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Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest," Dead At 74; Interview with Evander Holyfield. Aired 8-9a ET

Aired June 4, 2016 - 08:00   ET




[08:00:11] MUHAMMAD ALI, GOXER: Too much speed. Too fast -- I must be the greatest -- I find out when you treat people nice and be humble and be regular, people love you better. God blesses you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was something like caviar, you had to acquire a taste for him.

ANNOUNCER: Ali with a relentless left hook and turned the balance of the fight his way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Against all odds, Ali made one of the greatest comebacks in history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I think of my dad I don't think about him as the fighter and all of his accomplishments in the ring, I think more of who he is as a man outside of the ring.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (via telephone): In so many ways in sports, in our culture and in our nation's history, Muhammad Ali was just a standout figure who will be remembered forever.


CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: And on this morning we are remembering Muhammad Ali. Thank you for taking the time to be with us. I'm Christi Paul.

JOE JOHNS, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: I'm Joe Johns in for Victor Blackwell.

PAUL: And that breaking news, as you can tell, boxing legend, Muhammad Ali has died overnight. He earned the nickname the greatest, of course. He was 74 years old.

JOHNS: He became famous as a young man not just for his boxing prowess, but also for his rhyming catch phrases like float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. He also spoke out for what he believed in and after he retired and was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he continued to speak out for humanitarian causes. He became a United Nations messenger of peace. PAUL: Now Ali was once crowned sportsman of the century by "Sports Illustrated." This is a title designated for athletes who's made a significant on society. He was truly a sportsman paving the way for some of today's most iconic boxers.

JOHNS: One of those famed fighters is Evander Holyfield, who idolized Ali as a child, was able to match Ali as a three-time heavyweight champ and later became the only five-time heavyweight champ of the world. He joins us by phone.

Mr. Holyfield, you idolized this man and some would even say you came somewhat of his equal. Can you talk a little bit now about the impact Mohammad Ali had on you?

EVANDER HOLYFIELD, FIVE-TIME HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD (via telephone): He had a very big impact, you know, as a kid, you know, I came from a family and on black history week Ali's name came up, his name and Jackie Robinson.

And one day when I went to the boy's (inaudible), the boxing coach told me I could be like Muhammad Ali and I told him I'll have to ask my mom. And I asked my mom and she said you've got to follow and at that time my career started.

JOHNS: And was she ever afraid for you and your safety as you stepped into that ring and tried to be like Muhammad Ali? In other times and in other places parents feared for their children to step into a boxing ring, but he somehow made this violent sport fashionable.

HOLYFIELD: Well, yes, you know, my mother said she -- she thought I would quit eventually, you know, and she -- she didn't actually think that I would do it as long as I did. But you know, I came from a, you know, a praying family and realized that you pray and you give your very best.

[08:05:04]JOHNS: Talk to us a little bit about the person Muhammad Ali was outside the ring.

HOLYFIELD: Well, actually, you know, it was so amazing because I made the Olympic team just like Muhammad Ali and I didn't want to go about a -- I had a bronze medal and that's when I met Muhammad talking and you know -- you know, he -- he stood up to people.

And I guess one of the biggest things was, I wanted to carry the Olympic torch. I got the opportunity to carry it, but I didn't get a chance to light it and I was wondering who could be bigger and better than me? And it was Ali.

You know, I was so happy because the fact of the matter, I didn't know it was him. But in Atlanta I thought I was the biggest person, but then what I found out, it was Ali. Then I found out somebody else that the humanitarian work that he did was just so big.

And I've never heard about it. All I heard about some fighting, but how he was the most popular athlete that ever went to the Olympics, all the great work that he did for people, and you know, it was amazing. And -- and that's when I realized that, you know what? It's more to Ali than boxing.

PAUL: And realizing that, Mr. Holyfield, how has Muhammad Ali shaped you outside the ring, the person you are, the man you are?

