UPDATES WITH STATEMENTS FROM US PRESIDENT AND MUSLIM BODY CAIR
NEW YORK (AA) - Muhammad Ali, one of the most influential sports figures in the 20th century, has passed at the age of 74 in Phoenix, Arizona, a family spokesman has confirmed to the media.
Boxing legend Ali won the heavyweight title three times and was known for his unorthodox fighting style, merging power and agility. Off the ring, he was famous throughout the globe for his charismatic personality, as well as social and political activism.
"After a 32-year battle with Parkinson's disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening," family spokesman Bob Gunnell told NBC News Saturday.
In 1967, three years after he won his first title, Ali refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War even though he registered for military service, presenting himself as a conscientious objector. Ali was stripped of his title, had his boxing license suspended, and a court found him guilty of draft evasion. His conviction was eventually reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the tide turned and public opinion shifted on the war, Ali became a spokesman for the anti-war sentiment, giving speeches at universities across the United States, even as he became increasingly active in the civil rights movement.
Hailing the prize fighter as "The Greatest. Period." -- a reference to Ali's now famous claim – U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized Ali’s role as a social justice champion.
"He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t," he said in a statement, referencing the American and South African rights leaders.
"His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today," Obama added. "Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it."
A convert to Islam, Ali advocated for religious freedom. Initially a member of the Nation of Islam movement, which combined elements of religion and African American political activism, Ali converted to Islam after falling out with the group in 1975.
The U.S.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations National Board Chair Roula Allouch said in a statement that Ali "exemplified a true patriot and a true Muslim."
"His strength, courage and love of humanity has been, and will continue to be, an inspiration to people of all faiths and backgrounds in America and worldwide," Allouch said.
Ali leaves behind his wife Lonnie, seven daughters and two sons, as well as a legacy likely to remain unmatched as a boxer and world-renowned public figure.