SCOTTSDALE (Arizona) • Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, whose record-setting boxing career, flair for showmanship and political stands made him one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, died on Friday aged 74.
The American, who had long suffered from Parkinson's syndrome which impaired his speech and made the once-graceful athlete almost a prisoner in his own body, died a day after he was admitted to a Phoenix-area hospital with a respiratory ailment.
Even so, his youthful proclamation of himself as "the greatest" rang true until the end for the millions of people worldwide who admired him for his courage both inside and outside the ring.
Along with a fearsome reputation as a fighter, he spoke out against racism, war and religious intolerance, while projecting an unshakeable confidence and humour that became a model for African-Americans at the height of the civil rights era.
"Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest human beings I have ever met," said George Foreman, who lost to him in Zaire in a classic 1974 bout known as The Rumble In The Jungle. He added: "No doubt he was one of the best people to have lived in this day and age. To put him as a boxer is an injustice."
ANNOUNCING HIS CONVERSION TO ISLAM AFTER HIS FIRST SONNY LISTON FIGHT
Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name - it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.
ON REFUSING INDUCTION INTO THE U.S. ARMED SERVICES IN 1967 DURING THE VIETNAM WAR
I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.
BEFORE GEORGE FOREMAN FIGHT, 1974
I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee - his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.
ON RACE RELATIONS IN AMERICA
"I am America. I am the part you won't recognise. 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, who changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr after his conversion to Islam, enjoyed a popularity that transcended the world of sports, even though he rarely appeared in public in his later years.
"We lost an icon," said construction worker Delson Dez, 28, who was holding up a poster of the fighter in Scottsdale, Arizona, soon after Ali's death was confirmed in a statement issued by his family late on Friday.
Few could argue with Ali's athletic prowess at his peak in the 1960s. With his dancing feet and quick fists, he could - as he put it - float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
He was the first person to win the heavyweight championship three times. But he became much more than a colourful athlete.
He spoke boldly against racism in the 60s as well as the Vietnam War.
During and after his championship reign, he met scores of world leaders and, for a time, he was considered the most recognisable person on earth.
His influence extended far beyond boxing. He became the unofficial spokesman for millions of blacks and oppressed people around the world because of his refusal to compromise his opinions and for standing up to white authorities.
"We lost a giant today. Boxing benefited from Muhammad Ali's talents but not nearly as much as (how) mankind benefited from his humanity," said Manny Pacquiao, a boxing legend and politician in the Philippines, where Ali fought arch-rival Joe Frazier for a third time in a brutal 1975 bout dubbed the Thrilla In Manila.
In a realm where athletes often battle inarticulateness as well as their opponents, Ali was known as the "Louisville Lip" and loved to talk, especially about himself.
"Humble people, I've found, don't get very far," he once told a reporter. His taunts could be brutal. "Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head," he once said.
He also dubbed Frazier a "gorilla" but later apologised and said it was all to promote the fight.
Once asked about his preferred legacy, Ali said: "I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him... who stood up for his beliefs... who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.
"And, if all that's too much, then I guess I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was."
He leaves his wife, Ms Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams, along with his nine children.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE