The Brash, Bold and Controversial Life Of Muhammad Ali

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The world had never seen anyone like Muhammad Ali. His combination of physical prowess, social and political activism and showmanship always made you feel something. Ali was taken from us too soon but not before living his best life.

The Greatest Meets The King

Ali once stood face to face with the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Elvis gave him an Elvis-styled boxing robe which read “People’s Choice.” He wore the robe in his next fight, a losing effort, and never wore it again.


The Voice In His Ear

Muhammad Ali’s protest of the Vietnam war might have stripped him of some of his prime years as a boxer, but he was not in it alone. His wife at the time, Khalilah Camacho Ali (previously known as Belinda Boyd) told TMZ Sports how she helped sway his decision. “I helped Muhammad decide whether he was going to the army or going to jail. He listened to my every word. You see the impact that had on our nation?”

Losing You And My Religion

Although he fathered ten children, he did not have any children with his first wife, Sonji Roi. Ali proposed to her on their first date, and they married a month later on August 14, 1964. They divorced under two years later as he began pushing aside his Baptist childhood beliefs for the teachings of the Nation of Islam. She blames the divorce on his devotion to Islam, her refusal to follow the strict behavior and dress codes, and her skepticism of Elijah Muhammad’s teaching.

Look Into My Father’s Eyes

No matter how many ways you cut it, Muhammad Ali was not the greatest father. Ali badly neglected his son, Muhammad Jr., when he needed a father to help with bullying as a child and addiction as an adult. After meeting with his siblings over his father’s estate, he reportedly left his wife and two children with whom he had been living on food stamps. He now lives in a more affluent part of Chicago and echoes his estranged father’s mistakes.

Greatness At The Cost Of Intelligence

Before he became Muhammad Ali and one of the biggest stars on the planet, Ali was an amateur boxer hoping to make something of himself. While a then-Cassius Clay was racking up amateur boxing victories, he was neglecting his school work. He graduated from high school as the 376th ranked student out of 391. Clay did so poorly on his Army IQ that they considered him unqualified for recruitment. He once jokingly stated, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”

Dealing With The Dictator

One of Muhammad Ali’s most significant feats came outside the ring years after he had retired from boxing.  Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein held 15 Americans hostages at the start of the Gulf War. Ali traveled to Baghdad in hope of meeting with Hussein. Ali promised to tell America “an honest account” of his trip. Saddam replied by saying, “I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.” They all flew home three days later.

Another Bout With Diplomacy

Muhammad Ali’s dip into diplomatic waters did not start with Saddam. Ali visited another Middle Eastern country in the hope of freeing hostages but could not reach the same end. The year after his Parkinson’s diagnosis (1985), Ali took a trip to Lebanon in the hope of freeing the 40 Americans that the Lebanese held hostage. Most considered his effort a failure, but a supposed Islamic Jihadist claimed that Jeremy Levin, who allegedly escaped captivity, was released “after the intervention and insistence of a noted American ­Islamic personality.”

I Want To Ride My Bicycle

While growing up in racially segregated Louisville, Kentucky might have made a young Cassius Clay angry; it did not fuel his desire to box. It took a bicycle thief to push Clay towards boxing. As a 12-year-old, his red and white Schwinn bike was stolen. When he reported it to the police officer (also a boxing coach) and told him he would “whup” the thief, the officer told him he should learn to box first.

Giving Up The Gold

One of the biggest legends surrounding Muhammad Ali is the mystery of his 1960 Olympic gold medal. In one of his books, he claimed that not long after returning home to Louisville from Rome he angrily threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. Ali and a friend had been denied entry to a “whites-only” restaurant, and he wanted to protest racism. Although many dispute the claim, he received a replacement medal during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (at which he lit the torch).

Luck Of The Irish

American culture has never seen an African American icon like Muhammad Ali. Black American continue to look up to him even after his death. If you dig deep enough, however, you would find that Ali had some Irish lineage. He never wore shamrock shorts, but his great-grandfather, named Abe Grady, immigrated from Ireland to Kentucky in the 1860s where he married a former slave. Ali visited his ancestral home in Ennis, Ireland in 2009 and was greeted by thousands of fans.

