Publish date:

Muhammad Ali—boxer, activist and provocateur—dead at 74

If Muhammad Ali was in his time the most famous person in the world, it was as much a tribute to his talent for provocation as to his boxing.

If Muhammad Ali was in his time the most famous person in the world, it was as much a tribute to his talent for provocation as to his boxing. He was a glorious athlete, of course, his white-tasseled feet a blur to match his whizzing fists. But his legacy as a global personality owes more to that glint in his eye, to his capacity for tomfoolery, to his playfulness. He was a born prankster, giddy in his eagerness to surprise, and the world won’t soon forget his insistence upon fun.

Fighting in the far corners of the earth, when that was still done, he was our most popular ambassador for a quarter of a century, advancing the American doctrine of self-satisfaction. His practiced malarkey—the doggerel of doom, the ritual belittlement—didn’t so much enliven his sport as it created a whole new form of entertainment. Really, there was boxing, and there was Ali—who died late Friday at the age of 74—and everybody knew the difference. In time his artful application of nonsense would be revealed as a facade, covering a deeper mission of empowerment. But watching him emerge in Zaire, Manila or even Cleveland was to witness a one-man comic relief effort. He was a traveling circus unto himself, the highest embodiment of self-confidence.

It must be said, first of all, that Ali was, just as he used to boast, the Greatest of All Time (which in later years became the typically playful acronym—GOAT—that branded his projects). He won the heavyweight title three times, in an era of ungodly competition. Neither Joe Louis nor Rocky Marciano faced so many dangerous fighters still in their primes. Ali’s trilogy with Joe Frazier provided enough drama in the first bout alone to be deemed mythic. Then there was the fight with George Foreman, when Ali, many thought, was being sent to his doom but instead invented an almost comical escape, the rope-a-dope. Not to mention bouts with Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, killers all. In his heyday, at least, Ali fought not for survival but for his own entertainment. He presented his ring art as a kind of jazz, fully improvisational, performed to the whimsical score in his head.

Gallery: SI's 100 Greatest Ali Photos

1965-0525-Muhammad-Ali-Sonny-Liston-II-001292890.jpg
1964-0225-Muhammad-Ali-Cassius-Clay-Sonny-Liston-014476250.jpg
1960-0825-Cassius-Clay-Muhammad-Ali-Zbigniew-Pietrzykowski-017054699.jpg
1960-0905-Cassius-Clay-Muhammad-Ali-001087818.jpg
1963-0313-Cassius-Clay-Muhammad-Ali-016562282.jpg
1963-0313-Cassius-Clay-Muhammad-Ali-Angelo-Dundee-016562270.jpg
1964-0225-Cassius-Clay-Muhammad-Ali-016562903.jpg
1964-0225-Cassius-Clay-Muhammad-Ali-001314311.jpg
1965-0402-Muhammad-Ali-079008499.jpg
1965-0525-Muhammad-Ali-Sonny-Liston-II-001314312.jpg
1965-0525-Muhammad-Ali-Sonny-Liston-II-001312920.jpg
1965-1122-Muhammad-Ali-Floyd-Patterson-014473450.jpg
1965-1122-Muhammad-Ali-Floyd-Patterson-001314328.jpg
1966-1114-Muhammad-Ali-Cleveland-Williams-005889747.jpg
1966-1114-Muhammad-Ali-Cleveland-Williams-079008232.jpg
1966-1114-Muhammad-Ali-Cleveland-Williams-001339166.jpg
1966-1230-Muhammad-Ali-001315216.jpg
1967-0206-Muhammad-Ali-001315150.jpg
1967-0428-Muhammad-Ali-Howard-Cosell-017010649.jpg
1970-0902--Muhammad-Ali-Lincoln-Perry-079008513.jpg
1970-1009-Muhammad-Ali-Angelo-Dundee-001312921.jpg
1970-1009-Muhammad-Ali-014476295.jpg
1970-1009-Muhammad-Ali-017010643.jpg
1970-1207-Muhammad-Ali-Oscar-Bonavena-014473459.jpg
1970-1207-Muhammad-Ali-Oscar-Bonavena-014476212.jpg
1971-0308-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-014473413.jpg
1971-0715-Muhammad-Ali-014476298.jpg
1971-0715-Muhammad-Ali-Drew-Bundini-Brown-014476299.jpg
1972-Muhammad-Ali-014476235.jpg
1972-Muhammad-Ali-George-Foreman-014476424.jpg
1972-Muhammad-Ali-Bob-Foster-014476414.jpg
1972-Muhammad-Ali-Bob-Foster-014476413.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-Howard-Cosell-001315119.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-014476245.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-014473516.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-Sugar-Ray-Robinson-014476238.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-poodle-dog-080062776.jpg
1973-Howard-Cosell-Sammy-Davis-Jr-Muhammad-Ali-014473464.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-Son-Ibn-014473356.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-son-Ibn-079008576.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-kissing-daughter-Jamillah-014473439.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-Jamillah-Rasheda-Maryum-Khalilah-Ibn-014473355.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-014473361.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-014473483.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-Ken-Norton-Johnny-Carson-017019773.jpg
1973-Muhammad-Ali-Johnny-Carson-017027886.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-079008578.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-brother-Rahman-mother-Pdessa-father-Cassius-014473364.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473368.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473369.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473367.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473366.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-014473363.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-079018550.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-001311929.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-mother-Odessa-father-Cassius-079008709.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-son-Ibn-079008742.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473380.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-079008643.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473424.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-079008603.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-George-Foreman-001315074.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-George-Foreman-05030075.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-George-Foreman-001256074Final.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-014473502.jpg
1974-Muhammad-Ali-NLC_01813.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Howard-Cosell-014471982.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Jesse-Jackson-015272932.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Angelo-Dundee-Wali-Ferdie-Pacheco-Drew-Bundini-Brown-014473601.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Don-King-Joe-Frazier-014473519.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Don-King-072.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-014473494.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-015272949.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-001176186.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-017041036.jpg
1975-Muhammad-Ali-014473522.jpg
1976-Muhammad-Ali-Dick-Gregory-001299297.jpg
1976-Muhammad-Ali-079007399.jpg
1976-Muhammad-Ali-Ken-Norton-05810894.jpg
1977-Muhammad-Ali-Earnie-Shavers-017045690.jpg
1978-Muhammad-Ali-Leon-Spinks-014471994.jpg
1978-Muhammad-Ali-Leon-Spinks-014471995.jpg
1978-Muhammad-Ali-Leon-Spinks-014473513jpeg.jpg
1980-Muhammad-Ali-Don-King-Larry-Holmes-079008322.jpg
1980-Muhammad-Ali-079005645.jpg
1980-Muhammad-Ali-Larry-Holmes-017042078.jpg
1980-Muhammad-Ali-Drew-Bundini-brown-001069420.jpg
1981-Muhammad-Ali-017034608.jpg
1985-Muhammad-Ali-Leroy-Neiman-080062082.jpg
1991-Muhammad-Ali-079008803.jpg
1991-Muhammad-Ali-Sonny-Liston-rock-NLC_03374.jpg
1996-Muhammad-Ali-079004494.jpg
1997-Muhammad-Ali-wife-Lonnie-015456247.jpg
2000-Muhammad-Ali-Nilly-Crystal-015456260.jpg
2001-Muhammad-Ali-son-Assad-Amin-001237259.jpg
2003-Muhammad-Ali-Joe-Frazier-001175318.jpg
2005-Muhammad-Ali-Laila-Ali-001097591.jpg
2005-Muhammad-Ali-017040641.jpg