Muhammad Ali, arguably one of the greatest boxers and athletes of all-time, passed away today at the age of 74. To commemorate his passing, we’ve decided to publish his 1975 interview with Playboy which was conducted prior to Ali defeating Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila.” The boxing legend touches on race relations in America and his place in history.
Interview has been condensed for length.
A s we go to press, Muhammad Ali is in training for his third match with Joe Frazier, slated for Manila; whether or not he retains his title will be known by the time this issue appears. But whatever the outcome, interviewer Lawrence Linderman feels “they ought to retire the title with Ali, anyway.” So, without further ado, we’re pleased to introduce a man who needs no introduction.
The last time we interviewed you, 11 years ago, you were still Cassius Clay. What would the old Cassius be doing today?
Cassius Clay would now be training in Paris, France, because French promoters would’ve offered me–like they’ve done–free rooms in a hotel on some beach. If not, I’d probably be in Jamaica, training in a plush hotel. When I see a lady now, I do my best to try to teach her about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad so I can help her. Cassius Clay would carry her to some hotel room and use her. If I was Cassius Clay today, I’d be just like Floyd Patterson. I’d probably have a white wife and I wouldn’t represent black people in no way. Or I’d be like Charley Pride, the folk singer. Nothin’ bad about him–he’s a good fella and I met his black wife, but Charley stays out of controversy. It’s not only him, because I could name Wilt Chamberlain and others who just don’t get involved in struggle or racial issues–it might jeopardize their position. I’d be that kind of man. If I was Cassius Clay tonight, I’d probably be staying in a big hotel in New York City, and I might say, “Well, I got time to have a little fun. I’m going out to a big discothèque full of white girls and I’ll find the prettiest one there and spend the night with her.”
Is that what Cassius Clay used to do?
I was on my way to it.
You never got there?
Before I was a Muslim, I had one white girlfriend for two days, that’s all. I wasn’t no Muslim then, but I just felt it wasn’t right. I knew it wasn’t right, ‘cause I had to duck and hide and slip around, and I thought, “Man, it’s not worth all this trouble.” Black men with white women just don’t feel right. They may think it’s all right, and that they’re in love, but you see 'em walking on the street and they’re ashamed–they be duckin’ and they be cold. They’re not proud. Once you get a knowledge of yourself, you see how stupid that is. I don’t even think about nothin’ like that, chasing white women. I’m married and in love with a pretty black one. But if I wasn’t, I’d run after the next pretty black girl I saw.
Do you think you’ll become an American legend?
The legend of Muhammad Ali is already written, 'cause I wrote it–and you better listen to it: This is the legend of Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter that ever will be. He talks a great deal and brags, indeed, of a powerful punch and blinding speed. The fistic world was dull and weary; With a champ like Foreman, things had to be dreary. Now someone with color, someone with dash, He brought fight fans runnin’ with cash. This brash fighter was something to see And the heavyweight championship was his destiny. Ali fights great, he’s got speed and endurance; If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance. Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right; If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night. As you lie on the floor while the ref counts ten, You better hope and pray you don’t meet me again. For I am the man this poem is about; Now I’m the true champ of the world, there ins’t a doubt. Once I predicted and I knew the score, I told the chumps I’d be the champ of the world in '64. When I say three, man, they go in the third. Don’t bet against me, I’m a man of my word. Do you remember when I predicted Sonny Liston’s dismemberment? I hit him so hard he forgot where October and November went. My man, if I tell you a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how–hitch him up!!!
Since a lot of people are wondering about this, level with us: Do you write all the poetry you pass off as your own?
Sure I do. Hey, man, I’m so good I got offered a professorship at Oxford. I write late at night, after the phones stop ringin’ and it’s quiet and nobody’s around–all great writers do better at night. I take at least one nap during the day, and then I get up at two in the morning and do my thing. You know, I’m a worldly man who likes people and action and I always liked cities, but now when I find myself in a city, I can’t wait to get back to my training camp. Neon signs, traffic, noise and people–all that can get you crazy. It’s funny, because I was supposed to be torturing myself by building a training camp out in the middle of nowhere in northern Pennsylvania, but this is good livin'–fresh air, well water, quiet and country views. I thought I wouldn’t like it at all but that at least I’d work a lot instead of being in the city, where maybe I wouldn’t train hard enough. Well, now I like it better than being in any city. This is a real good setting for writin’ poetry and I write all the time, even when I’m in training. In fact, I wrote one up here that’s better than any poem in the world.
How do you know that?
My poem explains truth, so what could be better? That’s the name of it, too, Truth: The face of Truth is open, the eyes of Truth are bright The lips of Truth are ever closed, the head of Truth is upright The breast of Truth stands forward, the gaze of Truth is straight Truth has neither fear nor doubt, Truth has patience to wait. The words of Truth are touching, the voice of Truth is deep. The law of Truth is simple: All you sow, you reap. The soul of Truth is flaming, the heart of Truth is warm. The mind of Truth is clear and firm through rain and storm. Facts are only its shadow, Truth stands above all sin. Great be the battle of life–Truth in the end shall win. The image of Truth is the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, wisdom’s message is his rod. The sign of Truth is the crescent and the soul of Truth is God. Life of Truth is eternal Immortal is its past. Power of Truth shall endure Truth shall hold to the last. It’s a masterpiece, if I say so myself. But poems aren’t the only thing I’ve been writing. I’ve also been setting my mind to sayings. You want to hear some?
Do we have a choice?
You listen up and maybe I’ll make you as famous as I made Howard Cosell. “Wars on nations are fought to change maps, but wars on poverty are fought to map change.” Good, huh? “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” These are words of wisdom, so pay attention, Mr. Playboy. “The man who has no imagination stands on the earth–he has no wings, he cannot fly.” Catch this: “When we are right, no one remembers, but when we are wrong, no one forgets. Watergate!” I really like the next one: “Where is man’s wealth? His wealth is in his knowledge. If his wealth was in the bank and not in his knowledge, then he don’t possess it–because it’s in the bank!” You got all that?
Got it, Muhammad.
Well, there’s more. “The warden of a prison is in a worse condition than the prisoner himself. While the body of the prisoner is in captivity, the mind of the warden is in prison!” Words of wisdom by Muhammad Ali. This is about beauty: “It is those who have touched the inner beauty that appreciate beauty in all its forms.” I’m even going to explain that to you. Some people will look at a sister and say, “She sure is ugly.” Another man will see the same sister and say, “That’s the most beautiful woman I ever did see.” How do you like this one: “Love is a net where hearts are caught like fish”?