A Fantastic Photo Follows A Phantom Punch

Squaring off for a rematch with former champion seemed like a good idea for Ali. Liston was unbeatable at one point until Ali took the belt from him in 1964. Their much-hyped rematch began and ended in a flash. Ali knocked Liston to the canvas in under two minutes for the victory. Many believe Liston received a “phantom punch” and took a dive to satisfy the mob. Regardless, Ali remained champion, and Neil Leifer took the most iconic sports photo ever.

Ali To The Rescue

During a 1981 drive with a friend in California, Ali rose to the occasion. A distraught Vietnam veteran had jumped onto the ledge of a building and was threatening to jump from the ninth-floor balcony. Police let Ali into the blocked off building and allowed him to speak with the man. Ali put his arms around the man and told him “It’s ok. We love you. Everything will be fine,” before pulling him to safety.

Finishing Off The Job

Pulling him to safety was not enough for Muhammad Ali. He wanted to make sure the man was okay. According to Ali’s friend Howard Bingham, the champ helped the man get a job, and bought him $2,000 worth of clothes and an apartment. The vet told him, “I became convinced that nobody cares whether I live or die, so I decided I would die – but you changed that for me. You have given me the strength to carry on.” Ali called to check in, too.

Stinky Socks No More

Friend and photographer Howard Bingham told a story about Ali to display his ability to be down to earth. Bingham said, “Once, on a plane ride back from the Caribbean, I noticed a strong odor. I asked Ali about it and he looked embarrassed and said it was probably his socks. He got up, went to the bathroom, washed his socks and hung them up to dry by the window next to his seat.” Talk about sky-high service.

The Greatest Vs. The Big Dipper

Wilt Chamberlain was one of the best basketball players in the world and also one of the strongest men in the world. He challenged Ali to a fight in 1971, and the champ could not wait. Wilt had plenty of physical advantages including 60 pounds and 14 inches of reach, but Ali outsmarted him. Ali got in Wilt’s head with taunts of “Timber!” and “The tree will fall,” and Wilt eventually called off the fight.

Paid In Full

Taking on the champion Sonny Liston could have been an intimidating moment for the young Cassius Clay, but he was ready and came out swinging. He won by technical knockout when Liston did not come out for the seventh round. Today, championship bouts can bring in eight figures for its fighters thanks to guys like Floyd Mayweather. Ali and Liston each got $636,000 for the fight. While the fighters took home next to nothing, Ali’s gloves from the fight sold for $836,000.

X Marks The Spot

During his days with the Nation of Islam, Ali became friends with high-profile minister Malcolm X. Their friendship came to a quick end after Malcolm X broke away from Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Ali said, “Malcolm X and anybody else who attacks or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. I don’t even think about him.” Malcolm X was gunned down by three Nation of Islam members in February 1965.

Cartooning Around

Everyone of every age wanted the champ, so Ali became the subject of an animated television series, I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. He provided his own voice and starred in the short-lived NBC series. In it, he fought off poachers, wrestled alligators, and squared off with space warriors. In addition to his show, Ali also appeared in a 1978 comic book with Superman. In Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, they teamed up to defeat an alien invasion on earth.

The Bank Is Not Open

Although he was one of the biggest stars in the world, Ali was not great with his money which caused him to fight later in his life than he should have. He continually poorly managed his finances and struggled with paying his taxes. It got to the point that late in his career, he would take all possible fights to make as much money as he could before his career ended. In the 70s, he told his father that he was “on the tightrope.”

1, 2, 3, What Are We Fighting For?

The Vietnam War was fiercely divisive within the United States, which meant one of its most divisive athletes needed to make a stand. Ali, then Cassius Clay, showed up for his Army induction but failed to step forward when his name was called. He was convicted for his refusal and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. His title belt was stripped, and his boxing license was revoked. It would be over three years before he could get a new license.

