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Muhammad Ali, the former three-time world heavyweight champion, began boxing at 12, training with policeman Joe Martin after he vowed to ‘whup’ the person who stole his bike.Yousuf Karsh

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 spokesman for his family. He was hospitalized in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems earlier this week and his children had flown in from around the country. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said Mr. Ali, who had Parkinson's disease, died of septic shock. While it's not clear exactly what transpired with Mr. Ali, people with late-stage Parkinson's often have difficulty swallowing. Food and liquid landing in the lungs can lead to pneumonia or a chest infection that could cause sepsis, a bloodstream infection.

"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 Mr. 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, Ky. The city held a memorial service Saturday.

One of Mr. Ali's daughters described her father's last moments in an Instagram post, saying his heart wouldn't stop beating for 30 minutes after all of his other organs failed. Hana Ali said the family was surrounding her father, hugging and kissing him, holding his hands and chanting an Islamic prayer, while his heart kept beating as his other organs gave out. "No one had even seen anything like it. A true testament to the strength of his Spirit and Will!" she wrote.

In photos: A look back at Muhammad Ali

With a wit as sharp as the punches he used to "whup" opponents, Mr. 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 travelled 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, Mr. 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 colourful entourage who merely added to his growing legend.

"Rumble, young man, rumble," cornerman Bundini Brown would yell to him.

And rumble Mr. 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.

"I am the greatest," Mr. Ali thundered again and again.

Few would disagree.

Mr. Ali spurned white America when he joined the Black Muslims and changed his name. He defied the draft at the height of the Vietnam war – "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" – and lost 3 1/2 years from the prime of his career. He entertained world leaders, once telling Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos: "I saw your wife. You're not as dumb as you look."

He later embarked on a second career as a missionary for Islam.

"Boxing was my field mission, the first part of my life," he said in 1990, adding with typical braggadocio, "I will be the greatest evangelist ever."

Mr. Ali couldn't fulfill that goal because Parkinson's robbed him of his speech. It took such a toll on his body that the sight of him in his later years – trembling, his face frozen, the man who invented the Mr. Ali Shuffle now barely able to walk – shocked and saddened those who remembered him in his prime.

"People naturally are going to be sad to see the effects of his disease," Hana Ali said when he turned 65. "But if they could really see him in the calm of his everyday life, they would not be sorry for him. He's at complete peace, and he's here learning a greater lesson."

The quiet of Mr. Ali's later life was in contrast to the roar of a career that had breathtaking highs along with terrible lows. He exploded on the public scene with a series of nationally televised fights that gave the public an exciting new champion and he entertained millions as he sparred verbally with the likes of bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell.

Mr. Ali once calculated he had taken 29,000 punches to the head and made $57-million (U.S.) in his pro career, but the effect of the punches lingered long after most of the money was gone. That didn't stop him from travelling tirelessly to promote Islam, meet with world leaders and champion legislation dubbed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. While slowed in recent years, he still managed to make numerous appearances, including a trip to the 2012 London Olympics.

Despised by some for his outspoken beliefs and refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in the 1960s, an aging Mr. Ali became a poignant figure whose mere presence at a sporting event would draw long standing ovations.

One of his biggest opponents would later become a big fan, too. On the eve of the 35th anniversary of their "Rumble in the Jungle," Mr. Foreman paid tribute to the man who so famously stopped him in the eighth round of their 1974 heavyweight title fight, the first ever held in Africa.

"I don't call him the best boxer of all time, but he's the greatest human being I ever met," Mr. Foreman said. "To this day he's the most exciting person I ever met in my life."

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Mr. Ali began boxing at age 12 after his new bicycle was stolen and he vowed to policeman Joe Martin that he would "whup" the person who took it.

He was only 89 pounds at the time, but Mr. Martin began training him at his boxing gym, the beginning of a six-year amateur career that ended with the light heavyweight Olympic gold medal in 1960.

Mr. Ali had already encountered racism. On boxing trips, he and his amateur teammates would have to stay in the car while Mr. Martin bought them hamburgers. When he returned to Louisville with his gold medal, the Chamber of Commerce presented him a citation but said it didn't have time to co-sponsor a dinner.

In his autobiography, The Greatest, Mr. Ali wrote that he tossed the medal into the Ohio River after a fight with a white motorcycle gang, which started when he and a friend were refused service at a Louisville restaurant.

The story may be apocryphal and Mr. Ali later told friends he simply misplaced the medal. Regardless, he had made his point.

After he beat Mr. Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964, Ali shocked the boxing world by announcing he was a member of the Black Muslims – the Nation of Islam – and was rejecting his "slave name."

As a Baptist youth he spent much of his time outside the ring reading the Bible. From now on, he would be known as Muhammad Ali and his book of choice would be the Qur'an.

Mr. Ali's affiliation with the Nation of Islam outraged and disturbed many white Americans, but it was his refusal to be inducted into the Army that angered them most.

That happened on April 28, 1967, a month after he knocked out Zora Folley in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden in New York for his eighth title defence.

He was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title and banned from boxing.

Mr. Ali appealed the conviction on grounds he was a Muslim minister. He married 17-year-old Belinda Boyd, the second of his four wives, a month after his conviction and had four children with her. He had two more with his third wife, Veronica Porsche, and he and his fourth wife, Lonnie Williams, adopted a son.

During his banishment, Mr. Ali spoke at colleges and briefly appeared in a Broadway musical called Big Time Buck White. Still facing a prison term, he was allowed to resume boxing three years later and he came back to stop Jerry Quarry in three rounds on Oct. 26, 1970, in Atlanta despite efforts by Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox to block the bout.

He was still facing a possible prison sentence when he fought Frazier for the first time on March 8, 1971, in what was labelled "The Fight of the Century."

A few months later the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction on an 8-0 vote.

"I've done my celebrating already," Mr. Ali said after being informed of the decision. "I said a prayer to Allah."

Many in boxing believe Mr. Ali was never the same fighter after his lengthy layoff, even though he won the heavyweight championship two more times and fought for another decade.

Perhaps his most memorable fight was the "Rumble in the Jungle," when he upset a brooding Mr. Foreman to become heavyweight champion once again at age 32.

Many worried that Mr. Ali could be seriously hurt by the powerful Mr. Foreman, who had knocked Mr. Frazier down six times in a second-round TKO.

Mr. Ali won over a country before he won the fight, mingling with people as he trained and displaying the kind of playful charm the rest of the world had already seen.

Mr. Ali pulled out a huge upset to win the heavyweight title for a second time, allowing Foreman to punch himself out. He used what he would later call the "rope-a-dope" strategy – something even trainer Angelo Dundee knew nothing about.

Finally, he knocked out an exhausted Mr. Foreman in the eighth round, touching off wild celebrations among his African fans.

"I told you I was the greatest," Mr. Ali said.

That might have been argued by followers of Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano or Sugar Ray Robinson, but there was no doubt that Mr. Ali was just what boxing needed in the early 1960s.

He spouted poetry and brash predictions. After the sullen and frightening Mr. Liston, he was a fresh and entertaining face in a sport that struggled for respectability.

At the weigh-in before his Feb. 25, 1964, fight with Mr. Liston, Mr. Ali carried on so much that some observers thought he was scared stiff and suggested the fight in Miami Beach be called off.

"The crowd did not dream when they lay down their money that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny," Mr. Ali said.

Mr. Ali went on to punch Mr. Liston's face lumpy and became champion for the first time when Mr. Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round.

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," became Mr. Ali's rallying cry.

His talent for talking earned him the nickname "The Louisville Lip," but he had a new name of his own in mind: Muhammad Ali.

"I don't have to be what you want me to be," he told reporters the morning after beating Mr. Liston. "I'm free to be who I want."

By the time Mr. Ali was able to return to the ring following his forced layoff, he was bigger than ever. Soon he was in the ring for his first of three epic fights against Mr. Frazier, with each fighter guaranteed $2.5-million.

Before the fight, Mr. Ali called Mr. Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and said he was "too ugly to be the champ." His gamesmanship could have a cruel edge, especially when it was directed toward Mr. Frazier.

In the first fight, though, Mr. Frazier had the upper hand. He relentlessly wore Mr. Ali down, flooring him with a crushing left hook in the 15th round and winning a decision.

It was the first defeat for Mr. Ali, but the boxing world had not seen the last of him and Mr. Frazier in the ring. Mr. Ali won a second fight, and then came the "Thrilla in Manila" on Oct. 1, 1975, in the Philippines, a brutal bout that Mr. Ali said afterward was "the closest thing to dying" he had experienced.

Mr. Ali won that third fight but took a terrific beating from the relentless Mr. Frazier before trainer Eddie Futch kept Mr. Frazier from answering the bell for the 15th round.

"They told me Joe Frazier was through," Mr. Ali told Mr. Frazier at one point during the fight.

"They lied," Mr. Frazier said, before hitting Mr. Ali with a left hook. The fight – which most in boxing agree was Mr. Ali's last great performance – was part of a 16-month period in the mid-1970s when Mr. Ali took his show on the road, fighting Mr. Foreman in Zaire, Mr. Frazier in the Philippines, Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Jean Pierre Coopman in Puerto Rico.

Mr. Ali would go on to lose the title to Leon Spinks, then come back to win it a third time on Sept. 15, 1978, when he scored a decision over Mr. Spinks in a rematch before 70,000 people at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Mr. Ali retired, only to come back and try to win the title for a fourth time against Larry Holmes on Oct. 2, 1980, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Ali grew a moustache, pronounced himself "Dark Gable" and got down to a svelte 217 1/2 pounds to beat Father Time. But Mr. Holmes, his former sparring partner, mercifully toyed with him until Mr. Dundee refused to let Mr. Ali answer the bell for the 11th round.

Ali fought just once more, losing a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.

With his fourth wife, Lonnie, at his side, Ali travelled the world for Islam and other causes.

For his part, Ali didn't complain about the price he had paid in the ring.

"What I suffered physically was worth what I've accomplished in life," he said in 1984. "A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life."

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