ESPN hails Muhammad Ali [UPDATED]

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ESPN joins the world in mourning the passing but celebrating the remarkable life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Equal parts world champion and humanitarian, Ali died late Friday in Phoenix, a family spokesman said.

He was 74.

ABC Sports and ESPN have chronicled much of the journey of the legend considered “The Greatest.”

ABC Sports commentator Howard Cosell’s Ali fight calls and interviews provided memorable sports television in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1997, Ali attended the ESPYS and accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. ESPN Films has produced six projects regarding Ali’s life, including the 30 for 30 film “Muhammad and Larry” and the 30 for 30 ShortAli: The Mission.

“We are sad to hear of the passing of Muhammad Ali,” ESPN President John Skipper said. “However, we revel in the memory of his athletic excellence in the ring, we recollect with pleasure the charm of the charismatic young man from Louisville who would shock the world and we celebrate the dramatic achievement of a champion of civil rights who changed the world. In many ways, he was truly the greatest of all time.”

In the video above, ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap narrates a tribute to Ali.

ESPN’s continuing, multi-platform coverage of Muhammad Ali’s passing

    ESPN’s coverage of the death of Muhammad Ali continues throughout the weekend across all ESPN entities, anchored by SportsCenter’s ongoing interviews, live reporting and analysis from all corners of the sports world and beyond. The network’s wall-to-wall coverage began at 12:28 a.m. ET today when Los Angeles-based Neil Everett and Stan Verrett returned from break with the breaking news of Ali’s death. The ten minute Jeremy Schaap obituary (above) ran for its first time about a minute later.

    Shortly after, Everett and Verrett tossed to Scott Van Pelt in Bristol, who was joined on-set by Schaap. John Anderson co-anchored coverage from Bristol as reaction started to pour in (including scrolling social, real time reactions from around the world), first with video of Floyd Mayweather’s thoughts on Ali. Just after 1:30 a.m., Bob Ley appeared on air from Bristol for the first time; he and Schaap would remain on air until 4 a.m. when Steve Levy joined Everett and Verrett from L.A.for a one-hour Ali SC. (SportsCenter was commercial free from first report until 4:14 a.m., 14 minutes shy of four, uninterrupted news coverage hours.) After one re-air in the 5 a.m. hour, SportsCenter was back live from Connecticut with Linda Cohn and Michael Eaves, followed by Sara Walsh and Randy Scott leading into the Noon softball game.

    Over two dozen live guests appeared in those first 12 hours, including a memorable Ley interview from Montreal with ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, who joined Joe Tessitore on a dark street and shadow-boxed while explaining the gifts Ali possessed in the ring.

    ESPN Radio has had full and on-going coverage, which started when the news broke with Freddie Coleman doing the overnight shift. ESPN2 quickly shifted to all-Ali programming once news broke, including fight re-airs and pertinent 30 for 30 films through Saturday at noon. ESPN Classic is dedicating all of its programming on Saturday and Sunday to Ali. With live programming scheduled throughout both days across networks, coverage and developing news will be interspersed on all ESPN platforms including WatchESPN and, where much of the on-air coverage can be found from the home page. Every ESPN dot-com edition and TV network was leading with Ali coverage by 2 a.m. – in multiple languages – including the International versions in India, China, Brazil and Argentina.

    PROGRAMMING ALERT: Today’s France vs. Scotland soccer match scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2 will slide to ESPNEWS so SportsCenter can provide live coverage of the Ali family press conference on ESPN2, scheduled for 3-4 p.m. ESPN2 will then re-air “Ali’s Dozen” at 4 p.m.

Below are thoughts about Ali from ESPN commentators and executives, video and photos from Ali’s interactions with ESPN and ABC, and some social media reaction to his passing.

Vice President and Executive Producer, ESPN Films and Original Content, John Dahl, on the making of the 30 for 30 film “Muhammad and Larry”
“Muhammad Ali always made for such a compelling documentary subject. We produced a major initiative to commemorate his 65th birthday that included the Emmy-nominated ‘Ali Rap.’ Then a couple of years later, he was among those at the top of our list for the launch of the 30 for 30 series. Filmmaker Albert Maysles and his brother David had tremendous access to Ali and Larry Holmes prior to their 1980 heavyweight championship fight and the footage they had shot was captivating. But the project that was planned back then didn’t really come together after Ali lost that fight under heartbreaking circumstances. When we were lining up our first 30 for 30 films though, we connected with Albert and took a fresh look at making a film out of all the engrossing behind-the-scenes footage that could still capture the essence of what made Muhammad Ali so beloved and special. The result was ‘Muhammad and Larry’ – one of our first 30 for 30 documentaries and a film that was key in building early momentum for the series.”

