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The political side of Ali: Fights outside the ring

Muhammad Ali died on Friday, aged 74, after suffering for more than three decades with Parkinson's syndrome.

Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON: More than 60 years ago, a bicycle thief in Louisville, Kentucky, unknowingly set in motion one of the most amazing sports careers in history.

An angry 12-year-old Cassius Clay went to a policeman on that day in 1954, vowing he would find the thief who took his bike and have his revenge. The policeman's advice was to learn to box first so Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, went to a gym, where he learned quite well.

He would go on to be a record-setting heavyweight champion and also much more. Ali was handsome, bold and outspoken and became a symbol for black liberation as he stood up to the US government by refusing to go into the Army for religious reasons.

As one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, Ali did not believe in modesty and proclaimed himself not only "the greatest" but "the double greatest."

He died on Friday at the age of 74 after suffering for more than three decades with Parkinson's syndrome, which stole his physical grace and killed his loquaciousness.

Americans had never seen an athlete - or perhaps any public figure - like Ali. He was heavyweight champ a record three times between 1964 and 1978, taking part in some of the sport's most epic bouts. He was cocky and rebellious and psyched himself up by taunting opponents and reciting original poems that predicted the round in which he would knock them out in. The audacity caused many to despise Ali but endeared him to millions.

"He talked, he was handsome, he did wonderful things," said George Foreman, a prominent Ali rival.

"If you were 16 years old and wanted to copy somebody, it had to be Ali."

Ali's emergence coincided with the American civil rights movement and his persona offered young blacks something they did not get from Martin Luther King and other leaders of the era.

"I am America. I am the part you won't recognize," Ali said.

"But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."

Ali also had his share of fights outside the ring - against public opinion when he became a Muslim in 1964, against the US government when he refused to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War and finally against Parkinson's.

The one-time Christian Baptist became the most famous convert to Islam in American history when he announced he had joined the Black Muslim movement under the guidance of Malcolm X shortly after he first became champion. He eventually rejected his "white" name and became Muhammad Ali but split from Malcolm X during a power struggle within the movement.

The US Army twice rejected Ali for service after measuring his IQ at 78 but eventually declared him fit for service. When he was drafted on April 28, 1967, he refused induction and the next day was stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association. In June of that year he was found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail.

"Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger," Ali said in a famous off-the-cuff statement.

He never went to jail while his case was on appeal and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Still, Ali's career had been at a standstill for almost 3-1/2 years because boxing officials would not give him licenses to fight.

AFTER THE RING

Ali did not have to be in a boxing ring to command the world stage. In 1990, a few months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein held dozens of foreigners hostages in hopes of averting an invasion of his country. Ali flew to Baghdad, met Saddam and left with 14 American hostages.

A nation that once questioned his patriotism cheered loudly in 1996 when he made a surprise appearance at the Atlanta Games, stilling the Parkinson's tremors in his hands enough to light the Olympic flame. He also took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, looking frail in a wheelchair.

In November 2002 he went to Afghanistan on a goodwill visit after being appointed a UN "messenger of peace."

Ali was married four times, most recently to the former Lonnie Williams, who knew him when she was a child in Louisville. He had nine children, including daughter Laila, who became a boxer.

The diagnosis of Parkinson's syndrome, which has been linked to head trauma, came about three years after Ali retired from boxing in 1981. He helped establish the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Centre at a hospital in Phoenix.