Isn’t that a little corny?
I knew you wasn’t smart as soon as I laid eyes on you. But I know you’re gonna like this one, which is called Riding on My Horse of Hope: “Holding in my hands the reins of courage, dressed in the armor of patience, the helmet of endurance on my head, I started on my journey to the land of love.” Whew! Muhammad Ali sure goes deeper than boxing.
That’s for sure. But let’s talk about boxing anyway. What’s the physical sensation of really being nailed by hitters like Foreman and Frazier?
Take a stiff tree branch in your hand and hit it against the floor and you’ll feel your hand go boingggggg. Well, getting tagged is the same kind of jar on your whole body, and you need at least 10 or 20 seconds to make that go away. You get hit again before that, you got another boingggggg.
After you’re hit that hard, does your body do what you want it to do?
No, because your mind controls your body and the moment you’re tagged, you can’t think. You’re just numb and you don’t know where you’re at. There’s no pain, just that jarring feeling. But I automatically know what to do when that happens to me, sort of like a sprinkler system going off when a fire starts up. When I get stunned. I’m not really conscious of exactly where I’m at or what’s happening, but I always tell myself that I’m to dance, run, tie my man up or hold my head way down. I tell myself all that when I’m conscious, and when I get tagged, I automatically do it. I get hit, but all great fighters get hit–Sugar Ray got hit, Joe Louis got hit and Rocky Marciano got hit. But they had something other fighters didn’t have: the ability to hold on until they cleared up. I got that ability, too, and I had to use it once in each of the Frazier fights. That’s one reason I’m a great defensive fighter. The other is my rope-a-dope defense–and when I fought Foreman, he was the dope.
What was your original Foreman fight plan?
To dance every round. I had it in mind to do what I did when I was 22. but I got tired, so I had to change my strategy. George didn’t change his strategy, 'cause he can’t do nothin’ but attack–that’s the only thing he knows. All he wants to do is get his man in the corner, so in the second round, I gave him what he wanted. He couldn’t do nothin’!
Did Foreman seem puzzled when he had you cornered but couldn’t land any punches?
Nope, he just figured he’d get me in the next round. When he didn’t do it in the third, he thought he’d get me in the fourth. Then he thought it would be the fifth, and then the sixth. But in the sixth round, George was so tired. All of a sudden, he knew he’d thrown everything he had at me and hadn’t hurt me at all. And he just lost all his heart.
How could you tell?
He stopped attacking the way he’d been doin’. He had shots to take and didn’t take 'em, and then I purposely left him some openings and he wouldn’t take them. George knew he’d been caught in my trap and there wasn’t but one way he could get out of it: by knocking me out. He kept trying with his last hope, but he was too tired, and a man of his age and talent shouldn’t get used up that quick. George was dead tired; he was throwing wild punches, missing and falling over the ropes. So I started tellin’ him how bad he looked: “Lookatcha, you’re not a champ, you’re a tramp. You’re fightin’ just like a sissy. C'mon and show me somethin’, boy.”
You also called him all kinds of names before the fight. How does that help?
You mean when I called him The Mummy, 'cause he walks like one? Listen, if a guy loses his temper and gets angry, his judgment’s off and he’s not thinking as sharp as he should. But George wasn’t angry. No, sir. George had this feeling that he was supreme. He believed what the press said–that he was unbeatable and that he’d whup me easy. The first three rounds, he still believed it. But when I started throwing punches at him in the fourth, George finally woke up and thought, “Man, I’m in trouble,” He was shocked.
Do you think Foreman was so confident of beating you that he didn’t train properly?
No, George didn’t take me lightly. He fought me harder than he fought Frazier or Norton. Whoever I fight comes at me harder, because if you beat Muhammad Ali, you’ll be the big man, the legend. Beating me is like beating Joe Louis or being the man who shot Jesse James. George just didn’t realize how hard. I am to hit and how hard I can hit. He thought he was greater than me. Well, George is humble now. I did just what I told him I’d do when the ref was giving us instructions. There was George, trying to scare me with his serious look–he got that from his idol, Sonny Liston. And there I was, tellin’ him, “Boy, you in trouble! You’re gonna meet the greatest fighter of all time! We here now and there ain’t no way for you to get out of this ring–I gotcha! You been readin’ about me ever since you were a little boy and now you gonna see me in action. Chump, I’m gonna show you how great I am–I’m gonna eat you up. You don’t stand a chance! You lose the crown tonight!” Foreman claims he was drugged before the fight. Did you see any evidence of that?
George is just a sore loser. The day after the fight, he actually said he was the true champion; he beat me. Then, when he got to Paris, he said the ropes had been too loose. Then, after the ropes were too loose, his next excuse was that the count was too fast. Then it was the canvas–he said it was too soft. Well, it was soft for me, too. Weeks after the fight, he finds out he was drugged? If he was drugged, he’d have knew it the next day. Somebody oughtta ask him just how he was drugged. Did somebody give him a needle? If it was dope, what kind of dope? Excuses! The truth is that the excuses started comin’ as soon as George begain to realize he lost. He couldn’t take losing the championship.
Won’t it make him that much tougher an opponent when and if you fight him again?
Next fight is gonna be easier. George now knows he can be knocked out, so he’ll be more on guard and attackin’ less. But his only chance of winning is to charge and corner me and wham away and hope one or two shots get through my defense. But he’s gun-shy of that, 'cause he tried it–threw everything he had–and all he got was tired. For him to go into that same old bam-bam-bam thing again will mentally destroy him, because the first thing he’s gonna think is. “Uh-oh. I’m going to wear myself out again.” So then he’ll keep more to the center of the ring and do more boxing. And that’s just where I want him. Poppin’ and jabbin’ in the center of the ring is my thing, so now he’s really beat.
The only chance he has to whup me is to stay on me and keep me on the ropes–and he knows that’s bad, 'cause the odds are he’s not gonna hurt me and he’s gonna tire himself out. But if he don’t do that, he’s in more trouble, 'cause I’ll pop away at him with my left. In other words, Foreman’s wrong if he do and wrong if he don’t. The second time around, I’ll beat him 'cause he has no confidence. The first fight. I beat him 'cause he thought he was a big indestructible lion–but George found out the facts of life when we had our rumble in the jungle.
