Goodbye to “The Greatest.”

Legendary boxing champion and cultural icon Muhammad Ali died late Friday night in a Phoenix area hospital, according to a family spokesman said. He was 74.

Ali was a three-time world heavyweight title-holder, and while he will be remembered around the world as so much more than a boxing champ, it was his sport that gave him a platform to touch religion, politics, culture and, yes, sports in countless nations.

The New York Times called Ali both “the most thrilling if not the best heavyweight ever,” and “as polarizing a superstar as the sports world has ever produced.” He was able to be both of those things for much of the 1960s and ’70s, for his religious and social stances, and for pounding opponent after opponent in the ring.

“Loved or hated, he remained for 50 years one of the most recognizable people on the planet,” the Times wrote.

Over 21 years, Ali won 56 fights and lost five. There might never be boxing matches like the ones Ali starred in, win or lose. His fight to win his first title is boxing lore.

In 1964, Ali, then Cassius Clay, got a shot against the champ, Sonny Liston. Beforehand, Clay said he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Despite the bravado, the odds-makers had him as a 7-1 underdog in Miami Beach.

On Feb. 25, Clay got off to a quick start, fought off eye trouble — it was suspected later that Liston’s corner had used an illegal solution to irritate his eyes — in the middle rounds and resumed control of the fight. Liston, who some thought was invincible, couldn’t answer the bell for the seventh round. At age 22, Clay was heavyweight champion of the world.

His showman style and jaw-dropping jawing — he was “The Greatest” in trash-talking, too, some say — is considered the main root of today’s regular showboating in sports, for better or worse.

“I am the greatest,” Ali would say. “I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”

The “rope-a-dope” was his confidence coming to life in the ring; it’s how we won the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in 1974, the fight in Zaire in which he regained his title.

His “I am the greatest” signature line is repeated today, in many different ways and words, by athletes of all sizes in all sports. Ali might have invented the “ultra-confident elite athlete.” He lived up to it, too, beating the best of his era in boxing. He took down the invincible Liston, fought a string of thrilling fights with Joe Frazier and shocked Foreman in the “Jungle.”

Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post wrote a tribute Friday. How Brewer wrote of the best athletes in history:

“There have been athletes with comparable awe-inspiring talent; Michael Jordan is among them. There have been athletes who meant as much to social progress; Jackie Robinson is on that level, without question. There have been athletes with the personality to extinguish fires they started; Kobe Bryant is the latest. But Ali had all three traits, and his redeeming qualities were natural, almost accidental, not the product of any premeditated bid to alter his personal narrative.”

Tributes came pouring in after midnight Friday — from LeBron James, who called Ali a “pioneer” for black athletes, to comedian Billy Crystal, who tweeted a video and wrote “For the greatest man I have ever known.”

Twitter became a river of praise for Ali, as players, coaches and celebrities tweeted quotes, iconic photos and love for Ali.

“God came for his champion,” former champion Mike Tyson tweeted. “So long great one.”

Ali was a great boxer, and boxing was great for Ali. But he paid a terrible price for the estimated 29,000 punches he took to his head during his career.

Ali retired from boxing in 1981, and later battled an even tougher opponent: Parkinson’s disease. A towering figure in his prime, he still traveled and made appearances in his later years despite being nearly silenced by the thousands of punches he took during his remarkable career.

But it was in 1996 that the sports world — anyone with a television, really — was reminded of his greatness. At the Atlanta Olympic Games, the torch was at last passed to a mystery man standing alone, waiting: Ali. He was waiting, trembling from his Parkinson’s. When he lit the flame, it began the Games — and gave us another reason to remember his legacy and impact on sports.

It wasn’t his first Olympics moment. As a teenager, he was a gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

That was one of the first crowning moments for a young man who began life as Cassius Clay. He was boxer early, starting at age 12. Clay was quick and gifted and appeared on a youth boxing show, “Tomorrow’s Champions,” on a local television station. In a blink, he was a young amateur champ. Stardom was next.

The Miami Marlins showed a video tribute of Ali on Friday night, perhaps even before Ali’s death was announced, becoming the first public appreciation of the legend. Spectators departing the ballpark applauded in tribute.

Ali threw out the ceremonial first pitch in the first game at Marlins Park four years ago. At the time, team owner Jeffrey Loria called him “the most famous person on the face of the earth.”

That’s quite a statement about a man who was once a young boy in Louisville with quick feet and faster hands. His is a sports story that will never be repeated.

 

Compiled from Associated Press, ESPN, Washington Post and New York Times reports.