Ali the most dominant figure in sports of the past 35 years, of any 35 years, of all time. All of his life was transformation: Ali‘s soul knew the butterfly‘s secret as well as his feet knew its dance. From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, from Christian to Muslim. From the man who told the government where to stick its draft to the one who endorsed Ronald Reagan. From the boxer women loved, the dancer who whirled and flitted so his pretty face was never touched—to the boxer men loved, who stood and took the thunder from the thunder throwers, from the Foremans and the Fraziers. From the king of the world—to the man on his knees with his forehead pressed to the prayer rug. From madman to poet to circus barker to preacher to clown to magician to. …

What other great athlete has done this? Willie Mays hit the ball a half mile and ran the bases like a gust of wind when he was 23—and when he was 33. Joe Namath played football and lived life with the same young bachelor‘s abandon when he was a teenager and when he was a man. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, who changed, who grew, who tried on all the shirts and slacks and shoes of human possibility as Ali did?

Who else elevated an audience, who else made it feel what Bundini Brown once felt as he moved with Ali from the locker room to the ring—that his feet were not touching the ground? When Joe Frazier beat Ali in 1971, the thousands of closed-circuit viewers around me applauded or jeered for a few moments and then the night fragmented, the people went their separate ways. But each time Ali won, people laughed and hugged, there was communion.

To give oneself over to Frazier‘s greatness—or to that of Mays or Namath or any of the other great ones—yes, that was a gratifying way to spend an evening or an afternoon. But it was a walk into a closed room, a drive into a cul-de-sac. Ali was a doorway, an opening into something beyond. He spoke of God before his fights, he spoke of man, he spoke of hungry children, he cared about the sick and the old; he raised the game to drama. And because he stood for something greater, the people who climbed upon their chairs for him felt it: They stood for something greater, too.

I think of that day when he walked into the Shriners hospital in Philadelphia and spotted a boy with no legs. He picked the child up, looked into his eyes and said, “Don‘t give up. They‘re sending men into space. You will walk some day and do this... .” And he began to do the Ali Shuffle with the boy in his arms—the boy spun and bounced and giggled as the doctors and nurses blinked back their tears. Didn‘t he do that for all of us—make us believe in metamorphosis, yearn for what was possible, make his whirling lightness ours?

Three victories turned him into a myth: three transformations. He was the raving adolescent against Sonny Liston; the sorcerer against George Foreman; the warrior, brutal and willful, in the third fight with Frazier. He trusted his instinct, followed the river of his life force, changed as it bade him change in order to win, in order to survive. All of Ali's changes—maybe even this last one that makes him seem so far away—don't they all have something to do with survival?

But this is not a celebration of the way Ali won—did not all the great ones win? This is a celebration of the way Ali lost, the way Ali today goes on losing. Man does not show greatness by touching one extremity or the other, Pascal once wrote, but rather by touching both at once. … A-li! A-li! A- li!

Who else could refuse to accept defeat as absolutely as Ali did in the terrible third war with Frazier? And yet accept it as absolutely as Ali did when he lost? Where was his resentment when, accused of draft evasion, he was banished from boxing for three years, when he had to bum money sometimes to get by? They‘re doing what they think is right, I‘m doing what I think is right, he would say. Think of all the men who have huffed after immortality in our arenas, on our playing fields. Who among them never pointed to the officials or the press or their coaches when they lost? What other man of such runaway pride never let it turn to bitterness or shame?

I think of him walking away from the ring, head high, tears welling, after he lost the world championship by decision to Leon Spinks. “Robbery!” someone in his locker room shouts.

“Shut up,” says Ali. “Nobody got robbed. He won. I lost the fight. Can't you understand that?”

I see him murmuring through his pain and his wired jaw to his cornermen in the hospital after losing to Ken Norton. “Now what are you looking so down about?” he is asking them. “It‘s just a little broken bone. I put men in the hospital before. Now it‘s my turn to go to the hospital. It‘s just another test Allah puts before us. Accept it as that.”

A test. Think of that when you listen to him speak now and you wince. We are watching a man take a test, a man who understands that the questions on the test as he nears 50 are not the same as those when he was 23.

I watch him carefully pack his training gear into his gym bag. It is three years after the frightening car ride—he wants me to watch him work out again. He is 45. His short-term memory fails him sometimes now. We drive to an abandoned gym. He walks inside, starts to unbutton his shirt and stops.

