Muhammad Ali and Oprah
Photo: Kwaku Alston
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.

Oprah: Do you remember how you felt the first time, at the age of 12, when you stepped into the ring?

Muhammad Ali: I was nervous and scared. I was shaking.

Oprah: Did you go back the next night?

Muhammad Ali: Yes—every night for a month. I loved it.

Oprah: After the Golden Gloves and the Olympics, did you think you'd box for the rest of your life?

Muhammad Ali: My father and mother were poor, and when I turned pro, I started making money. There was a show on television where boxers could make $4,000 for a fight.

Oprah: When you first realized you had potential as a boxer, were you thinking, "I am the greatest"?

Muhammad Ali: I wasn't thinking of being the greatest. But I knew I had a chance. I don't want to brag.

Oprah: Go ahead and brag! I remember that Sonny Liston fight, and what we, as Negroes, were all thinking. Black and white folks were betting against you because nobody had ever seen you do your thing in a national forum. Were you scared?

Muhammad Ali: I was scared to death. Before that fight, I did so much predicting and talked so much that I had to win.

Oprah: Were you pumping yourself up with all that bravado, or did you really believe it?

Muhammad Ali: I really believed it.

Oprah: Time after time, you would call the round in which you'd knock the other guy out—and you'd be right! Did that put pressure on you to call future rounds?

Muhammad Ali: Yes. Twelve times I called the round.

Oprah: With Sonny Liston, you said, "I meant to take him in eight, but I thought I'd send him to heaven in seven."

Muhammad Ali: "I'm the greatest of all time. I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Get ready to rumble, young man, rumble!"

Oprah: Wow. Where did you get that idea?

Muhammad Ali: When I was 9, I saw a wrestler on television named Gorgeous George. He said, "I'm beautiful. I'm so pretty that if a sucker touches my face, I'll kill him. If he messes with my hair, I'll pummel him." I said to myself, "That's a good idea. I am the greatest, I'm pretty." And then I took it a little further than he did.

Oprah: Did you talk that way partly for show?

Muhammad Ali: Yes. And next year, I'm going to shock the world even more. No boxer has ever come back at age 60. But I'm going to come back, get in shape, and be the number one contender again.

Oprah: You're kidding, right?

Muhammad Ali: No.

Oprah: I'm shocked.

Muhammad Ali: Ask my wife. I'm still in good shape, and I'm keeping my weight down. And if I don't beat the guy, he can keep my purse.

Oprah: No—don't do that! Haven't you had enough of the ring? Or do you still dream of being up there?

Muhammad Ali: Not just being up there, but boxing.

Oprah: You should just sit here on the farm and have a good time, because you are already the greatest. Do you wish you had left the ring sooner?

Muhammad Ali: No.

Oprah: When you go back and watch old tapes of yourself boxing, don't you marvel?

Muhammad Ali: No—it doesn't look like much to me.

Oprah: You don't look at it and say, "I really was pretty"? I watched the second Liston fight, and you were literally dancing in the ring and taunting him.

Muhammad Ali: So just think how great it would be if I came back at 60!

Oprah: I won't be there to watch you—but when you get in shape, you come on my show and tell how you did it! Let's talk about that first Joe Frazier fight and your legendary rivalry with him. Did you believe that you could whip Frazier?

Muhammad Ali: Yeah. But I was never 100 percent sure. I was scared to death.

Oprah: I remember one fight when Frazier knocked you down for a second, but you popped right up. What does it feel like to be knocked down?

Muhammad Ali: You're dazed and you look like hell. You can see the crowd, and you try and shake it off and get up. All those fights were good fights.

Oprah: In your best days, would you have liked to have fought Mike Tyson?

Muhammad Ali: Next question.

Oprah: Who would you have wanted to be in the ring with?

Muhammad Ali: Lennox Lewis.

Oprah: You think he's the best?

Muhammad Ali: Yes.

Oprah: After you refused to go to Vietnam, you received assassination threats. When you were preparing for one fight, you had to have FBI protection—which is a funny thing, considering what we now know about the FBI and how you were on Hoover's famous list of those seen as a threat to the nation.

Muhammad Ali: They weren't going to kill me. They knew I'd become too big of a hero if they killed me.

Oprah: But were you frightened by the death threats?

Muhammad Ali: No. I was only frightened about Judgment Day and facing God. I believe in that. I didn't want to submit to the army and then, on the day of judgment, have God say to me, "Why did you do that?" This life is a trial, and you realize that what you do is going to be written down for Judgment Day.

Oprah: I've read that you've said there is a reason you have Parkinson's. Why do you believe you have this illness?

Muhammad Ali: A million people have Parkinson's disease.

Oprah: Do you feel that having it is part of God's plan for you?

Muhammad Ali: I can't see what God's plan is. I just know I've got to live with it.

Oprah: How did you first notice the disease? Were your hands shaking, or did you have memory loss?

Muhammad Ali: Yes. First my little finger was shaking, and then my whole hand started shaking. I said to myself, "I've got to fight this. I've got to try to knock it out and predict the round."

Oprah: Do you still feel that way?

