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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 00:22 GMT
Ali: Star of the century

Ali: His strength and dancing style won him millions of fans

At the height of his powers, Muhammad Ali was probably the most famous person on the planet.

His dazzling fighting skills and his astonishing self-belief - he was, after all, "the greatest" - meant his fame simply transcended sport.

Now acclaimed as BBC Sports Personality of the Century, Ali's position as one of the 20th century's most famous faces has been confirmed.

An epic battle with Joe Frazier, right
Three times world heavyweight champion, he inspired millions with his sporting prowess and his stand against racial discrimination.

In recent years he has suffered from Parkinson's Disease and the image of him shaking and quivering when lighting the torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 moved many of the watching billions to tears.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

But he threw the medal into a river after suffering racial discrimination.

Dancing style

He had won it for Louisville and America, he said afterwards, yet his town and his country still made him buy hamburgers in a segregated restaurant.

As a professional Ali gained a strong reputation for his fighting power and dancing style, but in June 1963 was famously floored by British favourite Henry Cooper before recovering to win after Cooper retired with cuts.

Ali is a devoted campaigner for the Third World
The following February he caused a major upset by beating Sonny Liston in seven rounds to become world heavyweight champion.

He took the name Muhammad Ali after embracing the Muslim faith and in 1967 caused a sensation by refusing the US Army draft because of his stance against the Vietnam war.

Stripped of his title as a result, he spent three years out of boxing.

Third triumph

But after his return he regained his title by beating George Foreman in the eighth round of the famous Rumble in the Jungle in October 1974.

A year later he won the Thriller in Manila against Joe Frazier in 14 rounds, then in 1978 lost to Leon Spinks on points before defeating Spinks to take the heavyweight title a third time.

He retired in October 1980 aged 38 after losing to Larry Holmes in round 10 in Las Vegas.

But in December 1981 he made a final return to the ring, losing on points to Trevor Berbick.

At the Atlanta Olympics he received a gold medal to replace the one he threw away in 1960.

And the man they called "the Louisville Lip" remains in constant demand for public appearances; he has lent his name to charitable causes and been a regular visitor to Third World nations.

During the Gulf War in 1991 he negotiated with Saddam Hussain over the release of a number of American hostages.

New fans

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

That was underlined when 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.

And with BBC viewers choosing Ali as their favourite sportsman of the century, his fame is assured for many more years to come.

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See also:
12 Dec 99 |  Sport
Ali crowned Sportsman of Century
12 Dec 99 |  Sport
Picture gallery: Sporting stars gather
13 Dec 99 |  Sport
Lewis: From playground jibes to world champion

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