“What do you know?” he says. “I forgot my bag.” That is all.

No sheepishness. No excuses. No need to go back home. He simply begins to pound the heavy bag in his hard shoes and street clothes. 

Forty minutes later, we walk out. He is exhausted again; he is fading. … Now his key will not open his car door. Sometimes he misses the keyhole. Sometimes he gets the key in but cannot quite make it turn. For three minutes he works at it ... four minutes … five. He never mutters. He never scowls or shakes his head. He never gets angry at his shaking hands. He never apologizes to me for the delay. He never shows the slightest trace of self-consciousness.

He starts over, again and again.

No, this is not sad, it occurs to me. This is a man whose hands once worked as quickly and efficiently as human hands have ever worked. A man who will make do with this trembling flesh and bone that now hang from his wrists. A man of dignity and strength. To be vulnerable, and yet never embarrassed—this is the gift of the child. How has he preserved that after all he has seen and experienced, after decades of watching every person—every person—who walks by him freeze and mouth the word Ali, after decades of watching people try to seduce or exploit him? How is it that Muhammad Ali can still giggle?

I see myself in his bathroom. It‘s 1987. I‘m trying to get out, pushing and pulling at the door, turning the knob left and right, thinking I have somehow locked myself in, sweating and self-conscious … when suddenly the door opens, my momentum carries me flying into his living room, and Ali steps out from behind the door, grinning.

“Just teasin',” he says.

Oh, yes, he knows the butterfly‘s secret. Knows it and doesn‘t even know he knows it. In order to transform himself, a man must first be able to lose, able to keep letting his old self die. Part of such a man will never grow old.

I think of him sitting in a Manila hotel room in 1975 with Peter Bonventre, then a writer with Newsweek, and a second man, a Filipino whom Ali has just met. The stranger speaks in flowery words with a British lilt, then unrolls a parchment full of gaudy colors and script and extends a pen for Ali to sign it with. Ali, who was once bilked out of $2.4 million by one man, who paid for another man to bury his mother twice—who would shrug and say, “He must have really needed it,” when he learned of the deceit—takes the Filipino‘s pen without hesitation, signs and looks up. “It‘s beautiful writing,” Ali says. “What did I just sign?”

The man bows slowly. “You are now,” he says, “the godfather of my three children.”

And Ali, his smile wide, his eyes wide, says what my little girl might say, what I wish I would say: “Really?”

He had the vision of a child—and, yes, the blindness, too. The short attention span—you had 15 seconds to say or do something of interest to Ali before his eyes moved elsewhere, his bodyguard Pat Patterson once said. The need for two scoops of vanilla ice cream on his apple pie every day. The cruel streak that permitted him to introduce Veronica as his wife in Manila when the title was still Belinda‘s. We came to overlook those things. In a country where children are no longer children, could a beautiful child like Ali fail to be a god?

But now I see other eyes. Weary eyes, life-beaten. A child who saw and did too much. It is 10 minutes after he leaned on the door and trapped me in the bathroom. It is winter in Michigan. He steps out onto his farm and stares across the barren earth. I lean to make out each word he speaks: “I can sit here all day and the phone don'tring … no knock on the door … no visitors. Can take a walk … a jog … a swim … and see no one. Peace … total peace. … Nothin' excite me no more. Big-city lights … big cars … big houses … pretty women. … Used to be I couldn't go two hours without people. Now I can sit all day alone. I like it just like this.”

I follow his look, try to see what he sees. “Right now,” I say, “if you could do or have anything in the world you wanted, what would it be? What‘s your dream right now?”

Roughly 12 seconds have passed since he told me that he is tired of movement and people and noise and lights. “Do anything? … I‘d get me a big special-built mobile home, sleep about six people comfortable, me and five more. … Get two good drivers and a cook. … Get my own tractor trailer riding behind it. Fill it with 300,000 books on Islam, and 300,000 pamphlets, and tapes of lectures. ... Pull into city after city, open the doors. …  See the people come running, yelling ‘Champ!‘… Slapping my hands … and I sign for them … and give them all books.”