Muhammad Ali: I don't worry about it.

Oprah: The perception many people have is that you got hit too many times—that you're punch-drunk. Does the illness have anything to do with being hit in the head?

Muhammad Ali: If that were so, then a million people must have gotten hit in the head! Joe Frazier got hit more than me—and he doesn't have Parkinson's. Sonny Liston got hit hard, but he doesn't have it.

Oprah: Well, he's dead.

Muhammad Ali: No boxer in the history of boxing has had Parkinson's. There's no injury in my brain that suggests that the illness came from boxing.

Oprah: As a boxer, did you ever feel bad about knocking your opponent out?

Muhammad Ali: No. My intention wasn't to hurt anybody.

Oprah: I hear boxers say that, but the other person is unconscious—so maybe he's hurt! For you, knocking someone upside the head doesn't seem like a violent act?

Muhammad Ali: It's nothing personal. God knows that my purpose was not to hurt the guy for life but just to beat him.

Oprah: So it was all for sport and never personal?

Muhammad Ali: Well, some of it was personal.

Oprah: Was it personal with your longtime rival Joe Frazier?

Muhammad Ali: Yes—personal.

Oprah: Why?

Muhammad Ali: Because of personal things he said about me.

Oprah: You said some pretty personal things about him, too.

Muhammad Ali: I called him a gorilla.

Oprah: I read recently that you had some regrets about calling him that.

Muhammad Ali: No regrets. Someone from Newsday called because he heard I didn't mean for the things I'd said to hurt Frazier. But I wasn't going to get on my knees and crawl and beg him to forgive me.

Oprah: Some reports made it sound like you were apologizing to Joe. That's not true?

Muhammad Ali: No. Last March was the 30th anniversary of the first fight, so the press would have liked for that to be true.

Oprah: Thank you for clearing that up!

Muhammad Ali: Joe Frazier is still a gorilla.

Oprah: Why—because you feel he disrespected you by not calling you Muhammad Ali for a long time?

Muhammad Ali: That didn't bother me. He just used that for publicity.

Oprah: What are you going to say to Howard Cosell when you see him in heaven? Will everything be okay between you?

Muhammad Ali: If he's there—or if I'm there.

Oprah: We all know you were the greatest in the ring. Were you also the greatest as a husband, father, and friend?

Muhammad Ali: I tried to be.

Oprah: How do you feel about your daughter's decision to box?

Muhammad Ali: I hope she doesn't get hurt.

Oprah: I've heard you don't like the idea of her boxing. True?

Muhammad Ali: That's how I felt at first. But she's fierce, and I've decided to join her in her decision. I want to help her.

Oprah: Did you just not believe in women fighting?

Muhammad Ali: Women are not physically constructed to take a blow to their breasts.

Oprah: I don't think people are constructed for that. But after you decided to get behind Laila, I saw you in a milk ad together. And now I hear she's fighting Joe Frazier's daughter.

Muhammad Ali: I won't go to see it. Laila is only 22. She should be able to beat her, and I'm going to help her. Joe Frazier is going to help his daughter, too.

Oprah: I once heard you say to a reporter that you're only cocky before and after a fight. Is it your nature to be cocky?

Muhammad Ali: No—that was just to promote the fight.

Oprah: Do you live your life based on doing deeds you think will get you—

Muhammad Ali: In heaven. That's all I think about.

Oprah: Are you trying to make up for bad deeds in the past?

Muhammad Ali: I may have told a lie or two, but I've never done any major sins.

Oprah: I read you were doing good deeds to atone for your infidelity years ago.

Muhammad Ali: I didn't mess around that much!

Oprah: And not with white women.

Muhammad Ali: Not with black women, white women, any women.

Oprah: I was talking to your wife, Lonnie, earlier about the purpose that your life has served. What are you here to do?

Muhammad Ali: My main purpose is to pray five times a day. And that's not easy.

Oprah: I read that you were at home only 90 days last year.

Muhammad Ali: I say my prayers while I'm up there on the airplane.

Oprah: What brings you joy?

Muhammad Ali: Hearing a good lecture. Reading a good book. Eating a good meal. Having my wife meet me at the door when I come back from a long trip—can't tell you the rest!

Oprah: That's wonderful. What are your favorite things to eat?

Muhammad Ali: Baked chicken, dressing, green peas, macaroni and cheese, spinach, and hot buttered rolls.

Oprah: Me, too—love those hot buttered rolls! When people think of you and see you now, what do you most want them to think about you?

Muhammad Ali: I don't really care what they think. They can think what they want.

Oprah: But you don't want them to feel sorry for you.

Muhammad Ali: I live. I travel. I eat. I pray. These are the things I do. I'd rather be in my condition than be a man with four children in a four-bedroom house, working hard every day to pay for his house, taking his children to school—but he's just another person nobody knows.

Oprah: Do you still like being known?

Muhammad Ali: There's a reason I'm known—to bring people to Allah, to God.

Oprah: Are you happy?

Muhammad Ali: I'm happy.

Oprah: I'd say you're happy, too. Thank you so much, Muhammad Ali.


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