HOLYFIELD: Well, you know, I think when it comes down to the humanitarian work that you know, when you -- when you look at Ali, he stood up and to be the first person to stand up and face, you know, face the world, you know, he -- he was all around the world about what he believed.

And -- and it's a lot different than -- than you -- somebody that already did it and you come behind him. Ali was the first person to do that and being the skin color that he was and to stand up, it's amazing to -- to be the one that everybody looking at and everybody not happy.

But you see a man of your word and you stick to it and now become the person that -- that, wow, people -- people didn't realize he could have been the one of the most hated person as well as well as the most likable person.

The person most hated became the most likable person, you know, because people had to educate their position to what they're going to do and you couldn't flop on it. He said what he said, and you know, he'd become who he is because he -- he stood strong.

PAUL: Evander Holyfield, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us and our condolences to you because we know how influential and inspirational he was to you and you're one of the people in this world that had the privilege of meeting him and knowing him.

And to speak to that, one of my favorite quotes from Muhammad Ali is, "The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life." It kind of speaks to what he was asking about how he grew and evolved and became something outside the boxing world.

JOHNS: And what's so interesting about Muhammad Ali was the simple clarity in his words that made them so powerful at a time when -- as Evander Holyfield said, he could have lost everything.

PAUL: He could have.

JOHNS: And in some way he did during the Vietnam War controversy. In some way he did lose everything.

PAUL: And after being diagnosed with Parkinson's, of course, he continued to speak out for humanitarian crises as well. In fact, CNN's Wolf Blitzer takes a look at that part of Muhammad Ali.


MUHAMMAD ALI: This is the legend of Muhammad Ali. The greatest fighter there ever will be.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM" (voice-over): He proclaimed himself "the greatest" and millions of fans around the world agreed.

ALI: Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

BLITZER: Those praises became Ali's motto. His wit and charisma outside the ring would also make him one of the world's best known personalities.


BLITZER: But his persona began to emerge long before he captured his first heavyweight championship. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky during an ugly era of racial segregation in America.

[08:10:09]At 12 years old, Ali's world would change forever when a local police officer introduced him to boxing. It became an outlet for his rage.

It also offered Ali an opportunity to develop his remarkable talent. Just six years later, Ali would bring home a gold medal from the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome.

He turned pro at the age of just 18, and at 22, he stunned the boxing world defeating a fighter the experts thought was invincible, Sonny Liston.

Ali had arrived and Liston would never be the same. To prove the point, Ali put Liston away for a second time in a rematch the following year.

The 60s were glory days for Ali, but the civil rights era would also become a controversial and polarizing period in his life. He renounced his given name and joined the volatile black separatist nation of Islam.

Almost as quick as he had arrived, Ali's heavyweight title was gone revoked after he claimed conscientious objector status and refused to serve in the Vietnam War.

At the peak boxing age of 25, Ali also gave up millions of dollars in endorsements and faced five years in prison, all in defiance of a war he called despicable and unjust.

ALI: My intention is to box, to win a clean fight. But in war, the intention is to kill, kill, kill, kill, and continue killing innocent people!

BLITZER: Ali began a three and a half year exile from championship fights until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality.

ALI: Better not fight like that with Ali. No contest.

BLITZER: But the world would soon learn that even Superman has his off days. Ali was barely back in the ring when his undefeated professional record came to an end. He lost to Joe Frazier in the 1971 match dubbed "The fight of the century." It was the first of three fights with Smoking Joe.

ALI: Joe's going to come out smoking, but I ain't going to be joking. I'll be pecking and a poking, pouring water on his smoking. This might shock and amaze you, but this time I retire Joe Frazier.

[06:05:10]BLITZER: And retire him he did. The famous, "Thriller in Manila" fight ended after Frazier's trainer stopped the fight following the 14th round giving Ali a technical knockout. Ali was on a roll again.

But his greatest athletic comeback was in (inaudible) in what was then (inaudible).


BLITZER: Ali knocked out the heavily favored young champion, George Foreman. It was called the rumble in the jungle. His last fight in 1981 would mark the beginning of another battle that Ali described as his toughest. The diagnosis that he was afflicted with Parkinson's disease.