In Los Angeles, at the end of his career, Ali lived in a mansion. There was a guard in uniform who telephoned the house before opening the gate to visitors. There were antique chairs inside with ropes from one armrest to the other so no one could sit in them. There were vases half as high as a man, flowing draperies, gilded furniture, a gleaming Steinway piano, Renaissance-style paintings and Oriental rugs. There were fabulous gifts from presidents and kings that I was afraid to touch. A woman came downstairs, an ice sculpture. Veronica nodded to me, said nothing and left. So this is how a god lives, I thought. Ali seemed depressed.

How do other gods live out their twilight years, after their mirrors show them wrinkles? I think of Joe Louis, a greeter at Caesars Palace before he died. “Get your arm around him, Joe. Smile now, Joe, just one more shot... .” Of Greta Garbo, speaking to almost no one, hiding her face from cameras. Of Mickey Mantle, appearing at conventions where men sell his baseball cards, at one time plummeting into depression. Of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, overdosed, dead. People running to the past or running from it. 

People desperate for some new cliff edge to walk along in place of their old one.

Ali lives in an old farmhouse today. There are trees outside, cows, a pond. A big sofa you can sink into, a coffee table you can take your shoes off and prop your feet on, an end table with chewing gum stuck under it that Ali was too lazy to take to the trash can. Now there is a wife named Lonnie who grew up on the same street in Louisville where Ali‘s parents lived when young Cassius Clay was still in his 20‘s. Today, all his decisions—when to travel and see people, when to stay home and rest—she shares in. She smiles and looks you in the eye and offers you lunch. “You got something to nibble on that ain‘t fattenin‘, darling?” Ali asks her. Now Ali lives in a home.

Since that night in the Bahamas in 1981 when he stopped fighting, that night he stopped standing in front of men whose punches could kill, he has only approached the edge once. That was in 1987, when he considered undergoing a new form of brain surgery that a Mexican doctor was using on patients with Parkinson‘s. The surgery was dangerous—two of 18 patients reportedly had died shortly thereafter. Others had shown marked improvement. Ali flew to Mexico, neared the precipice, the all-or-nothing. Then he backed off. He accepted who and what he is. He went on bending over the keyhole. What if he had had the surgery? What if his stride was swift again, his eyes danced, the words romped once more off his tongue?

Could he deny, all on his own, the side of himself that was never quite so self-assured as people thought? The side that always needed to give people what he thought they expected of him; the side that always led him, unasked, to work out for me after he had retired, to perform magic tricks, to show me all his fan mail? Could he resist, all on his own, without the illness, the impulse to be what the world still wanted him to be?

He visited a home for the aged once when he was still boxing. An old man‘s eyes lit up as Ali approached him. “Do you know who this is?” Gene Kilroy, Ali‘s companion, asked the old man.

“Sure do,” said the old man. “That‘s Joe Louie.”

Kilroy started to correct him. Ali shook his finger no. “That‘s right,” Ali said, putting his arm around the old man and hugging him. “Joe Louie came to see you.”

“People think I‘m sufferin',” says Muhammad Ali. He shakes his head. “People thought I was suffering when they wouldn‘t let me box during the Vietnam War too. ... I want my health back, but ... I ain‘t sufferin‘.”

What current set him down here, in the 48th year of his life? Could it be the same one that whipped him into the madness against Liston? That whispered to him to try the unthinkable against Foreman, to stand still on the ropes? The one that made him a survivor, the most dominant athlete of his time?

He looks around the old farmhouse. Then into the kitchen, where Lonnie is making two big bowls of salad. “What if I was still superhuman?” he says. “What if I had finished undefeated? What if I‘d won my last two fights … if I didn't have this health problem? I‘d still be talkin' like I used to. … Be tryin' to keep up with my image, still doin' all those interviews and commercials and speeches. … I‘d probably have a miserable life. … I wouldn‘t be human.”

Human. All the other transformations of his life had satisfied other people‘s needs. This one had fulfilled only his own.

Before the big fights these days, when he is introduced in the ring, I see all the pity and pain on people‘s faces when he gives that little wave, that glazed look across the audience, and makes that exit through the ring ropes that seems to last forever. I see all the people who wanted him to be a symbol of something wonderful and liberating for all of his life, for all of their lives.

Look once more, look harder, I want to nudge them and say.

He is.

In one of the most iconic and controversial moments of his career, Ali stands over Sonny Liston and yells at him after knocking the former champ down in the first round of their 1965 rematch. Skeptics dubbed it "the Phantom Punch," but films show Ali's flashing right caught Liston flush, knocking him to the canvas. Refusing to go to a neutral corner, Ali stood over Liston and told him to "get up and fight, sucker." Neil Leifer
At 22-years-old, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) battered the heavily favored Sonny Liston in a bout that shook the boxing world. The fight ignited the career of one of sports' most charismatic and controversial figures, whose bouts often became social and political events rather than simply sports contests. At the peak of his fame, Muhammad Ali was the best known athlete in the world. Liston, one of the most feared heavyweight champions in history, was a 1-8 favorite over the young challenger known as the Louisville Lip. But Clay, here stinging the champ with a right, used his dazzling speed and constant movement to dominate the action and pile up points. Neil Leifer
Cassius Clay punches Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland during their gold medal bout at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Clay defeated Pietrzykowski 5-0 for the light heavyweight gold medal. Jerry Cooke
For the 18-year-old from Louisville, here atop the medal stand after his Olympic victory, all roads led from Rome. Clay finished his amateur career with a record of 100-5 and made his professional debut two months after the Games. Marvin E. Newman
Undefeated in his first 17 pro fights, Clay mugged for the camera before the start of his 1963 bout against Doug Jones in Madison Square Garden. Neil Leifer
Trainer Angelo Dundee urged his young charge to get serious before the opening bell against Jones. Clay followed instructions and emerged from a tough fight with a unanimous decision victory. Three months later he would stop Henry Cooper and close out 1963 at 19-0. Neil Leifer
A seemingly hysterical Clay taunted Sonny Liston during the pre-fight physical for their 1964 bout. He had consistently baited the Big Bear during the lead-up to the fight, saying he was going to "use him as a bearskin rug ... after I whup him." The Miami Boxing Commission would fine Clay $2,500 for his outburst at the physical. Neil Leifer
"I shook up the world!" an emotional Clay hollered to ringside reporters after his shocking defeat of Liston. And he did just that, claiming the heavyweight title at age 21 after a clearly beaten Liston, complaining of a shoulder injury, failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. Neil Leifer
Draped in shadow, the young king — now known as Muhammad Ali — stared down the camera during a photo shoot in April 1965, one month before his rematch against Sonny Liston. Neil Leifer
As Liston lingered on the canvas and the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott, tried to control Ali, the 2,434 spectators on hand in the Lewiston, Me., hockey arena — a record low for a heavyweight championship fight — tried to make sense of what all that had happened in less than two minutes after the opening bell. Neil Leifer
The celebration over Liston continued. In a chaotic ending, Ali was awarded a knockout when Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, informed referee Jersey Joe Walcott from ringside that Liston had been on the canvas for longer than 10 seconds after Ali knocked him down. The bout remains one of the most controversial in boxing history, with many observers insisting that Liston took a dive. Neil Leifer
Ali's second title defense came in November 1965, against former two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. During the build-up to the bout, the normally soft-spoken Patterson earned the new champ's wrath by refusing to call Ali by his Muslim name. At the weigh-in, Ali's glare made it clear that he intended Patterson to pay for the disrespect. Neil Leifer
In cruelly efficient performance, Ali punished Patterson — who was hobbled by a painful back injury — seemingly toying with the former champ throughout the bout, hitting him at will and calling, "What's my name?" before finally winning on a 12th-round TKO. Neil Leifer
Capping off a five-fight campaign in 1966, Ali faced Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome on Nov. 14. Known as the Big Cat, the heavily-muscled Williams was a power puncher who had racked up 51 knockouts in 71 fights. But he was also 33, barely recovered from a gunshot wound sustained the year before, and up against a young champion very much in his prime. Ali wasted little time in unleashing a withering attack. James Drake
Float and sting: In a display of speed and combination punching unmatched in heavyweight history, Ali overwhelmed Williams from the start. The challenger, here down for the third time in round 2, would be saved by the bell before referee Harry Kessler could count him out, but it would only postpone the inevitable. James Drake
