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My memorable interview with Muhammad Ali

Posted: June 17th, 2016 | Feature, Featured | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

Boxing legend and humanitarian Muhammad Ali died June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 74.

In Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, an estimated 14,000 people attended his Muslim funeral on June 9 and another 14,000 celebrated his life at an interfaith service on June 10. Thousands of people lined the streets to pay their last respects as Ali’s funeral procession passed by.

Ali’s passing inspired me to go to newspapers.com to look up my interview with the boxing champion, which was originally published on May 19, 1977, in The Journal-News in Hamilton, Ohio.

poster via imdbTo set the scene, three days earlier Ali had defeated Alfredo Evangelista to retain his heavyweight title. Boxing writers from around the world were trying to locate the champ to talk about his next bout set for Sept. 29, 1977, against challenger Earnie Shavers. But Ali was sequestered in a remote location and only talking to a select group of entertainment writers about the upcoming release of his first movie, “The Greatest,” which was the story of his life. I was one of those lucky few journalists who were granted a telephone interview.

My headline was: “Has real Ali been discovered?” The reason for that headline is that Ali revealed a lot of personal information that had never before been reported. The champ revealed a side of himself that had largely been kept private.

Of course Ali talked up his movie, and here is what he said:

“… It’s not just a boxing picture. It starts with me winning the gold medal in Rome, about how I threw the Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, how I was denied eating in a restaurant in Louisville, Ky., shows the plantation I used to work on for Billy Reynolds of Reynolds Aluminum, things that happened there and why I quit the job, shows how I joined the Muslim religion, shows when I first turned professional, how I started predicting with my poems, how I beat people, shows how I defied the draft, why I didn’t go, how I met my first and second wives, shows what happened before I fought Sonny Liston who threatened to cancel the fight if I didn’t deny my faith and what I did, about the shootout I had with the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta, Ga., just before I fought Jerry Quarry. Many, many things in this film that most people don’t know about.”

Ali was already talking about retiring from boxing in 1977, even though he continued to fight another four years until he lost to Trevor Berbick in the much-hyped “Drama in the Bahamas” on Dec. 11, 1981. Ali talked about wanting to make more movies, which he didn’t, and how he planned to preach the word of Allah. Quoting from my article:

“And I like the ministry,” Ali said. “I would like to be an evangelist and go out and spread the word of the Islamic religion everywhere.”

He said he already had invitations to nearly every corner of the earth. “Yes, people all across the world recognize me, so that’s why I want to work for God and to help people.” 

Ali then related an experience of visiting the slums in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and seeing bums, tramps, winos and drug addicts. 

“I hope to help these people,” he said. “See, these people are forgotten about. These are people God is testing us with. If we don’t help these people, God’s going to punish us.

“I thought about what greater thing can I do with my fame, my popularity and my money and the money I raise then to help supply these types of houses [which give free meals and clothes to those without] in different cities.

“We should feed them, clothe them, encourage them to get a job, encourage them to get off narcotics or alcohol.

“Don’t you think this would be a service to humanity? That’s the kind of stuff I want to do. A lot of people have good hearts, but they never thought about helping others.

“People should help these kind of people. When we die, God’s going to bless us for that. God’s going to judge us on how we treat people and I think I can help get this thing started where other celebrities — black and white — can donate to the cause of helping people. This is what I want to do. I’ve been offered millions to do movies and television shows. What can I do to satisfy my soul and really help me? I’ve got Rolls Royces, millions of dollars, and I’m still not happy.

“I think somebody should start and help these people. My real job, my real mission, is helping people, preaching the Word of God.

“We preach Christianity – or any of the other religions – but how many of us go out there and do what Jesus did? All of these churches that ain’t doing no good. How come out of all these churches I can’t get anybody to talk about this? What good is that church doing them?”

During my interview, I was struck that the Ali speaking on the telephone didn’t sound like the brash persona he maintained in public. So I had the nerve to ask him about his image, as I put it, as an “egotistical loudmouth.”

“That’s just for publicity,” Ali said. “You see, people like to be mystified, to be confused. Tell them Count Dracula meets the Wolfman and you’ll have a line 40 miles long. Tell them ‘Jaws’ is eating people up, and they’ll have the biggest sellout in history.

“Tell them they want to know what’s on the moon or on Mars. They spent $2 billion for four rocks from Mars.

“People like to be mystified. Tell them Santa Claus is coming tonight, the Three Bears, Tarzan — all of this is unreal. They like to be mystified. So I give them what they want: ‘He shall fall in Seven, if that don’t do, I’ll get him in Two.’ So they buy tickets. So they come to see ‘Can he do it, can he do it?’

“They enjoy being puzzled. So I give them this. See, a wise man can act a fool, but a fool can not act like a wise man.”

Indeed, Ali was no fool. My interview with Ali was picked up by the Associated Press, and the article was republished in newspapers across the world. People sent me clips from near and far.

As a 25-year-old journalist, it showed me the power of the press and how a good interview will connect with readers. It was also a memory to cherish. RIP, champ.

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at ken@sdcnn.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

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