Face to Face with Muhammad Ali

He may no longer float or sting, but make no mistake, his words still pack a punch

By Howard Bingham Updated: Jun 8, 2023 17:10:04 IST
Face to Face with Muhammad Ali Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

The date was set. Muhammad Ali would talk to Readers Digest on the morning of 11 September 2001, at his home, a 35 hectare farm. But when the hour arrived, the world was turned upside down. Ali agreed the interview should go on, but for several hours, the room was mostly quiet.

As the terrible events unfolded, he stared silently at the big screen television while the World Trade Center buckled and crumpled. And then Ali began to talk. His Parkinson’s and his age (he turned 60 on 17 January) have turned him into a slow-motion version of his former self. Make no mistake, though, Muhammad Ali is in there, all of him.

Son of a sign painter and his Christian wife, heavyweight champ, poet and wit, black rights advocate, military draft resistor, philanthropist, father, and now grandfather six times over, the roles and causes Ali embraced remain a part of him, and from up close, you can see and hear them all.

You can feel his warmth as well. At one point, Assad Ali, 10, the youngest of his nine children, peeked into the room. The round faced, smiling boy stopped short, waiting to be acknowledged. Ali turned his head, his expression frozen, and slowly, wordlessly unfolded his body to create an opening. Assad ran to him, filled the space, hugged his dad and his father, hugged him back.

As images of Osama bin Laden began flashing across television, a transformation of sorts began for Ali. The man who started life as Cassius Clay and then announced his conversion to Islam in 1964 suddenly became only the second most recognizable Muslim face in the world.

Reader’s Digest had come to Ali’s home to discuss the new film based on his life. Ali stars Will Smith, who, after bulking up and getting a 60s haircut, bears an uncanny resemblance to the champ in his prime. The interview covered the movie, 11 September, Islam and much more, in part because of the presence of Howard Bingham, 62, a Los Angeles-based photographer who met the fighter in 1962. Bingham has long been considered one of Ali’s closest confidant, and unlike many people, he has not taken advantage of Ali, financially or otherwise. He is not on Ali’s payroll, nor does he follow Islam. The two men banter like brothers and move easily through the events of a long shared history. With Bingham in the room, Ali was able to completely be himself. 

Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock PhotoMuhammad Ali (centre) outside the Odeon in Birmingham, UK, 1979

Bingham: Tell us your reaction to the attacks this morning.

Ali: Killing like that can never be justified. It’s unbelievable. I could never support hurting innocent men, women and children. Islam is a religion of peace. It does not promote terrorism or killing people.

Bingham: Muslims are supposed to be responsible for this. How does that make you feel?

Ali: People say a Muslim caused this destruction. I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims, permitting this murder of thousands.

Bingham: When you became Muslim, the religion was perceived as anti-white. Has that changed?

Ali: The real Islam comes from Mecca. All people are God’s people. The devil can be any colour.

Bingham: Do you know some black devils?

Ali: A lot of them.

Bingham: Has it become easier to be a Muslim in America?

Ali: Yes. When I first accepted the religion, you’d say you were Muslim. People thought that’s funny. Now there’s not half the trouble.

Bingham: How do you feel about different religions?

Ali: Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams. They have different names, but all contain water. Religions have different names, but all contain truth.

Bingham: What does your faith mean to you?

Ali: [It] means [a] ticket to heaven. One day, we’re all going to die and God’s going to judge us [our] good and bad deeds. [If the] bad outweighs the good, you go to hell. If the good outweighs the bad, you go to heaven. I’m thinking about the judgment day and how you treat people wherever you go. Help somebody through charity, because when you do, it’s been recorded. I go to parties, [see] good-looking girls. [I] take a box of matches with me. [I] see a girl I want to flirt with, which is a sin, so I light my matches, [touches his finger]—oooh, hell hurts worse than this. Buy a box of matches and carry them with you. Put [one] on your finger and just see how long you can hold it. Just imagine that’s going to be hell. Hell’s hotter, and for eternity. 

Bingham: A movie has been made about you. Does that surprise you?

Ali: No, it’s about the third movie made of me!

Bingham: But don’t you have any kind of emotional feelings—it makes you feel good, makes you feel …?

Ali: [It’s] good to know people still want to read about me. People still want to hear about me. After so many years, from 1960 until now. It’s good to know that I’m still popular.

Bingham: What do you think of Will Smith?

Ali: I think he’s a great actor. And for this role, he’s the best one to do it because he looks like me a little bit and acts like me, sounds like me.

Bingham: Out of his look and your look, which one is better looking?

Ali: Some will say him.Some people say me.

Bingham: So what do you say?

Ali: I say me!

Bingham: What was your best fight ever?

Ali: The [fight against] famous Joe Frazier in Manila.

Bingham: Which loss hurt most?

