The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, Louisville's favorite son and the man that helped teach the world that sports and politics are a powerful force for real change, is dead at 74.
Ali had suffered for three decades from Parkinson's, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his verbal grace and his physical dexterity. A funeral service is planned in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
His daughter Rasheda said early Saturday that the legend was "no longer suffering," describing him as "daddy, my best friend and hero" as well as "the greatest man that ever lived."
Even as his health declined, Ali did not shy from politics or controversy, releasing a statement in December criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. "We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," he said.
The remark bookended the life of a man who burst into the national consciousness in the early 1960s, when as a young heavyweight champion he converted to Islam and refused to serve in the Vietnam War, and became an emblem of strength, eloquence, conscience and courage. Ali was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion. His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, to middle-class parents, Ali started boxing when he was 12, winning Golden Gloves titles before heading to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight.
He turned professional shortly afterward, supported at first by Louisville business owners who guaranteed him an unprecedented 50-50 split in earnings. His knack for talking up his own talents — often in verse — earned him the dismissive nickname "the Louisville Lip," but he backed up his talk with action, relocating to Miami to work with top trainer Angelo Dundee and build a case for getting a shot at the heavyweight title.
As his profile rose, Ali acted out against American racism. After he was refused services at a soda fountain counter, he said, he threw his Olympic gold medal into a river.
Recoiling from the sport's tightly knit community of agents and promoters, Ali found guidance instead from the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected the pacifism of most civil rights activism. Inspired by Malcolm X, one of the group's leaders, he converted in 1963. But he kept his new faith a secret until the crown was safely in hand.
That came the following year, when heavyweight champion Sonny Liston agreed to fight Ali. The challenger geared up for the bout with a litany of insults and rhymes, including the line, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." He beat the fearsome Liston in a sixth-round technical knockout before a stunned Miami Beach crowd. In the ring, Ali proclaimed, "I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I'm the king of the world."
Ali's contributions to both the worlds of boxing and civil rights were vital and necessary in America. His life intersected that of so many famous black figures, from Stevie Wonder to Malcolm X, Dr. King to Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Later in his life, he was an ambassador for peace and civil rights across the globe.
When I moved to Kentucky ten years ago, one of the first things I did was to visit the recently opened Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. If you ever get the chance, visit there. Bask in the man's true glory. He brought pride, skill, and unflinching courage to the world that badly needed it.
There will never be another like him.
Rest, champ. You've earned it a million times over.