No sportsman has ever had such an effect on the world as Muhammad Ali. He was the greatest boxer of all time and yet that only tells part of the story. His influence extended beyond sport to the worlds of politics and civil rights. At a pivotal point in the history of the United States, Ali was an icon to millions across the world.
He controlled interviews and press conferences as masterfully as he controlled his opponents in the ring. The most elegant of heavyweights, Ali could rock back effortlessly to avoid punches before unleashing a volley of his own with incredible hand-speed. He won the World Heavyweight title three times despite not fighting for three-and-a-half years at the peak of his career. Heavyweight Champion since 1964, Ali was stripped of his licence to box in 1967 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Yet in 1970 he came back as if he'd never been away to contest three of the most celebrated bouts in boxing history.
A year later he got his first chance to reclaim the belt that was taken from him. He came up against the unbeaten Joe Frazier in what many call, "The Fight of the Century". Celebrities flocked to Madison Square Garden to see Frazier stop Ali in the 15th round of a titanic battle. Ali's hunger to regain his title was undiminished and in 1974 he achieved his goal. He travelled to Zaire for the "Rumble in the Jungle", to face the monstrous George Foreman. A giant of a man, Foreman had made short shrift of Frazier and Ken Norton – both of whom had beaten Ali – on his way to the title and went into the fight as favourite, even among ardent Ali fans.
Ali used all of his skill and intelligence to outwit the stronger Foreman. After an early flurry of attacks he relied on his superior stamina, hoping that Foreman would punch himself out. Ali showed off a new tactic for the first time that would later be called rope-a-dope. He backed onto the ropes as Foreman advanced, taunting his opponent, urging him to hit harder while occasionally throwing in straight rights. By the eighth round, Foreman was a spent force. His punches grew wild and with seconds remaining of the round Ali seized his chance, setting him up with a left before flooring him with a massive right.
Ali was champion again, ten years after first winning the belt from Sonny Liston and his final great fight was a defence against his old rival Joe Frazier. The "Thrilla in Manilla" was a gruelling 14-round encounter with both fighters putting every ounce of themselves into the fight. When Frazier failed to come out of his corner for the 15th it was all over. Afterwards Ali reportedly described the fight as: "the closest thing to death that I could feel".
Ali would go on to lose and regain his title from Leon Spinks but years of taking punches had already begun to take their toll and in 1981 he finally called it a day. He remains the most celebrated sporting figure of all time, remembered as much for his quips and wit as his extraordinary boxing talent. Despite suffering from Parkinson's syndrome Ali continues to make public appearances to the benefit of many charitable causes.