The dazzling fighter – whose words, often delivered in catchy rhymes, were as devastating as his punches – was admitted to an Arizona hospital at the end of May. From political leaders to sports figures to Hollywood’s A-list, the world paused to remember “The Greatest,” whose remarkable career spanned three decades, and whose battle with illness later in life moved his fans.
In 1984, the brash sportsman visited the city 30 years ago as ‘The Greatest’ visited Birmingham and was mobbed by adoring fans when he came to personally open the Muhammad Ali Centre, in Hockley. Louisville lowered flags to half-mast in his honour, as fans flocked to his modest childhood home, now a museum, to pay their respects and leave flowers.
President Barack Obama led tributes for Ali, issuing an unusually personal statement in which he said he keeps a pair of Ali’s boxing gloves and a photo in his private study. “Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period,” the US president said, hailing Ali for his integrity and saying he “stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.”
“His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground,” Obama said. “And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”
George Foreman, Ali’s most famous knockout victim from the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ in the former Zaire, in 1974, noted Ali’s other main rival, Joe Frazier, in tweeting: “Ali, Frazier and Foreman we were 1 guy. A part of me slipped away, The Greatest piece.”
“We lost a legend, a hero and a great man,” said Floyd Mayweather, who retired last year as an unbeaten welterweight champion. “He’s one of the guys who paved the way for me to be where I’m at. Words can’t explain what Muhammad Ali did for the sport.”
Former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson tweeted: “God came for his champion. So long great one. @MuhammadAli TheGreatest RIP.”
Don King, who promoted the Rumble in the Jungle, said Ali will live on forever alongside other US civil rights heroes.
“He was tremendous, not just a boxer, a great human being, an icon,” King said. “Muhammad Ali’s spirit, like Martin Luther King Jr., will live on. That’s why Muhammad Ali will never die.”
On his death, the front page headline on Ali’s hometown newspaper, the Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, simply said, “The Greatest” with a legendary 1965 photo of Ali standing over a flattened Sonny Liston.
Now boarded up, surrounded by spiked fencing and empty, the Birmingham community centre opened by the boxing legend is in desperate need of attention but a Birmingham-based community group is set to give the ailing building a new lease of life.