When I think about white people, it’s like there’s 1000 rattlesnakes outside my door and maybe 100 of them want to help me. But they all look alike, so should I open my door and hope that the 100 who want to help will keep the other 900 off me, when only one bite will kill me?
When I think about white people, it’s like there’s 1000 rattlesnakes outside my door and maybe 100 want to help me. But they all look alike, so should I open my door and hope that 100 will keep the other 900 off me, when only one bite will kill me?
Did you like the idea of Zaïre as the fight site?
I wanted my title back so bad I would’ve fought George in a telephone booth. World heavyweight champion, that’s a big title. When you’re the champ, whatever you say or do is news. George would go to Las Vegas and the newspapers are writin’ about it. I turn on the television and there’s George. It was Foreman this and Foreman that, and I was sitting here in my Pennsylvania training camp, thinkin’, “Dadgummit. I really had somethin’. People looked up to me that way.” That really got me down and made me want to win that title bad. Now that I got it back, every day is a sunshiny day: I wake up and I know I’m the heavyweight champion of the world. Whatever restaurant I walk into, whatever park I go to. whatever school I visit, people are sayin’. “The champ’s here!” When I get on a plane, a man is always sayin’ to his little boy, “Son, there goes the heavyweight champion of the world.” Wherever I go, the tab is picked up, people want to see me and the TV wants me for interviews. I can eat all the ice cream, cake, pudding and pie I want to and still get $100,000 for an exhibition. That’s what it means to be champ, and as long as I keep winning, it’ll keep happenin’. So before I fight, I think. “Whuppin’ this man means everything. So many good things are gonna happen if I win I can’t even imagine what they’ll be!”
When I first won the championship from Sonny Liston, I was riding high and I didn’t realize what I had. Now, the second time around, I appreciate the title, and I would’ve gone anywhere in the world to get it back. To be honest, when I first heard the fight would be in Africa, I just hoped it would go off right, being in a country that was supposed to be so undeveloped. Then, when we went down to Zaïre, I saw they’d built a new stadium with lights and that everything would be ready, and I started getting used to the idea and liking it. And the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me, and then one day it just hit me how great it would be to win back my title in Africa. Being in Zaïre opened my eyes.
In what way?
I saw black people running their own country. I saw a black president of a humble black people who have a modern country. There are good roads throughout Zaïre and Kinshasa has a nice downtown section that reminds you of a city in the States. Buildings, restaurants, stores, shopping centers–I could name you 1000 things I saw that made me feel good. When I was in training there before the fight, I’d sit on the riverbank and watch the boats going by and see the 747 jumbo jets flying overhead, and I’d know there were black pilots and black stewardesses in 'em, and it just seemed so nice. In Zaïre, everything was black–from the train drivers and hotel owners to the teachers in the schools and the pictures on the money. It was just like any other society, except it was all black, and because I’m black oriented and a Muslim, I was home there. I’m not home here. I’m trying to make it home, but it’s not.
Because black people in America will never be free so long as they’re on the white man’s land. Look, birds want to be free, tigers want to be free, everything wants to be free. We can’t be free until we get our own land and our own country in North America. When we separate from America and take maybe ten states, then we’ll be free. Free to make our own laws, set our own taxes, have our own courts, our own judges, our own schoolrooms, our own currency, our own passports. And if not here in America, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad said the white man should supply us with the means to let us go back somewhere in Africa and build up our own country. America, rich as it is, was made rich partly through the black man’s labor. It can afford to supply us for 25 years with the means to make our own nation work, and we’ll build it up, too. We can’t be free if we can’t control our own land. I own this training camp, but it ain’t really my land, not when some white lady comes up and gives me a $4000 tax bill to pay if I want to stay here. It I thought the taxes I paid was really going to benefit my people, I wouldn’t mind paying up. But that ain’t what’s happening. Black people need to have their own nation.
Since it’s unlikely they’ll get one carved out of–or paid for by–the U. S., are you pessimistic about America’s future race relations?
America don’t have no future! America’s going to be destroyed! Allah’s going to divinely chastise America! Violence, crimes, earthquakes–there’s gonna be all kinds of trouble. America’s going to pay for all its lynchings and killings of slaves and what it’s done to black people. America’s day is over–and it doesn’t do justice to the black man and separate, it gonna burn! I’m not the leader, so I can’t tell you how the separation will take place or whether it will happen in my lifetime or not, but I believe there’s a divine force that will make it happen. I wish I could make it happen, but I can't–Allah will. It took the white men 500 years after they got here to get this country the way they want it, it took a lot of time and work, and it’s gonna take us time and work. And if it takes 1000 years, well, the world is millions of years old, and 1000 years can be regarded as a day in the history of the world; so according to time, it’s just around the corner. And it’ll happen, because it’s right that black people should have their own nation. God bless the child that has his own–Christians teach that. Well, we don’t have nothin’ that’s our own. If white men decide to close their grocery stores tomorrow, black people will starve to death.
We’re tired of being slaves and never having nothing. We’re tired of being servants and waiting till we die and go to heaven before we get anything. We want something while we’re living. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has passed on physically, but his message is still with us: Muslims will never be satisfied with integration and all the little jobs and promises black people get. We want our own nation. We’re 25,000,000 black people–there’s a lot of Negroes in America, you know? Man, there’s only about 10,000,000 people in Cuba, and when they tell America to stay out, America stays out. They’re just a few million, but they got their own nation and can get away with it. Nigerians and Ghanians have their own country. When I rode through Zaïre and looked at their little flag and watched them doing their little dances, hey, it was their own country. But we’re a whole nation of slaves still in bondage to white people. We worked 300 years to make this country rich and fought for it in the Japanese war, the German war, the Korean war–in all the wars–and we still don’t have nothing! So now, since they don’t need cotton pickers 'cause machines can do it, and since we’re walkin’ the streets and multiplying, and there are no jobs for us–why not separate? Why not say, “OK, slave, we don’t need you no more for picking cotton”?
Aren’t you ignoring the fact that the nation’s universities are now turning out black graduates at what would have seemed an unreachable rate as recently as 15 years ago?