Ali dropped Williams again early in the third round, and Kessler waved the mismatch over at 1:08 of the third. Neil Leifer
In a multiple-exposure portrait, Ali demonstrates his signature double-clutch shuffle during a photo shoot in December 1966. Neil Leifer
Ali sits in the locker room before his February 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell. Like Patterson before him, Terrell refused to call the champion by his Muslim name. Also like Patterson, he paid a stiff price, as Ali punished Terrell for 15 ugly rounds before winning by unanimous decision. Neil Leifer
Outside the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston in April 1967, Ali spoke to the press about his refusal to be inducted into military service. Among those on hand was ABC's Howard Cosell, who would be a staunch supporter of the fighter's stance. The decision cost Ali his boxing license and his heavyweight title, and he was sentenced to five years in prison but remained free pending an appeal. Neil Leifer
In professional exile for three and a half years because of his draft case, Ali sought to return to boxing in 1970. He began with a night of exhibition bouts at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where before going into the ring, he shared a locker room laugh with actor and comedian Lincoln Perry (right), better known by his stage name of Stepin Fetchit. The friendship between the two black icons would later be examined in an acclaimed play by Will Power, Fetch Clay, Make Man. Neil Leifer
After the Atlanta Athletic Commission at last granted Ali a license, the deposed champion went back into serious training. He was, as ever, in the capable hands of trainer Angelo Dundee, here wrapping boxing's most famous fists at the 5th Street Gym in Miami in October 1970. Neil Leifer
With his return to the ring scheduled for Oct. 26, 1970 in Atlanta, against dangerous contender Jerry Quarry, Ali made it clear to all who would listen that he was on a mission to reclaim the title that had been stripped of him. Neil Leifer
Reel to spiel: For the ever-loquacious Ali, even a rare moment of down time — like this afternoon in 1970 in a Miami hotel room — was a chance to do some talking. Neil Leifer
Despite Ali's long layoff, his comeback campaign would include no easy tune-up bouts. He stopped Quarry in three rounds on Oct. 26, 1970, then, just six weeks later — an unthinkably short interlude by today's standards — took on Argentine contender Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square Garden. Here, Ali fires a right at the rugged and awkward Bonavena, who took the fight to the former champion all night. Neil Leifer
After a long, often sloppy bout, Ali — here being held back by referee Mark Conn — produced one of the most dramatic finishes of his career, dropping Bonavena three times in the 15th and final round to automatically end the fight. The win cleared the way for a showdown with Joe Frazier, the man who had taken the heavyweight title in Ali's absence. Neil Leifer
On the night of March 8, 1971, the eyes of the world were on a square patch of white canvas in the center of Madison Square Garden. There, Ali and Joe Frazier met in what was billed at the time simply as The Fight, but has come to be known, justifiably, as the Fight of the Century. For 15 rounds the two undefeated heavyweights battled at a furious pace, with each man sustaining tremendous punishment. In the end Frazier prevailed, dropping Ali in the final round with a tremendous left hook to seal a unanimous decision and hand The Greatest his first loss in 32 professional fights. Neil Leifer
Ali poses with the fight poster for his upcoming fight against Jimmy Ellis during a photo shoot in July 1971. Ellis was an old friend of Ali's — both were trained by Angelo Dundee — and knew his fighting style well from many rounds of sparring. Neil Leifer
For those sportswriters lucky enough to cover Ali on a regular basis, each day brought surprises and, more often than not, plenty of laughs. of Trainer Drew Bundini Brown helps Ali train for his fight against Ellis. Ali won the bout by technical knockout in the 12th round to claim the vacant NABF heavyweight title. Neil Leifer
The man in the mirror stares back as Ali examines himself while training for a fight in 1972. He won all six of his fights that year. Neil Leifer
The Louisville Lip stands next to George Foreman before Ali's fight versus Jerry Quarry in June 1972. Ali won by technical knockout in the seventh round. Foreman at the time was 36-0. Ali would not get his shot against Foreman for more than two years. Neil Leifer
Ali throws a left hook at Bob Foster in their 1972 fight at Stateline, Nev. Although Ali knocked Foster out, Foster did leave his mark: a cut above Ali's left eye, his first as a professional. Neil Leifer
Foster lies on the canvas after getting knocked down by Ali. Ali knocked Foster down four times in the fifth round and twice more in the seventh round before he was finally counted out after Ali knocked him down again in the eighth round. Neil Leifer
Ali sits with sportscaster Howard Cosell before his fight with Joe Bugner in February 1973. Although unable to knock Bugner out, Ali won comfortably by unanimous decision. Neil Leifer
Ali hits a speed bag while warming up for his bout with Bugner in Las Vegas. Ali prepared ferociously for the fight, training 67 rounds the week leading up to the fight, including six rounds the day before the fight. Neil Leifer
In a lighter pre-fight moment, Ali poses for a portrait wearing a hat in his dressing room before the match with Bugner. Neil Leifer
Ali plays with Sugar Ray Robinson's hair in the locker room before his bout with Bugner. The former welterweight and middleweight champion was Ali's childhood idol. Neil Leifer
Before the fight with Bugner, Muhammad Ali enjoys a relaxed moment with a poodle at Caesars Palace Hotel. He won the fight with Bugner by unanimous decision. Neil Leifer
Howard Cosell interviews Ali, with entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. in the middle, after his victory over Joe Bugner by unanimous decision in. Although the fight was never in jeopardy of getting away from him, Ali praised Bugner's legs and said he could be a champion in a few years. Neil Leifer
Ali changes the diaper of his son in his bedroom during a photo shoot at the family's home in April 1973. Ali had suffered a broken jaw less than a month earlier in his fight against Ken Norton. Neil Leifer
In the wake of his split decision loss to Norton, Ali plays with his son in his bedroom at home in Cherry Hill, N.J. Neil Leifer
Ali kisses his daughter Jamillah outside of their home following the loss to Norton, just the second defeat of his career. Neil Leifer
The Ali family standing outside their New Jersey home. To the right of Muhammad Ali are his twin daughters, Jamilllah and Rasheda, daughter Maryum and his wife, Khalilah, holding their son Ibn Muhammad Ali Jr. Neil Leifer
At his training camp cabin, Ali pushes a boulder during a photo shoot in Deer Lake, Penn., in August 1973. Ali was training for his rematch against Ken Norton, who broke his jaw five months earlier. Neil Leifer
Ali chops wood at his cabin in Deer Lake. He referred to the training camp as "fighter's heaven" and used it to prepare for fights away from the spotlight. Neil Leifer
The fighters weigh in on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ahead of Ali and Ken Norton's September 1973 fight. Neil Leifer
Johnny Carson listens to Ali on the Tonight Show three days before his rematch with Norton. Ali would avenge his earlier loss to Norton, winning a narrow split decision. Neil Leifer
Ali poses in front of posters and magazine covers from throughout his career at his training camp cabin in Deer Lake in 1974. Neil Leifer
Ali poses with members of his family in front of a poster from his first fight with Joe Frazier. Ali's brother, Rahman Ali; mother, Odessa Clay; and father, Cassius Clay Sr. stand behind the boxer. Neil Leifer
Less than three weeks before his rematch with Joe Frazier on Jan. 28, 1974, Ali wraps his hands while wearing a sauna suit at his training camp cabin. Neil Leifer
Ali holds a newspaper at his cabin in January 1974. He is pointing to a headline that reads, "Frazier On Ali, I Think He's Crazy." Ali and Frazier fought for the second time later that month with Ali winning by a unanimous decision. Neil Leifer
Ali lies on his bed at his cabin during the January 1974 photo shoot. Neil Leifer
His smaller incarnation stares straight back as Ali plays with a doll of himself during the same 1974 shoot at his training camp cabin. Neil Leifer
Ali and Joe Frazier fight on the set of The Dick Cavett Show while reviewing their 1971 bout in advance of their 1974 rematch. Ali called Frazier ignorant, to which Frazier took exception. As the studio crew tried to calm Frazier down, Ali held Frazier by the neck, forcing him to sit down and sparking a fight. The television set fight amped up anticipation of their January 1974 bout. Neil Leifer
Exploring a different side of the sport, Ali broadcasts the fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton in March 1974. Foreman won the fight by technical knockout in the second round, setting up the showdown with Ali in Zaire. Neil Leifer
Ali jumps rope at the Salle de Congres in Kinshasa, Zaire, while training for his heavyweight title fight against George Foreman. Both Ali and Foreman spent most of the summer of 1974 training in Zaire to adjust to the climate. Tony Triolo
While training before his fight with George Foreman, Ali kisses his mother, Odessa Clay, while his father, Cassius Clay Sr., looks on. Ali's superior strategy and ability to take a punch led him to his upset victory as he absorbed body blows from Foreman before he responded with powerful combinations to Foreman's head. Neil Leifer
