A brash heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali's larger-than-life personality — war protester, minister of the Nation of Islam, champion of humanitarian causes — has made him one of the most recognizable people in the world.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Ky., Ali burst on the world stage in 1960 when he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics. He remained in the spotlight for more than 40 years.
Boasting that he could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," Ali did exactly that, redefining and reviving boxing at a time when its popularity was on the wane. In a career that spanned 21 years, he would win the heavyweight title a then-unprecedented three times. In all, he lost only five of 61 fights as a professional, two of those at the end of his career when he came out of retirement and was long past his prime.
Ali lost three of the best years of his career in the late 1960s when he refused to be drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War on religious grounds, claiming that he had become a minister of the Nation of Islam. In 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison for violating the Selective Service Act. He avoided prison while appealing the case and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ali's favor.
Perhaps his greatest fight came in 1974 when he regained the heavyweight title with an 8th-round knockout of a heavily favored George Foreman in a bout billed as the "Rumble in the Jungle" because it was held in Zaire. At the time, it was the biggest payday in the history of sports, with each fighter earning $5 million.
Ali retired to a Michigan farm with his fourth wife in the mid 1980s. Although Parkinson's disease, which doctors attributed in part to the poundings he took throughout his career, has affected his speech, Ali retains a trademark playfulness, still joking in whispers.
He has been involved in a number of charities since leaving boxing and occasionally makes headlines, such as the time in 1990 when he negotiated the release of American hostages on the eve of the Gulf War.
His last memorable public appearance came in 1996, when a clearly debilitated Ali lighted the Olympic torch at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, moving then-President Clinton and much of a worldwide television audience to tears.