Teddy Atlas, ESPN boxing analyst, boxing trainer
“It was not his chin that was made of granite, it was his beliefs and that is what will stand him through time.”

Joe Tessitore, voice of Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN
“Like many longtime boxing observers and historians, I do not believe Ali to be the best fighter to ever step through the ropes. He just wasn’t that. What he was far exceeded pound-for-pound lists. Ali was raw energy funneled into man’s purpose. He was flawed and yet brilliant. He was not perfect, yet perfectly gifted. He was the greatest of all-time. In my lifetime American sports has never, and will never, produce another athlete so globally recognizable and socially significant. I was a kid of the 70’s growing up as part of those two generations overtaken by the aura of Ali. That tidal wave of fame had you knowing there was Ali and everyone else.”

Dan Rafael, ESPN boxing writer
“Inside the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali was a dazzling athlete, a legendary showman and one of the all-time greats of the sport. But what separated him from all the others were the contributions he made to our society outside the ring as a man of great conviction, peace and humanity. He was a national treasure and his passing is a great loss for America and the world.”

Marysol Castro, host of Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN
“Boxing quite literally eats athletes up and spits them out. Muhammad Ali transcended the sport both inside the ring and out. He inspired a nation to fight real battles surrounding race and culture. He provided words that any human, athlete or not, can lean on in the face of adversity. He truly was The Greatest.”

Bernardo Osuna, ESPN boxing reporter
“By the time I was born in 1972, Muhammad Ali had already lost the ‘Fight of the Century’ to Joe Frazier. When I turned 2, Ali had regained his title in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’  My first recollection of watching ‘The Greatest’ fight was near the end of his career against Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. By then, Ali was a shell of his former self, but my father had told me stories of the man he knew as Cassius Clay.

“Ali was ‘The Greatest’ and it wasn’t only because he was an Olympic gold medalist at the 1960 Games in Rome or because he was the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion in history. Ali transcended the sport. He was the ultimate entertainer inside and outside of the ring.

“‘The Louisville Lip’ made the sport of boxing mainstream and the ultimate showman was a man of convictions, who always had something interesting to say. Ali was polarizing with his words and mesmerizing with his skills. He was poetry in the ring with amazing footwork, speed and precision. His defensive skills were sublime and his his ability to finish opponents was admirable. Boxing never saw anyone like Ali before and hasn’t had anyone like him since.  Watching his health decline over the last 40 years has been a life lesson in humility and finding the essence of his humanity. Ali is ‘THE GREATEST,’ may he rest in peace.”

Todd Grisham, SportsCenter anchor, ESPN boxing commentator
“Muhammad Ali was a genius. Pure and simple. No matter what he decided to do in life he would have been ‘the greatest.’ His boxing skills were only matched by his verbal ones. When Ali spoke, people listened even if they didn’t like what was said. As much as Ali destroyed people in the ring, he did his best to build a better world outside of it. Ali’s humanitarian deeds will long be appreciated after his death. Perhaps my favorite Ali quote is one that we can all relate to. ‘If they could make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can surely make something out of you.’ So true, and so Muhammad Ali. Rest in peace.”

Nigel Collins, ESPN boxing analyst
“Only a handful of athletes have transcended sports and become part of the fabric of history. Muhammad Ali was one of them. He was, of course, much more than a boxer — philosopher, poet, humanitarian, goodwill ambassador, social activist and comedian. Perhaps writer Joseph Dobrian came closest to the truth when he described Ali as ‘Like God with a custard pie up his sleeve.’ Reviled by many early in his career, he became universally admired as a man who stood up for his beliefs and was willing to suffer the consequences. We will never see his like again.”

In the video below, Ali accepts the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 1997 ESPYS in New York City. He’s introduced by actor Sidney Portier:

A sampling of how ESPN commentators and employees reacted on social media:

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