Muhammad Ali in his prime was one of the most exciting charismatic people who ever lived. In recent years, physical infirmities have taken a toll on “The Greatest.” But the world is still drawn to Ali. And Ali-watchers still take note when new insights into his character are revealed.
BoxNation will soon televise an original half-hour documentary entitled My Life with Ali. The show is build around a six-hour interview that I conducted with Khalilah Ali on 26-27 January of this year. Andrew Muscato directed the project.
Anyone who was alive in the 1960s and ‘70s knew who Khalilah was. Her name then was Belinda Ali, and she was married to the most famous man on earth. Belinda was ten years old when she met Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in 1960. She was seventeen when they married in 1967. For ten years, until their marriage eroded, she was in the eye of the hurricane that was Muhammad Ali’s life.
[Image credit: D Marstons Online]
The documentary tracks Khalilah’s upbringing in the Nation of Islam, Ali’s ring career, his refusal to accept induction into the United States Army, and more. One of my favorite exchanges comes in response to the thought I voiced that, every time Ali looked in the mirror and said “I am so pretty,” he was saying “black is beautiful” before that phrase became fashionable.
“That’s what you think?” Khalilah countered. Then she laughed. “If Ali saw himself in the mirror, he saw he was beautiful. It wasn’t about no black pride or nothing like that. He was just a pretty boy thinking he cute. It wasn’t a black is beautiful kind of thing. He was pretty.”
Some of the most poignant portions of the documentary deal with Khalilah’s growing awareness that Ali was unfaithful to her and the humiliation that his profligate womanizing caused her. It was a thread that ran through their marriage and ultimately became too much for her to live with.
But Khalilah also talks about the things that made Ali great and closes on a positive note, saying, “Overall he's a good person. And I pray that he walks in paradise when he leaves and he's at peace with himself and he's at peace with God. And I thank him for the children that we were blessed to have and the children he was blessed to have other than my own.”
Making a documentary involves choices. Not everything of value can survive the final cut. So it’s worth noting a few exchanges that BoxNation subscribers can look forward to in future Ali programming.
Khalilah was raised in a strict Muslim home. The first time Ali kissed her was after he proposed marriage and she accepted. The following exchange between us took place as she looked back on that long-ago time.
Khalilah: “I said, ‘Oh man, I can’t do this. My mother did not tell me about this. This is not good.’ I couldn’t breathe. I said ‘Man, I’m seventeen years old and I can’t even kiss a guy.’”
Q: “Had you kissed anybody before?”
Khalilah: “No, no.”
Q: “So your first kiss ever was with Muhammad Ali?”
Khalilah: “That’s my first kiss. It was scary as hell. When I got married, I was kind of - this just wasn’t for me. This is not something that I was ready for. The first night we went to our own house, I didn’t know what to do, where to go. I was scared, real scared. I wanted to go home. This was too much for me. He said, ‘You can’t go home anymore. You’re my wife now.’ But eventually I got over it.”
It’s also worth recounting what happened when Khalilah and Muhammad met Queen Elizabeth.
“I didn’t know the customs over there,” Khalilah told me. “All I know is, if you see somebody, you hug them. I did it so fast, they didn’t catch me in time. I ran up and grabbed the Queen and hugged her. She says, ‘Stop!’ And these guards start coming. I said, ‘I am so sorry; I didn’t know.’ She said, ‘That’s all right.’ Then she patted me on the back like old grandmother would pat her grandchild.”
Look for “My Life with Ali: The Khalilah Ali Interview” soon on BoxNation.
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BoxNation has a run of good fights coming up. But for the moment, let’s focus on the 16 April bout between Chris Algieri and Errol Spence Jr.
The 26-year-old Spence is undefeated and one of the brightest prospects on Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions roster.
Algieri, age 32, has shown a willingness to go in tough. He moved into the spotlight two years ago with a gutty split-decision triumph over Ruslan Provodnikov. Then Manny Pacquiao turned him into a yo-yo, knocking Chris down six times in Macau en rout to an unanimous-decision verdict. Following that, Algieri went in tough for the third time in less than a year, losing a spirited fight by unanimous decision to Amir Khan. In December 2015, he came back against trial-horse Erik Bone and prevailed in a less-than-stellar performance.
Haymon likes to keep his favoured fighters away from punchers. In that regard, Algieri seems like a safe choice. He has only eight knockouts on his resume and has gone the distance in his nine most recent fights.
In other words, Spence-Algieri was made to showcase Spence. The thought process wasn’t, “Who can we match Algieri against who will make Chris look good?” More likely, it was, “Paulie Malignaggi is out. Who’s a name without a big punch that Errol will look good against?”
Still, Algieri represents a step up in class for Spence. So let’s throw a word of caution into the mix.
Naazim Richardson trains Steve Cunningham, who will challenge Krzysztof Glowacki in the co-featured fight of the evening. Cunningham is forty years old and nearing the end of his ring career. Glowacki was fighting in near anonymity when he climbed off the canvas to knock out Marco Huck in the eleventh round to claim the WBO cruiserweight crown last June.
Richardson knows a thing or two about boxing, having trained Bernard Hopkins during the latter years of the Alien Executioner’s sojourn through boxing. At the kick-off press conference for BoxNation’s 16 April doubleheader, Naazim declared, “I’ve watched Spence for a long time. He likes to hurt people. If he can’t hurt Algieri the way he wants to, it could turn into an interesting night.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (A Hurting Sport) was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for Career Excellence in Boxing Journalism.