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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 17:40 GMT


Ali: A hero through the ages

Ali's frailty has not diminished his ability to move people

He may not have thrown a punch in anger for over 18 years and his declining health continues to cause concern, but for many Muhammad Ali is still "The Greatest" - as witnessed by the reception the former heavyweight boxing champion received in Brixton for the Jubilee 2000 Campaign.

BBC Radio 5 Live's Huw Williams reports from Brixton
The 57-year-old, whose epic battles with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston thrilled millions during the 1960s and '70s, still makes occasional appearances at ringside for the big fights in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

But it is now his work outside the ring which is drawing the attention back to a flamboyant figure once considered the "most famous man on the planet".

[ image: Ali fought some epic battles with Joe Frazier (right)]
Ali fought some epic battles with Joe Frazier (right)
Ali's boxing career was notable for his anti-Vietnam stance - the fighter refused to enlist with the US army during the war, and was thus banned from the ring for over three years, a period which cost him the prime of his career - and his conversion to the Muslim faith, which led to him changing his name from Cassius Clay.

Then there were the sensational fights - "The Rumble in the Jungle" with Foreman, "The Thriller in Manila" against Frazier - as he became the first fighter ever to win the world heavyweight crown on three separate occasions and recorded 19 successful defences of his title.

And despite suffering from Parkinson's Syndrome, his post-boxing career has not been dull either.

Religious zealot

The three-time champion continues to spread the word about his religion as he has done since the mid '60s. During the Gulf War in 1991 it was Ali's reputation which allowed him to talk to Saddam Hussain and negotiate the release of a number of American hostages.

In 1996, he was chosen to light the torch at the Atlanta Olympics and the image of him shaking and quivering while standing by the flame moved many of the watching billions to tears.

[ image: Ali has worked tirelessly to tackle Third World famine]
Ali has worked tirelessly to tackle Third World famine
Since then, the man they called "the Louisville Lip" has increased his activities, prompting many within the fight game to speculate that he may be coming to terms with his ailment.

Constantly in demand for public appearances and to lend his name to charitable causes, Ali has been a regular visitor to Third World nations, as befits a man whose greatest battles were staged in locations such as Zaire and Manila.

New Generation

An Oscar-winning documentary about his fight with Foreman, When We Were Kings, was released in 1996 and introduced him to a whole new generation of fans.

Already this year he has appeared in a television commercial - his first for over ten years - which uses footage of Ali as he appeared in his prime and as he is now.

And his association with the Jubilee 2000 campaign brought him to Brixton in South London.

Adding his name to a cause which aims to tackle Third World debt and is supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and the Pope, Ali signed autographs and shook hands with the huge crowd.

Although many of those who saw him were not even alive during his career, his appearance still caused a reaction approaching hysteria.

Not content with just being a hero for the 20th century, "The Greatest" is making sure his legend carries on long into the next millennium.

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