Ali: Amos Johnson in the Pan Am Trials in 1959.

Bingham: Did you ever win a fight that you thought you’d lost?

Ali: No.

Bingham: Did you ever lose a fight you thought you’d won?

Ali: No.

Bingham: Should boxing be banned, like so many people advocate?

Ali: They said it should be banned because it’s too brutal. Football is brutal, [and] wrestling. Motor-car racing. The reason they think its bad is black people control it.

Bingham: Knowing what you know now, would you go back and change anything?

Ali: In boxing, [I would] do everything the same, wouldn’t change anything.

Bingham: What about taunting Joe Frazier?

Ali: Joe Frazier, [I’d do] everything the same, wouldn’t change anything.

Bingham: Resisting the military draft?

Ali: I know I’d do that the same.

Bingham: All those years back, you were a kid who believed in himself enough to tell everyone that one day you would become champion of the world. Where did your confidence come from?

Ali: I had it in my heart. I believed in myself, and I had confidence. I knew how to do it and [had] natural talent, and I pursued it.

Bingham: Now, after you were older, who influenced your life and the beliefs that you have?

Ali: After I started boxing, Sugar Ray Robinson. And my idol was a man named Elijah Mohammed. [His] Islamic teaching is what made me so confident.

Photo: Photo12/Ann Ronan Picture Library/alamyAli and his team, after the May 1965 rematch with opponent Charles L. ‘Sonny’ Liston (seen slightly back, to the right). Ali knocked out Liston in the first round.

Bingham: What people have inspired you? Or who is the most unforgettable character you’ve ever met?

Ali: Malcolm X. He said courageous things, wasn’t afraid of nothing. [He was a] good speaker about black people and their condition and treatment by whites.

Bingham: Your wife, Lonnie, Assad’s mother ... you’ve been with her longer than any of your first three wives. What does she mean to you?

Ali: Everything.

Bingham: You’ve said that some people are chosen to spread a message and that you were chosen to spread the word of Allah. What exactly do you mean by that?

Ali: For an example, black people call themselves Negroes for a 100 years, and now they say Afro Americans. But that started after they heard Elijah Mohammed. They didn’t accept all Elijah said, but the part about Afro Americans [they did]. Chinese have Chinese names, Cubans have Cuban names, Germans after Germany, Indians after India—all people by the name of their country. There’s no country called Negro. When I heard that, it shocked me. We have our names for Chinese. Castro—here comes [a] Cuban. But here comes Jones of Washington. He doesn’t know who he is. He got slave names. So we took—we have—slave names. Muhammad Ali is Muslim.

Bingham: What does Muhammad Ali mean?

Ali: [Muhammad means] ‘worthy of praise’ and ‘praiseworthy’, and Ali means the ‘most high’. Clay means dirt. When I heard that, then everything [came together]. We’re taught to love white, hate black. The colour black meant getting put out. You are being blackballed. Black was bad. There’s blackmail. They made angel cake white and devil’s-food cake chocolate. Think about that. Angel-food white and devil’s-food chocolate. [The] ugly duckling is the black duckling. Black magic … I mean, black is good. In business, you wanted black. Blackberry juice—the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. The rich dirt is black. Black isn’t bad. The greatest baseball players are black. Greatest football players are black.

Bingham: Everything but boxers, huh?

Ali: [The] greatest boxers are black.

Bingham: What were your thoughts when you lit the Olympic frame in Atlanta?

Ali: [It] show[ed] that people in the past didn’t hold it against me because here I am, rejecting the Vietnam War, joining [the] Islamic religion, and then, of all people, raising the flag. They were thinking of me to light the Olympic flame, so that was a good thing.

Bingham: Do athletes have a responsibility to become role models for people?

Ali: They don’t have to, but it’s good if they do, because then the kids look up to them and want to be like them. It’s good to be an example for them in the way they live.

Bingham: Are you a role model that people look up to?

Ali: I’ve been told so.

Bingham: Why?

Ali: Because I’m pretty, daring, bold, courageous!

Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo62-year-old Ali, at the ringing of the Peace Bell for the 59th UN General Assembly, 2004

Bingham: But if there was one thing that you could make happen in this world, what would it be?

Ali: Find a cure for cancer.

Bingham: What disease do you have?

Ali: Parkinson’s.

Bingham: Do you think that your Parkinson’s was caused by boxing?

Ali: Not all people [with Parkinson’s] box.

Bingham: Have you ever asked yourself, “Why me?” in struggling against your Parkinson’s?

Ali: I never ask, “Why me?” for any condition. There’s so much good. [I’ve] been so blessed. God tries you. Some things are good, some things are bad. All of them are trials.

Bingham: How would you like to be remembered?

Ali: He took a few cups of love, one teaspoon of patience, one tablespoon of generosity, half a litre of kindness and stirred up well and served it to each and every deserving person.

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