Four days before the fight, Ali holds the hand of his son Ibn in Zaire. Ali successfully courted the favor of the Zaire crowd, prompting chants of "Ali bomaye!" — translated as "Ali, kill him!" Neil Leifer
Ali poses in front of the Le Militant statue at the presidential complex that was the site of Ali's January heavyweight title bout with Foreman. The fight was originally set for a month earlier, but Foreman suffered a cut near his eye during training, forcing a delay. Neil Leifer
Ali stands against the railing on the River Zaire watching the sunset four days before the Rumble in the Jungle. The fight was sponsored by Zaire to achieve the $5 million purse promoter Don King had promised both Ali and Foreman. Neil Leifer
Before employing his famous rope-a-dope strategy against Foreman, Ali makes a face at the camera. Ali allowed Foreman to throw many punches but only into his arms and body, and when Foreman tired himself out from the mostly ineffective punches, Ali took control of the fight. Neil Leifer
Ali points before his bout with Foreman. The victory over his favored opponent made him the heavyweight champion of the world for the first time since he was stripped of his titles in 1967. Neil Leifer
Ali stares at George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali earned his shot at the heavyweight title by defeating Joe Frazier in January 1974, avenging a loss three years earlier. Neil Leifer
Foreman lies down on the canvas as Ali stands in the background during the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali knocked Foreman down with a five-punch combination in the eighth round, and referee Zack Clayton counted him out. Tony Triolo
Big George stares at the ceiling as referee Zack Clayton counts him out in the eighth round. The victory made Ali, once again, the heavyweight champion of the world. Neil Leifer
Ali poses for a portrait after being selected as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1974. Ali wore a dashiki, a men's garment widely worn in West Africa. He also brought the walking stick given to him by Zaire's president. Neil Leifer
This time Ali wears a tuxedo, but keeps the walking stick, during the November photo shoot for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Neil Leifer
Ali talks with Howard Cosell outside of the United Nations Headquarters for a segment on the Wide World of Sports. Later that day, Ali held a press conference to announce that he would donate part of the proceeds from his fight against Chuck Wepner to help Africans in the Sahel drought. Neil Leifer
Ali talks with Reverend Jesse Jackson outside of the United Nations Headquarters before a press conference to announce that he would donate part of the proceeds from his fight against Chuck Wepner to help Africans in the Sahel drought. Neil Leifer
Ali stands with trainer Angelo Dundee, assistant trainer Wali Muhammad, physician Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and assistant trainer Drew Bundini Brown before his bout with Ron Lyle in May 1975. Ali won the fight by technical knockout in the 11th round. Neil Leifer
Along with Don King and Joe Frazier, Ali sat for a portrait leading up to the Thrilla in Manila. Ali verbally abused Frazier during the buildup to the fight, telling the media that "it will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila." Neil Leifer
Ali points at the camera with Don King and his training staff behind him before the weigh-in for the Thrilla in Manila in October 1975. Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos offered to sponsor the bout and hold it in Metro Manila to divert attention from the turmoil in the country that had forced the imposition of martial law in 1972. Neil Leifer
Wrapping up Joe Frazier proved more difficult than Ali expected, having thought Frazier would represent an easy payday and be unable to live up to his billing. The fight turned out to be a brutal affair. Neil Leifer
Frazier faces an Ali right hook in their fight in Quezon City, Philippines. The two fighters traded vicious blows during their 14 rounds. "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," Frazier said. Ali withstood the blows to win by TKO in the 15th round. Neil Leifer
The third fight between Ali and Frazier, Ali won the bruising battle between the two powerful punching heavyweights when Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight before the 15th round. Neil Leifer
A back and forth exchange, Ali controlled the early rounds of the Thrilla in Manila before Frazier fought back with powerful hooks. Ali finished strong, regaining momentum in the later rounds. Neil Leifer
Ali speaks to the press after winning the Thrilla in Manila bout with Frazier. Neil Leifer
Ali holds a drinking concoction given to him by Dick Gregory, an advocate of a raw fruit and vegetable diet, in 1976. Tony Triolo
Before his 1976 fight against Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium, Ali watches a fight on television from his hotel room. A police strike at the time of the fight created a dangerous environment outside the stadium that all but eliminated walk-up sales. Tony Triolo
