"The Greatest" on fear, fame, the power of prayer, his ringing legacy—and his knockout plans for the future.
The home office where Muhammad Ali greets me is a photo gallery of a legend's life. There's a framed cover of a 1974 Sports Illustrated naming a young, tuxedo-clad Ali Sportsman of the Year; a snapshot of him opposite Nelson Mandela, their hands clenched into fists as if they're boxing; a poster of Ali and Michael Jordan, with two words inscribed beneath them: "The Greatest." Those are his words—the declaration of a man who, now 59 and stricken with Parkinson's disease, shakes uncontrollably, speaks slowly, and slurs his words; you have to listen with your ear turned up. Yet at the height of his boxing career in the racially turbulent 1960s, Ali did something no black person had ever done: He hailed himself as "the greatest of all time." That controversial proclamation catapulted him further into the spotlight. A few years later, after he received death threats because he refused to serve in Vietnam, he realized his bold declarations might eventually cost him his life.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, the son of a father by the same name who was a painter and artist, and Odessa, a homemaker. Lore has it—and Ali confirms—that as a 12-year-old boy in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, he went to find a police officer after a new bike he received for Christmas was stolen. The officer he spoke to happened to be trainer Joe Martin, who enrolled Clay in a boxing program and began coaching him. As a teen, Clay ran to school every day to improve his speed and wind. At 17 he won the light heavyweight Golden Gloves championship. A year later, in 1960, he won the Golden Gloves heavyweight title. That same year, he took Olympic gold home from the Rome games. On February 25, 1964, in a fight against Sonny Liston in Miami, 22-year-old Clay won the world heavyweight title—a feat he would accomplish two more times.
Fame must have made it difficult for Clay to maintain his home life. He'd married Sonji Roi in 1964, but two years later their relationship ended. He married and divorced twice more before settling down in 1986 with his current wife, Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams—a childhood friend from his Louisville neighborhood. In all, he has nine children—seven daughters and two sons—the youngest being 10-year-old Asaad Amin, whom he and Lonnie adopted as an infant. The best-known of his children is 22-year-old boxer Laila Ali, who appeared with her father in a "Got Milk?" ad.
It was in 1964 that he became the center of controversy. The same year he won the Liston match, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Three years later, in 1967, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and refused to go because of his religious beliefs. Within days, the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title. He lost his boxing license, and he received anonymous death threats. But in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Ali's draft-evasion conviction, ruling that he had been drafted improperly, and he regained his title by knocking out George Foreman.
Ali retired from boxing in 1979 at the age of 37, after doctors noticed that he was increasingly sluggish after his fights. He came out of retirement in 1980 to fight Larry Holmes, and lost. After he retired again, he began to show symptoms of Parkinson's disease—but it wasn't until 1984, when he was 42, that he went public with his degenerative disorder. The last memory many people have of Ali is of him lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The day Ali and I meet at his sprawling Michigan farm, spread over 88 acres, he is in good spirits. After showing me a few magic tricks—his staff says he loves to make people laugh—we walk over to the gym that houses a regulation-size boxing ring. Before sharing a delightful meal of salmon, chicken, and couscous, we talk about everything from how actor Will Smith will bring the story of Ali's life to the big screen later this year (Lonnie says the actor sounds uncannily like Ali on the phone) to why, as Ali nears 60, he is actually considering making a boxing comeback.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Muhammad Ali
Note: This interview appeared in the June 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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