Order In The Court

He was a fighter through and through, and Muhammad Ali was not going to quit his fight versus the Army. He believed that war was against the Qur’an and once stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them, Viet Cong.” Eventually, the case made its way to the Supreme Court which overturned his conviction unanimously since he was denied conscientious objector status. Still, the whole ordeal cost Ali four years of his prime boxing career.

Can I Kick It?

In 1976, Muhammad Ali was the reigning heavyweight champion in boxing, but found himself in the ring facing a vastly different opponent. Antonio Inoki was working exhibition fights around the world versus different martial arts champions to show the dominance of pro-wrestling. The fight, held in Tokyo, became somewhat of a precursor to mixed martial arts fighting of today. Inoki was only allowed to kick Ali if he dropped to the mat first. The bizarre fight ended in a draw.

A Sign Of What’s To Come

Following his victory over Leon Spinks in 1978, Ali decided to retire from boxing. It was short lived, and he came out of retirement under two years later to fight Larry Holmes for the championship belt. Ali saw a doctor before the fight and began showing early signs of Parkinson’s. Still, they let him fight in a fight totally dominated by Holmes. Many after the fight believed the vicious hits he took significantly compounded its effect on him.

A New Ali? Not Quite

While many people believe that Colin Kaepernick and other football players’ political protest of kneeling during the National Anthem is the modern equivalent of Ali refusing to join the Army, his ex-wife thinks not. Khalilah Camacho Ali, his wife from 1967 to 1976, not only thinks it’s apples and oranges; she thinks Kaepernick should apologize. She thinks that she can help though. “If he is willing to get off his high horse and humble himself, we could do a lot of good together,” she said.

My Name Is My Name

In 1964, not long after he claimed the heavyweight title, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam. He was named for an abolitionist but still claimed “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.” The change confused plenty of journalists at first.

Forgiving A Philanderer

Most women would not be as forgiving of their spouse’s infidelities as Veronica Porsche, Muhammad Ali’s third wife. She told People, “It was too much temptation for him, with women who threw themselves at him. It didn’t mean anything. He didn’t have affairs – he had one-night stands. I knew beyond a doubt there were no feelings involved. It was so obvious; It was easy to forgive him.” Eventually, it became too much, and their marriage ended after nine years in 1986.

Keeping The Kids Away

Khalilah Camacho Ali had four children with Muhammad during their marriage – Maryum, Jamillah, Rasheda, and Muhammad Ali Jr. Her children loved having a relationship with their father following their divorce, however, according to Khalilah, Muhammad’s fourth and final wife Lonnie Williams prevented them from seeing him. She once referred to Lonnie as “evil.”  Khalilah said, “Lonnie often got in the way of family members getting to Ali. She wanted everything for herself and can be very controlling.”

A Day In The Life

Being Muhammad Ali meant meeting everyone from the President of the United States to the biggest movie stars of the day. Days before he would beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion and a month before he would become Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay met the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania. The Beatles initially wanted to meet Liston not “that loudmouth who’s going to lose,” as John Lennon put it. When they walked in the gym, Clay bellowed, “Hello there, Beatles!”

New Generation, Same Ali

Before Muhammad Ali succumbed to septic shock in 2016, his daughter Laila spoke out on life with her father. She could not stop raving about how he is as a grandfather. The thing he loves most – looking at his grandson Curtis who is the spitting image of grandpa. Laila said, “As he gets older, [he’s] struggling with his disease, but he lights up when he sees the kids, especially my son who looks exactly like him.”

Teach Your Children Well…Or Ignore Them

Infidelity was known throughout Muhammad Ali’s life, especially during his marriage to Belinda Boyd. In 2014, the daughter of one those alleged affairs came forward in hope of seeing her father again. Kiiursti Mensah Ali claims that Ali and her mother Barbara maintained a twenty-year affair. He visited them until he married his fourth wife, Lonnie. Mensah claims that a paternity test confirmed it in 1988 and that he okayed having his name on her birth certificate. She looks like him too.

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