No, 'cause all the white man’s sayin’ now is, “OK, slave, you’re a doctor, you’re a lawyer, you’re a technician. You can do anything today, slave, and you’re the most educated people there is next to white people. Black man, you got your degree.” And there ain’t nothin’ we can’t do. We can build Empire State Buildings, 'cause we got our plumbers, designers, architects, electricians and construction workers. But since we’re in your house, we got no jobs. You say we’re free and you’re not gonna lynch us anymore–but here we are without work, and we’re still not getting along with each other. All right, I believe it, 400 years prove we can’t get along. Fine, thank you, master. Now, will you let us go and build us a house? What’s wrong with us having our own house–our own country? If we had our own nation, the courts would become courts of justice. We wouldn’t have a bunch of blue-eyed while judges lookin’ at us bad and wanting to get us. We wouldn’t have policemen laying back on the highway, waiting for us to do something wrong and stopping every black man they see drivin'a new car. Doesn’t all this make sense? Don’t it sound good? See, this is why Muslims convert people every day. If they was black, even white people would join. We want to be free. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad made us free.
Elijah Muhammad preached that all white men are blue-eyed devils. Do you believe that?
We know that every individual white ain’t devil-hearted, and we got black people who are devils–the worst devils I’ve run into can be my own kind. When I think about white people, it’s like there’s 1000 rattlesnakes outside my door and maybe 100 of them want to help me. But they all look alike, so should I open my door and hope that the 100 who want to help will keep the other 900 off me, when only one bite will kill me? What I’m sayin’ is that if there’s 1000 rattlesnakes out there and 100 of them mean good–I’m still gonna shut my door. I’m gonna say, “I’m sorry, you nice 100 snakes, but you don’t really matter.”
Yeah, every Negro can say, “Oh, here’s a white man who means right.” But if that’s true, where are the 25,000,000 whites standing next to the 25,000,000 blacks? Why can’t you even get 100 of them together who are ready to stand up and fight and maybe even die for black freedom? Hey, we’d look if you did that.
Didn’t white freedom riders of the Sixties–at least four of whom were murdered–demonstrate that many whites were ready to risk their lives for black civil rights?
Look, we been told there’s gonna be whites who help blacks. And we also know there’s gonna be whites who’ll escape Allah’s judgment, who won’t be killed when Allah destroys this country–mainly some Jewish people who really mean right and do right. But we look at the situation as a whole. We have to. OK, think about a white student who’s got long hair and who wants minority people to have something and so he’s against the slave white rule. Well, other whites will beat his behind and maybe even kill him, because they don’t want him helping us. But that doesn’t change what happens to the black man. If white boys get beat up, am I supposed to say, “Oh, some white folks are good. Let’s forget our whole movement and integrate and join up in America”? Yes, a lot of these white students get hurt 'cause they want to help save their country.
But listen, your great-grand-daddy told my great-granddaddy that when my granddaddy got grown, things would be better. Then your granddaddy told my granddaddy that when my daddy was born, things would be better. Your daddy told my daddy that when I got grown, things would be better. But they ain’t. Are you tellin’ me that when my children get grown, things’ll be better for black people in this country?
No, we’re just trying to find out how you honestly feel about whites.
White people are good thinkers, man, but they’re crazy. Whoever makes the commercials shown on Johnny Carson’s TV show and whoever makes all them movies, well, they’re smart, they’re planners and they can rule the world. Mostly 'cause they always got a story to tell. Is Martin Luther King marching and causing trouble? OK, we’ll let the blacks use the public toilets, but let’s make 'em fight six months for it, and while they’re fighting, we’ll make another plan. They wanna come in the supermarket next week? OK, let’s make 'em fight two years for that. Meanwhile, we’re still trying to get into schools in Boston, of all places. I’m telling you, the same men who write movies must be writing these plans. It’s like, OK, the airlines will give jobs to a few black pilots and black stewardesses–but by the time they’re finally hired, white folks are on the moon in spaceships. So black folks stay far behind, so far behind that it’s a shame.
Think of how rich America is: The Government spends more than 300 billion dollars a year to run this country and, meanwhile, black people ain’t even got money to go to the hospital. For a man who’s alive, a man like Muhammad Ali, who’s listened to the wisest black man in America, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the only thing to want is freedom in our own nation. Ain’t nothing you can tell me or show me to match what I’m saying. The only thing the white man can offer me is a job in America–he ain’t gonna offer me no flag, no hospitals, no land, no freedom. But once a man knows what freedom is, he’s not satisfied even being the President of your country. And as Allah is my witness, I’d die today to prove it. If I could be President of the U.S. tomorrow and do what I can to help my people or be in an all-black country of 25,000,000 Negroes and my job would be to put garbage in the truck. I’d be a garbageman. And if that included not just me but also my children and all my seed from now till forever, I’d still rather have the lowest job in a black society than the highest in a white society. If we got our own country, I’d empty trash ahead of being President of the U. S.–or being Muhammad Ali, the champion.
You’ve earned nearly $10,000,000 in fight purses in the past two years alone. Would you really part with all your wealth so easily?
I’d do it in a minute. Last week, I was out taking a ride and I thought, “I’m driving this Rolls-Royce and I got another one in the garage that I hardly ever use that cost $40,000. I got a Senicruiser Greyhouund bus that sleeps 14 and cost $120,000 and another bus that cost $42,000–$162,000 just in mobile homes. My training camp cost $350,000 and I just spent $300,000 remodeling my house in Chicago. I got all that and a lot more.” Well, I was driving down the street and I saw a little black man wrapped in an old coat standing on a corner with his wife and little boy, waiting for a bus to come along–and there I am in my Rolls-Royce. The little boy had holes in his shoes and I started thinkin’ that if he was my little boy, I’d break into tears. And I started crying. Sure, I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.
You think I need to hire all the people I do to help me get in shape? Listen, I can go down to Miami Beach with my cook and my sparring partners and get three hotel rooms and live it up–and I’d save money. I spent $850,000 training for George Foreman, most of it employing the few black people I could. In two months of training for Chuck Wepner, I spent $30,000. I wasn’t doing it for me. See, once you become a Muslim, you want for your brother what you want for yourself. For instance, Kid Gavilan was a black boxing champion who had trouble in Cuba after he retired and he wound up in Miami working in a park. Newspaper reporters used to write stories about it that would embarrass Kid Gavilan and when I heard what he was doing, I thought, “Kid Gavilan ain’t gonna work in no park.” So I found Kid Gavilan and now he works for me, and I pay him a lot better than what he made in the park. Why should I allow one of the world’s greatest black fighters in history to end up workin’ in a park? He’s representing all of us. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave me that.
