This interview appeared in the June 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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.

Oprah: You are known as the most famous person on the planet. Do you feel like the most famous?

Muhammad Ali: It's surprising, but I never realized why I was so famous. The name Muhammad is the most common name in the world. In all the countries around the world—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon—there are more Muhammads than anything else. When I joined the Nation of Islam and became a Muslim, they gave me the most famous name because I was the champ.

Oprah: Do you believe that had you not become a Muslim, your fame would not have been as great?

Muhammad Ali: It would not have been worldwide.

Oprah: Would you be the greatest in the world if you hadn't become a Muslim?

Muhammad Ali: I don't know. Before I became a Muslim, I ate pork and chased women—but all that stuff stopped.

Oprah: So you never chased women after you became a Muslim?

Muhammad Ali: Well...yes.

Oprah: But I understand. If you hadn't become a Muslim, you might not have had the concentrated spiritual power that sustained you. Did your greatness have to do with more than just your ability in the ring?

Muhammad Ali: Yes. The teachings of [Muslim leader] Elijah Muhammad made me say, "I am the greatest." And back then, black people didn't talk or boast like that.

Oprah: Nobody had ever heard of anyone like you.

Muhammad Ali: I would say things like "I am the greatest! I'm pretty! If you talk jive, you'll drop in five! I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I'm pretty!" When white people heard me talking like this, some said, "That black man talks too much. He's bragging."

Oprah: When were you first introduced to Elijah Muhammad?

Muhammad Ali: Around 1961. He said, "Why are we called Negroes? Chinese are from China, Russians are from Russia, Germans are from Germany, and Indians are from India. What country is called Negro?" And I realized that Cassius Clay is a slave name—a European name that was given to me. Many of the blacks in this country have slave names.

Oprah: Had you been listening to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad long before you announced to the world that you had become a Muslim?

Muhammad Ali: Yes.

Oprah: Were you encouraged by Elijah Muhammad to announce that you were Muslim?

Muhammad Ali: No, no, no. It was just me. You're not forced to believe or to be a follower. You just have to do what's in your heart.

Oprah: Do you see yourself as a brother to all the other Muslims around the world? I read that you said "Black Muslim" is a media term, because there's no such thing. If you go to Mecca, you're praying next to a blond.

Muhammad Ali: Right. Christians are my brothers, Hindus are my brothers, all of them are my brothers. We just think different and believe different.

Oprah: Because your religion is associated with Elijah Muhammad, a lot of people believe it's radical, antiwhite, and anti other religions. But my understanding is that Islam is a peaceful religion.

Muhammad Ali: The word "Islam" means "peace." The word "Muslim" means "one who surrenders to God." But the press makes us seem like haters.

Oprah: But if a leader comes out and says that any particular race is the devil, then he or she is seen as a hatemonger. True?

Muhammad Ali: But the people who were keeping blacks out of restaurants and choosing to fight us were really the hatemongers.

Oprah: Part of your notoriety comes from your willingness to stand up for yourself—like when you decided that no one could make you go to Vietnam. You even said you were willing to face gunfire rather than go into the army or denounce the honorable Elijah Muhammad. Did you mean that?

Muhammad Ali: Did I mean it? I'm not going to come out now and say, "I was just joking!"

Oprah: So you just got your draft notice and said to yourself, "I'm not going"?

Muhammad Ali: I said more than that! I said, "No Vietcong ever called me a nigger." Black men would go over there and fight, but when they came home, they couldn't even be served a hamburger.

Oprah: Your brother said that when you came home after winning the Olympic gold in 1960, you were refused service at a restaurant in Louisville.

Muhammad Ali: I walked in and tried to order two hamburgers, and I was told, "We don't serve Negroes." I said, "Good—because I don't eat them either." They said, "You're a smart nigger—get out of here!" So I left and drove to the bridge and threw my gold medal in the river. A black man in America can win an Olympic gold medal, but he can't even come home and be served a hamburger.

Oprah: Do you regret throwing your medal in the river?

Muhammad Ali: Now I do!

Oprah: Ever since you began boxing, others have seen potential in you. When did you know that boxing was your gift?

Muhammad Ali: When I won the Golden Gloves in 1960, that made me realize I had a chance. And when I won at the Olympics, that sealed it: I was the champ.


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