Champ of champions

LOUISVILLE (Kentucky): Global sports icon Muhammad Ali celebrated his 65th birthday on Wednesday, the former heavyweight champion's glory is undiminished by the ailment that has dimmed his flamboyant manner. 

At an age when most working Americans retire, Ali's legend has been epic for decades and neither his absence from the ring for nearly a quarter-century nor the shaking of his body from Parkinson's disease have diminished his legacy. 

Health issues have limited Ali's public appearances in recent months but he attended a college football game earlier this month and watched his daughter Laila Ali fight in New York in November. 

A new official Ali website makes its debut on Wednesday while fans of “The Greatest” have been sending the legendary boxer and activist for social change some heartfelt “Happy Birthday” messages upon the Ali Centre website. 

“Birthdays of course mark the passage of time but no matter the year, one thing never changes – you are the greatest of all times,” was the message sent by noted US sports analyst Bob Costas. 

Ali, who along with wife Lonnie has moved to Arizona, will celebrate his birthday privately, according to a centre spokesperson. The centre attracted more than 100,000 visitors in the past year, including Ali about a dozen times. 

Birthday greeting e-mails will be compiled and presented to Ali and patrons who visit on Ali's birthday can pose in groups with a “Happy Birthday” banner that also will be given to Ali. 

“A very happy birthday to you mate, the champion of all champions,” wrote Australian Sandro Catanzariti. “I still can't believe the things you have achieved in your life. You are truly an inspiration to us all.” 

Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay here on January 17, 1942, and turned to boxing at age eight after a prized bicycle was stolen. 

Ali won the 1960 Rome Olympics light heavyweight gold medal to complete a 100-5 amateur record. He went on to post a 56-5 professional record with 37 knockouts and become the first man to claim the heavyweight throne three times. 

As much as what Ali did, it was how Ali did it. 

As civil rights issues came to the forefront in 1960s America, along came an outspoken, bold black man to instil pride in black culture, respect for black beauty and hope for racial equality. 

Ali defeated Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach to claim the world heavyweight title and after the triumph announced he was a Muslim and was changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. 

Ali bragged that he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee during his prime in the ring, a catchphrase for an era surviving mainly in black and white film where Ali's mouth was flying nearly as fast as his feet and fists. 

After rejecting induction into the US Army to fight in Vietnam in 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison, although he remained free while appealing. 

Ali was stripped of his crown and barred from boxing, keeping him out of the ring in 1968 and 1969 at what should have been peak years in his career. The US Supreme Court later overturned his conviction. 

Ali returned to the ring in 1970 and suffered his first loss in 1971 when Joe Frazier won a unanimous 15-round decision. 

In 1974, Ali avenged the loss to Frazier and defeated George Foreman in the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali took the heavyweight crown with an eighth-round knockout. 

Ali stopped Frazier in the 14th round of the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975 to win their legendary trilogy, but lost the throne to Leon Spinks in a 15-round split decision on February 15, 1978. 

Ali won a 15-round unanimous decision over Spinks seven months later to reclaim the title and retired in 1979. 

An ill-fated comeback bid saw Ali stopped by Larry Holmes in the 11th round in 1980. Ali climbed into the ring for the final time on December 11, 1981, at Nassau, Bahamas, and lost a 10-round decision to Jamaican Trevor Berbick. 

Ali's legend grew in the years that followed, peaking when Ali lit the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. 

“My left hand was shaking because of Parkinson's. My right hand was shaking from fear. Somehow, between the two of them, I got the thing lit,” Ali said after the moment. 

Thomas Hauser, an Ali biographer, said that moment was the point when Ali's legacy began being rewritten from angry young man to an icon accepted by the establishment he railed against in his youth. 

“(He remains) such an iconic figure, even with the younger generation, because they have seen him at public moments like the Olympic flame and because of stories they were told by their parents.” – AFP 

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