Man, I think white folks would actually be frightened if they could see a Muslim convention. Not frightened from fear of Muslims bothering you, only that you can see the end of white rule coming when you see 50,000 Muslims together, all clean, all orderly, all dedicated. And the reason for that is because being a Muslim wakes you up to all kinds of things.
Black people in America never used to know that our religion was Islam or that Jesus was a black man–we always made him white. We never knew we were the original people. We thought black was bad luck. We never thought that Africans would own their own countries again and that they were our brothers. God is white, but we never knew that the proper name of God is Allah–and Allah ain’t white. We never even knew our names, because in slavery we were named what our white masters were named. If our master’s name was Robinson, we were Robinson’s property. If they sold you to Jones, you were Jones’s property. And if you were then auctioned off to Mr. Williams, you were Williams’ property. So we got identified by our masters’ names. Well, today there’s no chains on us, yet we still got names like George Washington. But as we wake up, we want our own beautiful names back.
If a black man and woman have their first son, name him somethin’ pretty like Ahad, which means the beginning. A black woman whose name is Constance or Barbara, let her change her name to a black name. Like Rashida or Jamilla. Satina. Alissia. Those are black people’s names you find in Africa and Asia. Black people in America should have those names, too, and lemme show you why. If I say Mr. Chang Chong or Mr. Loo Chin, the name tells you to look for a Chinaman. If I say Mr. Castro or Mr. Gonzales, you look for a Cuban or a Spaniard. If I say Mr. Weinstein or Mr. Goldberg, you look for a Jew. If I say Mr. Morning Star or Mr. Rolling Thunder, you know it’s an Indian. If I say Mr. Mobutu or Mr. Kenyatta, you know it’s an African. But if I say Mr. Green or Mr. Washington or Mr. Jones, the man could be white or black. See, you can identify everybody else by their names but us. And everybody should have their own names, which is what Elijah Muhammad taught us and which is what God taught him. I mean, did you ever hear of a white Englishman named Lumumba? Well, that’s how black Americans feel about English names like Robinson. See how our teaching wakes you up? And not only are our names beautiful, they also have beautiful meanings.
What does your name mean?
Muhammad means worthy of all praises, Ali means the most high. And a lot of brothers today are doing like me and giving up their old slave name and taking new first and last names, nice-soundin’ ones like Hassan Sharif or Kareem Shabazz. Those were our names before we were brought over here and named after George Washington. It’s important we get them back, too, because if black folks don’t know God’s name, which is Allah, or their own name, they’re starting too far behind. So the first step is to get out of that old slave name and start you a new family name–every time I hear about another black family doin’ that, I get happier and happier. And if you know truth when you hear it, then you know how joyful I am to be a Muslim.
Will you assume a place in the Muslim movement when your boxing career is over?
Yes, sir. If I’m blessed to and they allow me, I’m gonna be a minister. I’m goin’ to work with our new spiritual leader, brother Wallace D. Muhammad, son of Eliah Muhammad.
How has Elijah Muhammad’s death affected the Black Muslims?
Naturally, it was saddening, because it’s bad to lose him physically, but if we should lose him in ourselves, that’s worse. So we just have to keep pushing, and we now follow his son, who’s taking up just where his father left off. And we’re 100 percent behind him. We were taught by Elijah Muhammad not to fear or grieve, and we don’t.
What difference did he make in your own life?
He was my Jesus, and I had love for both the man and what he represented. Like Jesus Christ and all of God’s prophets, he represented all good things and, having passed on, he is missed. But prophets never die spiritually, for their words and works live on. Elijah Muhammad was my savior, and everything I have came from him–my thoughts, my efforts to help my people, how I eat, how I talk, my name.
Do you think you could ever lose the faith?
I pray to Allah it don’t happen, but it could. Every day, I say, “Surely I have turned myself to thee, O Allah, trying to be upright to him who has originated the heavens and the earth. Surely my prayers, my sacrifices, my life and my death are all for Allah, the lord of all the world.” That’s the beginning of a long prayer and I say it daily, and sometimes five times a day, to keep myself strong and on the right path. It’s possible that I can lose faith, so I gotta pray, and to keep myself fired up, I gotta talk like I’m talkin’ now. It’s the kind of talk that keeps us Muslims together. And you can tell a bunch of Muslims: no violence, no hate, no cigarettes, no fightin’, no stealin’, all happy. It’s a miracle.
Most Negro places you be in, you see folks fussin’ and cussin’, eatin’ pork chops and women runnin’ around. You’ve seen the peace and unity of my training camp–it’s all Elijah Muhammad’s spirit and his teachings. Black people never acted like this before. If every one of us in camp was just like we were before we heard Elijah Muhammad, you wouldn’t be able to see for all the smoke. You’d hear things like, “Hey, man, what’s happenin’, where’s the ladies? What we gonna drink tonight? Let’s get that music on and party!” And hey, this isn’t an Islamic center. We’re happy today. And we’re better off than if we talked Christianity and said, “Jesus loves you, brother, Jesus died for your sins, accept Jesus Christ.”
You find something wrong with that?
Christianity is a good philosophy if you live it, but it’s controlled by white people who preach it but don’t practice it. They just organize it and use it any which way they want to. If the white man lived Christianity, it would be different: but I tell you. I think it’s against nature for European people to live Christian lives. Their nations were founded on killing, on wars. France, Germany, the bunch of 'em–it’s been one long war ever since they existed. And if they’re not killing each other over there, they’re shooting Indians over here. And if they’re not after the Indians, they’re after the reindeer and every other living thing they can kill, even elephants. It’s always violence and war for Christians. Muslims, though, live their religion–we ain’t hypocrites. We submit entirely to Allah’s will. We don’t eat ham, bacon or pork. We don’t smoke. And everybody knows that we honor our women. You can see our sisters on the street from ten miles away, their white dresses dragging along the ground.
If all the blacks in America became Muslims by the end of the year, what do you think would happen as a result?
President Ford would call our leaders to the White House and negotiate about what states he wants to give us or what country we want to be set up in. Can you imagine 25,000,000 Negroes all feeling the way I do? There’d be nothing you could do with them but let 'em go.
“Let 'em go” doesn’t mean handing over a group of states to Muslim religious leaders.