After two decades of redefining the heavy weight division, Ali was forced to retire. His lifetime record -- 56 victories, just five defeats. But he never retreated from living a very public life.

In 1996, Ali provided one of the most poignant moments in sports history. With 3 billion people watching, he lit the Olympic flame at the summer games in Atlanta. His hands trembling but never wavering.

Ali remained the consummate showman. As his condition grew progressively worse, Ali struggled each day to whisper a word. His hands and legs shook and his voice quivered.

ALI: I am the greatest.

BLITZER: Yet his spirit was never shaken and he never slowed down from serving as an ambassador for peace and a mediator in world conflicts. In 2005, Ali was presented with the presidential Medal of Freedom award, the nation's highest civilian honor.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: When you say the greatest of all time is in the room, everyone knows who you mean.

BLITZER: And tributes for the champ continued.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you feel about getting the honor tonight?

BLITZER: Ali was one of the most gifted and unique personalities in sports history. The world may never see the likes of him again. In the final chapter, few would argue that Ali needed the crowds as much as they needed him. Not for mere validation, but because each saw in the other the best in themselves.

[08:15:10]ALI: Ali's got left, Ali's got right, if he hits you once you'll sleep for the night. And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts ten, hope and pray that you never meet me again. (END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Most famous man in the world he was once called.

Up next, a lifelong family friend of Muhammad Ali speaks to CNN about the death of the legend.


PAUL: He said I called myself the greatest even before I believed before he was it. He made the world believe it and the world has lost the greatest this morning. Muhammad Ali, 74 years old, has died.

JOHNS: This is a man known for his quick and clear words, his quick feet, his even faster punches, remembered for his contribution to civil rights and his early vocal objection to the Vietnam War, which is one that cost him several years as a boxer.

PAUL: Ali spent his final moments at a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was surrounded by his close family and friends. Certainly people that we are thinking of this morning.

Dan Simon is there live and the thing about this, Dan, is a lot of people when they heard that he was in the hospital on Thursday, they thought, OK, hopefully this is just another -- another bout, but he will hopefully get out of the hospital -- we'll get him back here.

But it was a surprise to so many people because he had been hospitalized in 2014 and again in 2015 and he was released. And nobody expected this -- nobody expected us to be waking up to this this morning.

[08:20:05]JOHNS: Especially considering what we knew about the ailment that put him in the hospital this time. Respiratory ailment I think back in 2014, he was in for a pneumonia. So the assumption was, yes, he'll be out of the hospital in a couple days. His spokesman I believe even said as much.

PAUL: Yes, he did.

JOHNS: When we went to bed last night we were under the impression that he was going to make it through and this would be just a replay of the past, but it didn't turn out to be that way.

PAUL: Right. No doubt about it. We know that his spokesman, Bob Donnell (ph), had described it as a respiratory issue, but we want to be clear, we have not gotten word of what caused his actual death if it was a respiratory issue, if how the Parkinson's complicated things.

We don't know how he died as of yet and for this I'm sure everyone is grateful that he was surrounded by the people that he loved. Grateful for him and the family as well. He had nine children, married four times and of course, Layla Ali who followed in his footsteps.

And I always wondered how he felt as a father about that because that's your little girl and you think you hit my little girl and I'm going to hit you.

He was one of her biggest fans, no doubt about it. We see him there with her. So what commonality for the two of them to share? But just hoping that she was by his side.

JOHNS: And among the many things he was known for, he was called the Louisville lip. Muhammad Ali intimidating opponents with words well before he even threw the first punch, telling rival Sonny Liston in the ring that he could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. That line was first uttered in 1964 when he was just 22 years old. It later became his motto.

PAUL: There was no rest for any man who dared take on Muhammad Ali in the ring. The world champion warned anyone who challenged him and I want to get this quote right, "If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize."