Norton takes a right hook during the heavyweight title fight against Ali. The bout, which Ali won by a unanimous, but controversial, decision, was the last boxing match at Yankee Stadium until 2010. Jerry Cooke
Ali makes a face during his fight with Earnie Shavers in 1977 at Madison Square Garden. Hurt badly by Shavers in the second round, Ali rebounded and outboxed Shavers throughout to build a lead on points before Shavers came on again in the later rounds. Seemingly exhausted going into the 15th and final round, Ali remained victorious by producing a closing flurry that left Shavers wobbling at the bell and the Garden crowd once again in delirium over his Ali magic. Neil Leifer
Ali squares off with Leon Spinks at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel in February 1978. Spinks won the fight in a split decision, ending Ali's 3.5-year reign as the heavyweight champion. It was the only time in Ali's career that he lost his championship title in the ring. Neil Leifer
Leon Spinks took center stage over Ali at the press conference after their fight. The victorious Spinks and his gap-toothed grin were featured on the Feb. 19, 1978 cover of Sports Illustrated. Neil Leifer
Ali lands a straight right hand to the head of Spinks in the rematch of their title bout in 1978. Ali won on a 15 round decision. Neil Leifer
Don King pulled the strings again when Ali faced Larry Holmes before their November 1980 fight. King became a key figure in Ali's career, promoting his biggest fights, the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle. Lane Stewart
Ali points at Larry Holmes before their bout at Caesars Palace in 1980. John Iacono
Ali grapples with Holmes during their bout in 1980. Trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight in the 11th round, marking the fight as Ali's only career loss by knockout. John Iacono
Drew Bundini Brown leans in to speak to Ali, who returned to fight Holmes after a brief retirement. By this time, Ali had already begun developing a vocal stutter and trembling hands and taken thyroid medication to lose weight that left him tired and short of breath. John Iacono
Ignoring pleas for his retirement, Ali stretches before a fight against Trevor Berbick in Nassau, Bahamas. Ali lost to Berbick in a unanimous decision and retired after the bout, the 61st of his career. John Iacono
Ali pretends to spar with artist LeRoy Neiman at his home in Los Angeles. Neiman met Ali in 1962 and made many paintings and sketches from throughout Ali's life. Peter Read Miller
Cake in hand, Ali poses for a 50th birthday portrait in 1991. Although diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome seven years earlier, Ali was still active, traveling to Iraq during the Gulf War to meet with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to negotiate the release of American hostages. Neil Leifer
The same year, Ali stands atop of the Sonny Liston rock at his old training camp cabin. Ali and his father painted the names of famous boxers he admired on 18 boulders at the camp. Neil Leifer
Ali carries the Olympic torch inside Centennial Olympic Stadium at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Despite trembling hands, Ali had the honor to light the Olympic flame in the stadium. Peter Read Miller
Husband and wife pose for a portrait during a photo shoot in 1997. Muhammad and Lonnie married in 1986 and have an adopted son together, Asaad Amin Ali. Neil Leifer
Ali messes around with actor Billy Crystal during a photo shoot in 2000. Crystal's impression of Ali was notorious, and he performed at a tribute to the boxer on his 50th birthday in December 1991. Neil Leifer
Ali lies on the canvas as his son, Assad Amin Ali, stands over him invoking memories of Ali's victory over Sonny Liston during a photo shoot in the gym at his farm on Kephart Road near Berrien Springs in 2001. Neil Leifer
Fierce rivals in the ring, Ali and Joe Frazier pose for a portrait in the boxing robes they wore the night of their first bout at Frazier's Gym in 2003. Ali said after Frazier's death in 2011 that he was "a great champion." Walter Iooss Jr.
Ali takes a punch from his daughter Laila Ali while sparring before her fight against Erin Toughill in 2005. Laila retired from her own successful boxing career with a professional record of 24-0. Neil Leifer
Ali poses with his fists up for a portrait in 2005. Walter Iooss Jr.
Ali poses with an extended punch in a 2012 photo shoot at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., to mark his 70th birthday. Neil Leifer
Ali sits in front of a 70th birthday cake in January 2012 at his Arizona home. Later that year he appeared at the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics in London to escort the Olympic flag into the stadium, 52 years after he won gold in Rome. Neil Leifer

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