Maybe, maybe not. You could rope off Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, we could go in there and live, and whites could have passports to come in, do business and leave. Or a mass exodus from America. I wish I can see it before I die. Let me ask you something.
You think I’m as pretty as I used to be? I was so pretty. Somebody took some pictures of me and they’re in an envelope here, so let me stop talking for a few seconds, 'cause I want you to take a look at 'em…
Hey, I’m still pretty! What a wonderful face! Don’t I look good in these pictures? I can see I gotta stay in shape if I want to stay pretty, but that’s so hard. I’ve been fighting for 21 years and just thinkin’ about it makes me tired. I ain’t 22 anymore–I’m 33 and I can’t fight like I did eight or ten years ago. Maybe for a little while, but I can’t keep it up. I used to get in a ring and dance and jump and hop around for the whole 15 rounds. Now I can only do that for five or six, and then I have to slow down and rest for the next two or three rounds. I might jump around again in the 11th and 12th rounds, or I might even go the whole rest of the fight like I used to, but I have to work much more to be able to do it now; weight is harder to get off and it takes more out of me to lose it. That means getting out every day and running a couple of miles, coming into the gym and punching the bags four days a week, and eatin’ the right foods. But I like to eat the wrong foods. I’ll go to a coffee shop and order a stack of pancakes with strawberry preserves, blueberry preserves, whipped cream and butter, and then hit them hot pancakes with that good maple syrup and then drink a cold glass of milk. At dinnertime, I’ll pull into a McDonald’s and order two big double cheeseburgers and a chocolate milk shake–and the next day I weigh ten pounds more.
Some people can eat and not gain weight, but it I just look at food, my belly gets bigger. That’s why, when I’m training, about all I eat is broiled steaks, chicken and fish, fresh vegetables and salads. I don’t even get to see them other things I like.
Are there parts of training you enjoy?
Except for gettin’ up at five or six in the morning and runnin’ for two miles, it’s all work. But I don’t train like other boxers. For instance, I let my sparring partners try to beat up on me about 80 percent of the time. I go on the defense and take a couple of hits to the head and the body, which is good: You gotta condition your body and brain to take those shots, 'cause you’re gonna get hit hard a couple of times in every fight. Meanwhile, I’m not gonna beat up on my sparring partners, because what’s the pleasure in that? Besides, if I kill myself punching at them, it’ll take too much out of me. When you’re fightin’ as much as I have lately, you’re supposed to be boxin’ and doin’ something every day, but I can’t dance and move every day like I should, because my body won’t let me. So I have to stall my way through.
Have you always been so easy on yourself in training?
That’s not being easy, it’s being smart. I pace my training the way I do my fights–just enough to let me win. When I boxed tough but unranked fighters like Jurgen Blin, Rudi Lubbers, Mac Foster and Al “Blue” Lewis, I hardly trained, but I was in shape enough to beat them. You got to realize that after I fought Joe Frazier–who took a lot out of me–for the second time, I had had 15 fights. If I had trained for all 15 the way I trained for Frazier, I wouldn’t be here today, 'cause I’d have killed myself. So instead of being all worn out for that second fight, I was able to come back and beat Frazier. The second time with Norton, I almost killed myself training, but that turned out to be right, because I had something left at the end of that fight. For George Foreman, I did kill myself. But I didn’t have to do that for Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle or Joe Bugner, because they’re not the same quality. So nobody should worry about how I train or tell me to train differently, for I’m the master of my craft.
The main thing is to watch my performance on fight night, that’s the only thing that counts. When the money is on the table and my title is on the line, I always come through.
How much longer do you intend to defend your title?
I’d like to give up the championship and retire today, but there’s too many things I’ve got to do. We’re taught that every Muslim has a burden to do as much as he can to help black people. Well, my burden is real big, for I’m the heavyweight champion and the most famous black man on the whole planet, so I got to do a whole lot. That’s why I just bought a shopping center in a black part of Cleveland, Ohio, for $500,000. It’s got room for 40 stores and we’ll rent them out for just enough money to pay the upkeep and taxes–I’m not looking to make a quarter off it. That’s gonna create jobs for black people. I’m also buying an A&P supermarket in Atlanta that will employ 150 black people. Then I’m going down to Miami, Florida, which doesn’t have one nice, plush restaurant for black people; I’m goin’ to get one built.
You know, there used to be a sign along Miami Beach that said, “No Jews Allowed.” Well, the Jews got mad, united and bought up the whole damn beach. That’s what we got to start doin'–uniting and pooling our money–and I hope to get black celebrities and millionaires behind me, because the Muslim movement is the only one that’s really going to get our people together. I may be just one little black man with a talent for fightin’, but I’m going to perform miracles. When black people with money see what I can do with my pennies, they’ll begin to see what can be done with their millions. My big contribution is goin’ to come after the next Foreman fight. I might get $10,000,000 for fighting George again, and out of that I’ll give the Government its $5,000,000 in tax, I’ll put aside $1,000,000 for myself and spread the other $4,000,000 around. With that kind of money, we can make a lot of this country’s black neighborhoods bloom, which will show that Allah is surely with me and my Muslim brothers. For we can change things. Look at our restaurants and buildings along Lenox Avenue in Harlem and you know we’re not just jivin’.
The $4,000,000 I’ll invest in my people after the Foreman fight will be the start of making every ghetto in America beautiful, and you’ll be able to see where that money went. The Government says it spends billions in the ghettos–but we can’t see where the money goes. People might read all this and say it’s easy to talk, but I’m not just talkin’. You watch: I’m goin’ to spend the next five years of my life takin’ my fight money and settin’ up businesses for the brothers to operate. That’s the only reason why I’ll hold on to my title.
Since you’ve already told us that age has been steadily eroding your skills, what makes you think you’ll still be champion when you’re 38?
Hey, Jersey Joe Walcott won his title when he was 37. Sugar Ray Robinson fought till he was in his 40s and Archie Moore went until he was 51.
At which point you took him apart with ease. Would you want to wind up your career the same way?
Archie didn’t end up hurt and he’s still intelligent–in spite of thinking Foreman could beat me. Going five more years don’t mean going till I’m 51, and I can do it just by slowing down my style. You also got to remember I spent three and a half years in exile, when they took away my title because I wouldn’t be drafted. That’s three and a half years less of tusslin’, trainin’ and fightin’, and if not for all that rest, I don’t think I’d be in the same shape I am today. Because of my age, I don’t have all of those three and a half years coming to me, but I have some of them.
