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Muhammad Ali, who has died at the age of 74, was the first truly global athlete. The heavyweight boxing champion’s life and career, in the ring and beyond, reached indelibly into the corners of all five continents.

As a fighter, he called himself “the greatest” and, in his prime, which was boxing's last golden age, he probably was. No heavyweight, before or since, was so fast and resourceful. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was his motto, the fast-footed “Ali shuffle” just one of the many tools of his trade and taunting his opponents in rhyme (“that ain’t no jive, [Henry] Cooper will fall in five”) was his psychological warfare.

But he was also a vivid symbol of the turbulent 1960s. He converted to the militant Nation of Islam in 1965 and changed his name, scaring and offending many American sensibilities, black and white. In 1967, he refused to be drafted into the US military, proclaiming, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with those Viet Cong” and was stripped of his title, banned from the ring and sentenced to five years in jail, though he never served a day in prison.

In his later boxing years, and in a retirement increasingly burdened by the Parkinson’s related affliction derived from all the blows he had taken, he became something else again – an almost benign figure of bravery, dignity and grace beneath which still beat the heart of the warrior.

Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17 1942. Angry after his bicycle was stolen, he was taught to box by a local policeman, rose swiftly through the amateur ranks, won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and turned professional.

Four years later, the “Louisville Lip” was world champion, forcing the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston, the “big ugly bear” in then Clay-speak, to retire after six rounds. He proceeded to fight and beat everybody in sight with growing panache, including Liston again, with the notorious first round “phantom” punch in 1966, and twice Cooper, the British champion, who at least had the distinction of being the first to knock him off his feet.

If opponents could not stop him, the US government could and did, over his draft resistance. He spent the next three years, undoubtedly his physical prime, out of the ring but always visible, speaking out against the Vietnam war and for American black pride. While hardly a leader of either movement, his charismatic appeal was more than useful to both.

His reputation was truly established after his return to the ring in 1970. He did not win every fight — Joe Frazier and Ken Norton both beat him — but there were some primal atavistic battles, especially the three with Frazier.

Nothing, however, compared with the “rumble in the jungle” (Kinshasa, Zaire) of 1974 when Ali dethroned George Foreman. He had been given little chance against the younger, more powerful champion but his “rope-a-dope” tactics drew all the strength out of Foreman on a steamy, tropical night. Ali knocked him out cleanly in the eighth round.

He fought a remarkable 22 times after that, including the final gruelling “thrilla in Manila” when he beat Frazier in 1975. His powers clearly waning, he lost his title to the unconsidered Leon Spinks in 1978, won it back but then, in 1980, suffered a terrible beating at the hands of Larry Holmes. Married four times, Ali is survived by his wife Lonnie and several children, one adopted and at least two born out of wedlock.

In the pantheon of 20th century American sports, few can be rated in Ali’s league: the boxer Joe Louis, perhaps, certainly Babe Ruth of baseball, possibly Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s colour bar in 1947, and definitely Michael Jordan, the basketball superstar of the 1980s and 1990s.

But only Jordan had anything like Ali’s impact beyond US shores and that, at least in part, was because of electronic media globalisation and modern mass marketing techniques. Ali, who was saddled with the controversial promoter Don King and who never had the likes of Nike and McDonald’s behind him, did it by the force of his own unique showmanship and personality.

It was fitting, therefore, that Ali was chosen to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996. It was a perfectly kept secret but, when he emerged shaky but proud in his white tunic to raise the torch aloft, there was the sweetest and most genuine outpouring of affection, in the stadium and living rooms around the world. For that moment, there was no doubt who was “the greatest”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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