JOHNS: All right. Here's a -- he turned trash talk into art, and it doesn't seem like a big deal now, because so many people do it, but he sort of, you know, put a patent on it. His verbal sparring getting almost as much as the knockout punches in the ring.

He once said, I'm so mean, I make medicine sick. I can't say that with the right emphasis. Right before the rumble in the jungle, that was against George Foreman in 1974.

PAUL: No doubt about it. And he said -- one time he said, I'm so fast last night I turned the lights out in my hotel room and was in the bed before the room was dark.

JOHNS: All right, so we have some video now. This is from Louisville outside the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. This just gives you an idea of what appears to be a makeshift memorial that is just getting started with some cards, some signs, some tributes, and of course, some letters.

You can imagine that that is very much likely to grow over the next several days and with people just waking up now discovering that Muhammad Ali at 74 is gone.

PAUL: And we know the funeral services will be held in Louisville, Kentucky. In about an hour and a half I believe we are expected to see some sort of a news briefing from Louisville as well. We'll be taking you to that.

But the world, you know, looks at this and saying we knew this fighter. CNN's Pamela Brown knew him on a completely different level and this is so -- this is so profound, because as a little girl, that is Pamela Brown right there you see at a table with Muhammad Ali.

As a little girl, you think I don't know the impact of this man, but of course, knowing it now --

JOHNS: Just an incredible picture. Also coming up after the break, we'll talk to Larry Holmes a little bit about his remembrances of Muhammad Ali as we work our way through this morning. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


JOHNS: Breaking news this morning that Muhammad Ali has died. The 74-year-old former boxing heavyweight champ was admitted to a Phoenix hospital two days ago with a respiratory problem. He had been battling Parkinson's disease since shortly after retiring from boxing in the early 1980s.

PAUL: During the peak of his career, Ali was known for his flamboyant boxing style. He was just as colorful outside the ring. Born Cassius Clay, he shocked the sports world in the early 1960s when he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

On the phone with us now to talk about his career, former world heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Mr. Holmes, thank you for being with us. Help us understand the impact that Muhammad Ali had on you not just in the ring but outside of it.

LARRY HOLMES, FORMER WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION (via telephone): His personality, you know, he was -- you know, all the years that I've been around him and working with him for four years, I think I seen him get mad one time and that was because somebody was messing with him and telling him he can't fight or something like that, and he made a game out of it. And he's -- he was one hell of a guy. What can I say?

JOHNS: You said you were his sparring partner for four years.


JOHNS: And -- and certainly that's fascinating, the idea that just once he got angry, but can you give us a little bit more sense of the man behind the scenes? We all saw the showman, but we also know that the person you met and knew might have been very different.

HOLMES: Well, you know. When I've seen him come along and he'd come over and talk to you. If he was trying to do his magic tricks he would do his magic tricks and sometimes I thought he was crazy because he would be talking to himself like, I'm the greatest, nobody can whoop me.

And he'd be talking to himself, you know, and he just come out of the clear blue skies and start talking. And I used to think he was crazy, but, you know, knowing Ali he was not crazy.

[08:30:12] He had a lot of sense. When he was a little guy, he always treated me good. I'll tell you, listen, when I first went to Ali I went up there with no equipment because I had no equipment. He gave me my boxing shoes, he gave me boxing gloves, he gave me boxing trunks, and hand wraps, he said now you got your equipment.

And that's how we became friends. And then we went down to Reading, Pennsylvania and we put on a boxing exhibition. He gave me a black eye, and everybody was trying to get ice and Ali said put ice on it, put ice on it. And I said no, I'm going to put ice on it. I'm going to show this one off. But nobody believed that I was working with Muhammad Ali.

PAUL: Help us understand that atmosphere. I mean, you're in the ring with him one minute and you are walking around highlighting the big shiner you have from him. How do you manage that competitiveness in the ring and the friendship outside of it?

HOLMES: Well, you know, I'd say well, Ali was a good guy. He just come to -- he get on his bus, and come to the eastern from L.A. (ph) to go to the schools that (inaudible) will go to, to talk to the kids in the schools. I mean, he was phenomenal when it came down to doing things for people. And I said to him one day, why you do that? He said, somebody got to do it. Got to make these kids feel good and stuff like that and he said, that's what I'm doing.

And I just -- I was blown out about, a lot of things that he did because he need to used to talk to himself too like, I'm the greatest, I'm greatest and nobody can whoop me. And when I look around and nobody did but me. He's talking to himself.

JOHNS: Here is something also that we have to ask because it's part of your legacy. You are one of only five, if I'm correct, boxers to actually defeat Muhammad Ali in a real match. What was that like especially given the fact that you seem to like him a lot?

HOLMES: Yeah, believe me, it was hard. That was one of the hardest fights that I ever had to fight, fighting against a guy that I loved and I knew I could beat him because I work with him, you know, for four years as a sparring partner, but then I understood the reason why he fought me, you know, for the money. He was getting $10 million and then I was -- listen, I'm 66 and I come out of retirement for $10 million so you know, I can understand that -- you know, he wanted to fight and he wanted to win.

And he tried to goat me into winning. You're just my sparring partner, you can't fight. You can do this. Watch this, watch this. You know, but that was the sad day. Anyway after I beat him I went to his dressing room and I said to him, man, you know I love you. He said, well why you whoop me like that then? He was always -- he was always had some comedy, you know what I'm saying? So that's why I feel like I feel.

PAUL: Well, Larry Holmes, thank you for sharing your memories with him and some of those moments that we never would have known about behind the scenes.

HOLMES: Well, I tell you what, we lost a great fighter, a great man, a great human being and, you know, god has blessed him. He blessed me to have the opportunity to be with somebody as great as he was. I appreciate it.

PAUL: He obviously taking a lot of inspiration from him that I'm sure will stay with you forever. Larry Holmes again, thank you. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us and share with us this morning. HOLMES: All right, thank you. All right.

JOHNS: What an interesting guy, Larry Holmes is.

PAUL: There was a lot of comedy to Muhammad Ali that we're learning this morning that I think maybe a lot of people didn't get right away.

JOHNS: You bet.

[08:34:08] Coming up next, a life long friend of Muhammad Ali speaks to CNN about the death of the legend.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I came down today just to pay my respects to a great American and Louisvilleian I'm really proud to be a Louisvilleian and I'm really proud that Muhammad Ali from here. When I woke up to the news in the middle of the night I couldn't stop crying so I figured before I ran some errands today. I'd come down here and pay my respects.


JOHNS: Welcome back to our viewers here and around the world. If you're just waking up, we are reporting the news of the death of the greatest Muhammad Ali.

PAUL: He's 74 years old, was in a hospital in Scottsdale since Thursday, and this came as a great surprise to people. So many people believed that he was in there just for, as his spokesman Bob Gunnell had said, a respiratory issue.

The family statement said the Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers and support and asks for privacy at this time. But what you're looking at here is the growing memorial there in Louisville, Kentucky outside the Muhammad Ali Center.

And you just heard obviously from somebody who had taken the time this morning to go down and just pay reverence as she stood in front of the center. A lot of people were sure going to be there and we do no funeral services will be in Louisville, Kentucky, but that's all we know at this point regarding the memorial for him.

JOHNS: Dan Simon is live outside the hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Ali died surrounded by his family. Dan, so Ali has lived around that area for some time and he's been in and out of the hospital. There are a lot of people who were thinking just last night that he was going to make it through, but it turns out, sadly, it did not.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Hi, Christi and Joe. You know, I want to bring in John Ramsey because he knows the situation better than anybody. He was actually very close friends with Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie, John is a personality, television radio personality in Louisville, Kentucky. John, you got the call from Lonnie on Thursday and she said that he wasn't doing so well?

JOHN RAMSEY, FRIEND OF MUHAMMED ALI: Well, you know, I think at the time when he initially was admitted to the hospital, you know, we thought it was just a minor medical issue. Lonnie so good at taking care of Muhammad that -- and to be honest with you I did not really think a lot of it that, you know, Muhammad gets off the mat again and again.

[08:40:09] But I think for whatever reason only the doctor probably knows. This one hit him kind of hard and things escalated from there.

SIMON: So it's the second floor of the hospital. You're there with family. Explain the situation. What's it like up there?

RAMSEY: You know, it really was all about the family. And, you know, my role was very minor. I therefore support, you know, the kids were all together and it was their time with their father, so they were in the room. There was a small little lounge area that I was with, with a few other close friends and the kids would come in and out and visit with their father as they should. And, you know, it was a lot of tears, hugs, laughter, a lot of memories and you know, fortunately the kids, the good thing is they've got the spirituality of their father so they took comfort there.

SIMON: And you were here, you told me like just 2 months ago visiting Muhammed. What was that like?

RAMSEY: Yeah, about a month and a half ago, you know, stayed with Muhammad, you know, watched old fights. Read through him, spent a lot of good quality guy time with Muhammad and, you know, he was in great spirit feeling good, very lucid and, you know, the Muhammad Ali you want to see.

SIMON: And despite his Parkinson's you told me he was razor sharp?

RAMSEY: He is razor sharp. You know, I think all the way up to the end. Muhammad always knew what was going on. He is very cognizant. He was sharp. You know, as I said, I attribute a lot of that to Lonnie and the great medical care that she gave. He was well loved. I mean Muhammad like if reincarnation is true, I'd like to come back as Muhammad Ali. He was treated as Muhammad Ali should be.

SIMON: And you traveled the world with him. I mean, you went to a lot of different countries. I mean, what was it like to be around him?

RAMSEY: You know, he is truly a world champion and you saw that. He is beloved all around the world. I've been to Australia with him, England, Ireland, Canada, multiple cities across around the country and you just see the love that's universal. It transcends religion, it transcends countries. Muhammad is just really so beloved and deservedly so.

SIMON: And we know a lot about him because he was such a public figure obviously, but what's something that maybe most people don't know about him? RAMSEY: You know, I'd just say that, you know, I think some times people see Muhammad and they say, you know, is he still the Muhammad Ali of old? Is he still charming, is he quick-witted? Yes, yes, and yes. And he still have his swagger. Muhammad was very happy, still the coolest cat in the room. I've always said, you know, not only was the greatest of all time but he was the greatest at many levels at many things of being kind and compassionate, the greatest athlete of our era and as far as being cool, he had the bar way up here.

SIMON: John Ramsey, thanks very much.

RAMSEY: Thank you.

SIMON: Appreciate you stopping by and our condolences.

RAMSEY: Thank you sir, appreciate it.

SIMON: There we go. I mean, John telling us that this was not expected, that he was basically doing okay, that they thought that, you know, this would be a brief hospital stay, that he was in fair condition and then -- and then he would be on his way. Of course, he had been in the hospital several times over the past few years and, you know, seemed to be doing just fine and this was quite unexpected and quite a shock to people who knew him best.

PAUL: Dan, thank you so much. Dan Simon live for us there.

It's just so good to hear that he was surrounded by his children and his wife Lonnie and hear about how meticulous she was in her care of him. So certainly thoughts and prayers going to that family today as they try to reconcile what's going on. I mean, you knew he wasn't well because of the Parkinson's but as he said, they did not expect this.

JOHNS: Right. And that's been the experience too. I met him with Lonnie years ago and even then he was up and moving and much more communicative, able to speak with much more ease, even though it was still a little difficult then, she worked with him all the time, great care, and it was very clear that his personality continued to come through again and again and again. Personally, my remembrance of him was being amazed that I was in the presence of Muhammad Ali.

He was on Capitol Hill trying to push for more government money for Parkinson's, and I walked up and talked to him and his wife, and he was the one who asked me if I wanted a picture with him.

PAUL: Isn't that something?

JOHNS: Right. And I thought, well, yes, but I would have never asked.

PAUL: That's so sweet of him because you know there are probably a lot of people who are standoffish and they don't want to say it but for him to offer it.

JOHNS: Exactly.

PAUL: Because he knows. JOHNS: Right, very perspective.

PAUL: I know you want to do this even though you're not asking so I want to make it easy for you.

JOHNS: Exactly, right.

PAUL: Yeah, still many thinking of them today and a little bit later by the way we're going to go live to Louisville, Kentucky. That's his hometown. The mayor is planning something special this morning.

[08:44:52] We're going to take you there. This, a live picture here of the memorial that's going on video, the memorial that's growing outside the Muhammad Ali Center there right now.


PAUL: He called himself the greatest before the world agreed, but believe me, as we all know, the world did indeed agree eventually. Muhammad Ali we're so sad to tell you, passed away overnight. He was 74 years old.

JOHNS: And the tributes have been pouring in from all corners of the world. His death comes after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease. Ali was diagnosed with the disease in1984, three years after he retired from a boxing career that began when he was just 12 years old.

PAULS: Anyone who met him pretty much never forgot him. These are the stories we are hearing from people today. Even if they didn't fully realize who he was at the time, one of those people CNN Justice Correspondent Pamela brown. She met Ali when she was a young girl. And we have the pictures to prove it. And I just want you if you could please Pam to take us to those moments that you were with him, you know, what was going on here in this picture and then that moment when you realized who he was to the rest of the world?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he was good friends with my dad. We lived in Kentucky and so my parents would tell me, you know, we have a very special guest visiting the house and I would hear words like icon and legend, but when I was a little girl I didn't really fully understand how big of a deal he was. To me though, he was my real life superhero because as you see here in that picture, we -- when he would come to the house we would sit around the kitchen table right here and he would show me magic tricks.

[08:50:12] And I would show him mine. I was really into it at the time and thinking they were so good. Of course they were not very impressive compared to his and he would show me his magic tricks and I really thought he was a superhero regardless of everything else.

And I remember we'd go to -- we have go to restaurants and he would show off for the crowd and he'd do this little trick where he would get on his toes and make it look like he was floating and of course as a kid I thought he really was floating. And it wasn't until he was our guest at the Kentucky derby one year where I really understood that this is one of the greatest men who's ever lived.

We were walking to the paddock to see the horses and we were walking through the grand stand and he grabbed my hand and the crowd stood up, the entire grand stand stood up and was chanting Ali, Ali and he just had this big smile on his face and you could tell he loved it. He thrived in that with all the attention and energy coming from the crowd and he would stop and he would do his one-two punch and just, you know, these people, you could tell it was just on inspiring for them to be in his presence and certainly for me as a girl, I'll never forget it. He's left an indelible mark and he never let Parkinson's hold him back. He lived a full and rich life to the very end.

JOHNS: Wow, that's just incredible. Thank you so much for that remembrance, Pamela Brown and we're going to take a break and we'll be right back.


[08:55:30] JOHNS: If you're just joining us we have breaking news this morning that Muhammad Ali has died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He passed overnight at a phoenix hospital where he was admitted Thursday with a respiratory problem. He leaves behind nine children, his wife Lonnie, he was 74.

PAUL: And we should point out that we do not know the reason -- the cause of death yet. That has not been -- that has not been established but we do have some pictures here that were iconic of this giant in the boxing world and in the world in general. This just saying the greatest. This was the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 2006. Obviously not a picture from 2006, but something honoring him.

JOHNS: He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated so many times that you know -- I mean, that's sort of a testament right there to the power of the face of Muhammad Ali.

PAUL: Well, Sports Illustrated called him -- what did they say? The greatest athlete of the 20th century.

JOHNS: Right. And this is the -- you just saw that cover of Joe Frazier, that was obviously a huge fight in the career of Muhammad Ali's life, and the epic battle there.

PAUL: The thriller in Manila.

Thank you so much for being with us. "SMERCONISH" starts now.