Was that period of enforced idleness a bitter part of your life?
I wasn’t bitter at all. I had a good time speaking at colleges and meeting the students–whites, blacks and all kinds, but mainly whites, who supported me a hundred percent. They were as much against the Vietnam war as I was. In the meantime, I was enjoying everything I was doin’. As a speaker, I was makin’ $1500 and $2500 at every stop, and I was averaging $5000 a week, so I had money in my pocket. I was also puttin’ pressure on the boxing authorities. I’d walk into fight arenas where contenders for my title were boxing and I’d interrupt everything, because I wanted to show everybody that I was still the Man. The people would jump up and cheer for me and the word soon got out that the authorities would have to reckon with me.
When I won the Supreme Court decision and they had to let me go back to work, a lot of people came around saying, “Why don’t you sue the boxing commission for unjustly taking your title away?” Well, they only did what they thought was right and there was no need for me to try to punish them for that. It’s just too bad they didn’t recognize that I was sincere in doing what I thought was right at the time.
Did you receive a lot of hate mail during those years?
Only about one out of every 300 letters. And I kinda liked those, so I put 'em all away in a box. When I’m 90 years old, they’ll be something to show my great-grandson. I’ll tell him, “Boy, here’s a letter your great-granddaddy got when he fought the draft way back when they had wars.” Anyway, there’s good and bad in every race. People got their own opinions and they free to talk.
Considering your feelings about white America, did it surprise you that so many whites agreed with your stand against the draft?
Yes, it did. I figured it would be worse and that I’d meet with a lot more hostility, but that didn’t happen. See, that war wasn’t like World War Two or like America being attacked. I actually had a lot going for me at the time: The country was halfway against it, the youth was against it and the world was saying to America, “Get out.” And there I was, among people who are slaves and who are oppressed by whites. I also had a platform, because the Muslim religion and the Koran preaches against such wars. I would’ve caught much more hell if America was in a declared war and I didn’t go.
Would you have served if America had been in a declared war?
The way I feel, if America was attacked and some foreign force was prowling the streets and shooting, naturally I’d fight. I’m on the side of America, not them, because I’m fighting for myself, my children and my people. Whatever foreigners would come in, if they saw some black people with rifles, I’m sure they’d start shooting. So, yeah, I’d fight if America was attacked.
When you returned to the ring in 1970, most boxing observers felt you’d lost a good deal of your speed and timing. Did you think so?
Nope, I thought I was about the same, maybe even better. My first bout when I came back was with Jerry Quarry, who I’d fought before. It was the strangest thing, but when I watched films of the first Quarry fight, I looked fast; yet when I looked at the second Quarry fight I was superfast. Then, after I lost to Frazier, I studied the films and even though I wasn’t in great shape and clowned a lot, look at how sharp I was, how much I hit Joe. Anyway, you saw what Foreman did to Frazier and then what I did to Foreman, so what could I have lost by resting for three and a half years? Couldn’t be much, could it? That’s why I can stay champ for a long time, and if I fight just twice a year, my title can’t be taken away. And those’ll be big, big fights worth at least $5,000,000 apiece. That’s $10,000,000 a year for five years, which means I’ll split $50,000,000 with the Government. I’ll wind up with $25,000,000 after taxes. Whew!
That kind of money wasn’t around when you began boxing professionally. Are you ever astonished by the fact that you can make $5,000,000 in the course of an hour?
No, and when I leave boxing, there will never be that kind of money for fighters again. I can get $5,000,000 or $7,500,000 a fight because I got a world audience. The people who are puttin’ up that money are the richest people in the world–black oilmen. It was a rich black man who paid me and George Foreman, and he did it because he wanted some publicity for his little country, and he got it.
For 15 years after the white Belgians had to get out of there, no one–including me–ever heard of Zaïre. No one knew it was a country of more than 22,000,000 people, but now we do. I just got offered $7,500,000 to fight Foreman in Djakarta, Indonesia, by a black oilman who wants to promote his country. How to do it? Call Muhammad Ali over and have him fight for the title and the world will read about where he’s fighting. But after I’m out of boxing and the title goes back to a fighter like a George Foreman or any good American, title fights won’t travel no further than America and England. And that’ll be the end of the big, big money.
Do you think you’ll miss boxing when you finally retire?
No, because I realize you got to get old. Buildings get old, people get old and we’re all goin’ to die. See the fat I have around my stomach? Ten years ago, it would come off in two weeks, but not anymore. I can’t exactly feel myself getting old, but I ain’t like I was ten years ago, so time equips me to face the facts of life. When I get to be 50, I won’t really miss boxing at all, because I’ll know I can’t do it anymore. But when I quit, I sure ain’t goin’ out like the old-time fighters. You ain’t gonna hear it said about me that when I was champ I bought me a Cadillac, had me a couple of white girls on my arm, and that when I retired I went broke. You’ll never read articles about me that say, “Poor Muhammad Ali, he made so much money and now he’s working in a car wash.” No, sir.
Will you continue to associate yourself with boxing after you retire?
I don’t think so. I’m the champion right now and I can’t even find time for training because of other things. I talk to Senators like John Tunney of California, and black bourgeois Congressmen who like to act so big, and black doctors and lawyers who have white friends and who no longer want to be black–and who act like they’re too good for any of the brothers. I can always say to them, “Why do you-all act like this? I don’t act like that, and you can’t get no bigger than Muhammad Ali.” That’s the truth, too. I was over in Ireland and had dinner with Jack Lynch, the prime minister. I was in Cairo and stayed at Sadat’s palace for two days. I wined and dined with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. I might not’ve been that happy around all of those leaders, but people who look up to them see them looking up to me. Now when I bring my program down, they’ll listen. See, you got to have something going in front for you. A smart fella might go down the street, but if people look at him and think, “Oh, just an ordinary fella,” he won’t get things done. But when a guy in a Rolls-Royce drives up and says, “Hey, I want to make a deal,” people will talk money with him. Same thing with me: My money and my title give me influence.
And I also have something to say. You notice that when we talk, 85 percent of our conversation is away from boxing? Interview some other fighters and see what they can talk about: nothing. We couldn’t talk this long–you couldn’t listen this long–if we just talked boxing.
