Ali Family Spokesman Reveals Legend’s Cause of Death

Image: A memorial for Muhammad Ali in Louisville

Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher addresses a gathering of supporters and mourners of Muhammad Ali from the steps of the Louisville Metro City Hall on June 4, 2016, in Louisville. Timothy D. Easley / AP

“The ‘Louisville Lip’ spoke to everyone,” Fischer said, referring to the dismissive nickname the press gave the boastful Ali early on his career. “But we heard him in a way no one else could, as our brother, our uncle and our inspiration.”

Ali, who had suffered for more than three decades from Parkinson’s disease, had survived several death scares in recent years, so when he was admitted Monday with breathing problems his family expected him to rebound, Gunnell said.

Then things turned serious, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to improve.


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His family traveled to his bedside, where they remained for about a day before Ali died at 9:10 p.m. local time on Friday. The official cause of death was “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes,” Gunnell said.

Septic shock refers to an aggressive, full-body inflammatory response to an infection, and is common among the elderly and those with weak immune systems. The blood pressure plummets, leading to organ failure.

NBC News Medical Contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said it is not surprising that Ali’s respiratory ailment led to sepsis considering his age and longtime battle with Parkinson’s. “Any chronic illness like that makes you less able to deal with a huge insult like an infection,” she said.

Azar added that sepsis is usually not painful.

One of Ali’s daughters, Hana Ali, recalled his final moments with family by his side, hugging and kissing him and holding his hands as they chanted Islamic prayers.

“We all tried to stay strong and whispered in his ear, ‘You can go now. We will be okay,'” Hana Ali wrote on Twitter.

Even after many of his organs failed, his heart kept beating for 30 minutes, she wrote.

Ali grew up on Grand Avenue in a middle-class but segregated section of Jim Crow-era Louisville, and was inspired to box at 12 by a police officer who heard him ranting about someone who’d stolen his bicycle. The racism he absorbed there as a child influenced the political stands he made years later. But he remained continued to return to Louisville as his legend grew, and the city embraced him as a son.

At the Muhammad Ali Center on Saturday, CEO Donald E. Lassere read a statement from the institution, which said Ali “will be remembered for his love for all people, his athleticism, his humanitarian deeds, social justice and perhaps mostly his courage in and out of the ring.”

Lassere added, “And I’m sure Muhammad would want me to say this as well: he would want to be remembered for how pretty he was.”

Fischer asked his audience outside Metro Hall to imagine what it must have been like to witness Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1942, as an infant — his long, remarkable life still ahead of him.

“Imagine that day, that little boy, eyes wide open, looking around the the room at the old Louisville General Hospital, not knowing the life that awaited him, the life he would make, the world he would shake up, and the people he would inspire,” Fischer said. “And like you, I am absolutely one of those people.”

The mayor added: “Muhammad Ali belongs to the world, but he only has one hometown.”

To accentuate that point, Fischer pointed out some of the many honors and titles Ali accrued in his post-boxing career: Amnesty International lifetime achievement award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century, and co-founder, with his wife, Lonnie, of the Muhammad Ali Center, created to “promote respect, hope and understanding in Louisville and around the world.”

Image: Muhammad Ali

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