Agreed; but let’s stick with that 15 percent a bit longer. Many people believe that after you retire, boxing will disappear in America. Do you believe that?
Boxing will never die. There will always be boxing in schools and clubs, and the fight crowd will always follow the pros. And every once in a while, a sensational fighter will come through.
As sensational as yourself?
Physically, maybe, but not in the way I’m known world-wide. I just don’t think another fighter will ever be followed by people in every country on the planet. You can go to Japan, China, all the European, African, Arab and South American countries and, man, they know me. I can’t name a country where they don’t know me. If another fighter’s goin’ to be that big, he’s goin’ to have to be a Muslim, or else he won’t get to nations like Indonesia, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey–those are all countries that don’t usually follow boxing. He might even have to be named Muhammad, because Muhammad is the most common name in the world. There are more Muhammads than there are Williamses, Joneses, Ecksteins, Smiths or anything else on earth. And he’s also gonna have to say the name Allah a lot, can’t say God. I know that God is the Supreme Being, but Allah is the name used most on the planet. More people pray to Allah than to Jehovah, Jesus or just plain Lord, 'cause there are about 11 Muslims in the world to every non-Muslim.
But he’s got to have the personality, too, because just being a Muslim champ won’t make it. My corn, the gimmicks, the acting I do–it’ll take a whole lot for another fighter to ever be as popular as Muhammad Ali.
You once said that you act all the time. Where does your act begin and where does it end?
The acting begins when I’m working. Before a fight, I’ll try to have something funny to say every day and I’ll talk ten miles a minute. Like before the Chuck Wepner fight, I was tellin’ reporters all kinds of things.
Care to give us a small sampling?
All right: “If Chuck Wepner becomes the only white man ever to beat the arrogant Muhammad Ali, he will be America’s greatest hero! He will make White Tornado commercials and go on Gunsmoke, but for him this fight is really Mission: Impossible! Wepner has a strong will–and if the will is great, the will can overpower the skill! I understand Wepner had a meeting with the Ku Klux Klan and they told him to whup this nigger!” That’s acting, and it ends when I get into the ring.
There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win–especially the second Norton and Frazier fights and the Foreman fight. I was left for dead before the second Norton fight, because my jaw had been broken the first time out. One loss to Frazier and Sports Illustrated ran a headline on its cover saying “End of the all Legend.” And I was also left for dead against Foreman, who was supposed to be the toughest champ of all time. You know, I once read something that said, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Well, boxing is a risk and life is a gamble, and I got to take both.
With the possible exceptions of a few of our politicians, you’re probably the most publicized American of this century. What kinds of problems does fame on such a grand scale create?
None. It’s a blessing if you use publicity for the right thing, and I use it to help my brothers and to promote truth around the world. It’s still an honor for me to talk to TV reporters who come all the way from Germany and Australia just to interview me. And when we’re talking, I don’t see a man from Germany, I see millions of Germans. The reporter will go back home and show his film to his entire nation, which keeps me popular and sells fight tickets, which is how I earn my living–and also how I can keep buying up buildings for my people. That’s why talkin’ so much don’t bother me, but I’ll be bothered when the reporters quit coming around, because on that day I’ll realize I’m not newsworthy anymore, and that’s when it all ends. So I enjoy it while it’s happening.
Do you enjoy being mobbed by autograph seekers as well?
Most of the time, it’s OK with me, because service to others is the rent I pay for my room on earth. See, when you become spiritual and religious, you realize that you’re not big and great, only Allah is. You can’t hurt people’s feelings just because you’re up there. When I was younger, Sugar Ray Robinson did that to me, and I didn’t like it at all.
I was on my way to fight in the Rome Olympics, and I stopped by a night club in Harlem, because Sugar Ray–my idol, everybody’s idol–was there. I’d watched all his fight films and I just wanted to see him and touch him. I waited outside for him to leave that club and I was hoping he’d talk to me and maybe give me his autograph. But he didn’t do it and I was so hurt. If Sugar Ray only knew how much I loved him and how long I’d been following him, maybe he wouldn’t have done that. Man, I’ll never forget how bad I felt when he turned me down. Sugar Ray said, “Hello kid, how ya’ doin’? I ain’t got time,” and then got into his car and took off. I said to myself right then, “If I ever get great and famous and people want my autograph enough to wait all day to see me, I’m sure goin’ to treat 'em different.”
Still, aren’t there times when living in the public eye becomes slightly unbearable?
Yeah, and when that happens, I get into my bus, stock up on food and take my wife and four children and drive somewhere near the ocean and just rest for four or five days. My real pleasure is having no appointments, but that hardly ever happens. There’s always people I gotta talk to, business deals I gotta think about, telephones that are always ringing and road work and time in the gym that I gotta take care of. There’s always something I have to do, but I guess we’re all busy in our own ways. I’m sure President Ford has a bigger job than all of us. Like any big man–a spiritual leader like Wallace D. Muhammad, a politician, a president of a college–he’s in prison.
Same thing with me, because I’m a heavyweight champion who represents not only boxing but many, many other things that boxers can’t even speak of. Therefore, I always have a deskful of stuff, piles and piles of letters and projects that no other boxer would be literate enough to even imagine handling. The times when it all gets me down, I just want to get away–from the commercials and TV and college appearances and airline flights and friends asking for loans and people begging for money that they need. I don’t like to do it, but I wind up ducking: “When the phone rings, tell 'em I’m not here.” It never lets up, so if I can just get away for a day every once in a while, I’m happy. Yet I don’t let that stuff get me too bothered, because I have only one cause–the Islamic cause–and my mission is to spread the works and faith that Elijah Muhammad taught me.
Does your claim of being the greatest mean that you think you could have beaten every heavyweight champion in modern ring history?
I can’t really say. Rocky Marciano, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles–they all would have given me trouble. I can’t know if I would’ve beaten them all, but I do know this: I’m the most talked-about, the most publicized, the most famous and the most colorful fighter in history. And I’m the fastest heavyweight–with feet and hands–who ever lived. Besides all that, I’m the only poet laureate boxing’s ever had. One other thing, too: If you look at pictures of all the former champions, you know in a flash that I’m the best-looking champion in history. It all adds up to being the greatest, don’t it?
Do you think you’ll be remembered that way?
I don’t know, but I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could–financially and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t hurt his people’s dignity by doing anything that would embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.