A new book about the life of Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali: Unfiltered, gives readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the legendary athlete’s greatest achievements. It also captures some of his most vulnerable moments — ranging from his Olympic experience, to his work as an activist, to his relationship with his family.
The book, published in October by Jeter Publishing and Simon & Schuster, includes a foreword and eulogy by Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali. For the latest edition of Life Out Loud, she sat down to look at photos from the volume, and to offer new insights on Ali’s life through her own stories and memories.
The image that I’m looking at is Muhammad going through his U.S. Olympic duffle. I’m assuming this was either taken right before he left to go to the Olympics, or probably while he was there. I think this was one of Muhammad’s first airplane flights, so I know how frightened he was, but he’s so interested in what’s in this bag. There’s a photograph of him and his teammates on the Olympic boxing team at that time in the ’60s — 1960 to be specific. He was on his way to Rome.
What’s interesting is that he almost didn’t make it there because of his fear of flying. Dick Schaap, who met Muhammad way back then, had to talk to Muhammad and convince him this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Muhammad wanted to take a ship over. He said, “No, you can’t do that,” and Dick convinced him to get on that plane. That’s how far Muhammad and Dick Schaap went back. You can just see the youth in his face and the excitement of being a part of the U.S. Olympic team.
That’s where his public life began. In fact, believe it or not, a couple of his friends that he had on the team — one of them lived in Muskegon, Michigan, near us when we lived in Berrien Springs — he would tell me that Muhammad could have been the mayor of the Olympic Village. And he just didn’t mean among the boxing team, he meant the whole village. His name was Phil Baldwin, he was one of the boxers. Muhammad just had that charisma. It was just obvious.
This next photo is Muhammad sitting on a cache of logs that look like they were freshly cut up at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. This was during his boxing years. Deer Lake was on top of a mountain. Literally on top of a mountain. And of course it was wooded. Muhammad would go out as part of his training and cut down, by hand, trees that he was trying to clear off the land. He would use that as part of his training — swinging that axe to cut down these logs. I don’t know if he particularly cut these down, because they look pretty even, but I can just see the way he’s sitting on top of these logs. It’s probably Muhammad seeing if he could get up there and not have those logs roll down. Seriously, he was that kind of a person. It was the challenge to see if he could do it. He’s just sitting there calmly, but he got up there without having those logs roll down. It’s a very pensive picture of Muhammad by himself.
This was taken in Miami. It’s with Malcolm X. Malcolm X is photographing Muhammad at a lunch counter. He’s surrounded by lots of admiring men.
Muhammad’s brother Rahman was the one who originally became interested in the Nation of Islam. During their time in Miami, Rahman had heard one of the ministers speaking and he got Muhammad to come listen. It was not so much the religious end of it that attracted him, it was the social end of it. It spoke to social justice and the inequality that existed in society, but it was also the philosophy of, “Stop being dependent, learn to be independent,” which you know Muhammad believed in anyway. I think that was part of the attraction. And of course Malcolm was one of the ministers. He’s not the minister Muhammad originally went to see speak, but after listening to Malcolm I’m sure Muhammad was convinced.
I could just see Malcolm’s admiration for this young bombastic kid, who I know he greatly admired.
And I know Malcolm saw the potential in Muhammad.
The next photo is iconic. It’s interesting to see Muhammad next to Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This was the group that Jim Brown put together of these famous athletes who lent support to Muhammad in his stance against the draft to go to Vietnam.
What’s really funny is Muhammad was a pretty tall guy — he’s 6′ 3″. But these guys tower over Muhammad. He’s actually looking up at Bill Russell. And of course you gotta look up at Kareem, but they are all so very young here. All so very young. They wanted to support Muhammad, if he was sincere, and he really believed what he was doing was correct. And they were convinced that he was sincere, so they all backed him. I don’t know at what cost. It may have jeopardized their careers, but they were willing to put all of that on the line for him. Something that he never forgot.
The next photo is Muhammad in a classroom. Probably where he was most comfortable — with children. Probably telling this child that he can be whoever he wants to be. He can be great too. It’s obvious from this photograph that it’s a segregated classroom. It’s all black. Muhammad would do this on occasion. He would just walk into a school. Who’s going to tell him, No, you can’t? That was just who he was. If he happened to be walking along and see a school, he’d say, “Let me walk in here.” He liked to shake things up. He liked to surprise people and make them happy. Obviously these kids knew who he was. Muhammad is in there at the head of the class, doing what he always did: holding court, per se.
The next photo is of Muhammad with the Dalai Lama, which was a very, very special moment for him. He traveled to Bloomington — I remember this very well — to meet with the Dalai Lama. At the core these men were very much alike because they both were men of peace. Even though Muhammad was a pugilist, he did not like war. He did not like hurting other people. Muhammad loved everybody. Regardless. That is the Dalai Lama’s philosophy too. His Buddhist religion instructs him in the same way.
In the next photo we have a picture of Muhammad with the Reverend Martin Luther King. It’s coupled with a telegram that Muhammad sent to him when Martin Luther King was in jail. It said, “I hope that you are comfortable and not suffering.” Even though Muhammad was not out on the protest lines like the Reverend Martin Luther King was, he definitely was part of the struggle. I think that was basically Muhammad’s fight — to find equality for everybody. Women included.
This is hilarious. It’s Maryum and she must be two. Maryum and Muhammad are trying to feed the twins, Rasheda and Jamillah, who look like they are probably a couple of months old, if that. Muhammad has a bottle and he’s probably trying to tell Maryum about how to feed them.
I remember when I was little, Muhammad came to Louisville by himself with both twins and no one else. They were about 2½, three years old. And I thought, “How is he doing this?” Because it was odd to see. Usually, it was traditional. Muhammad was sort of a traditional person. It wasn’t the mother with them, it was Muhammad with them. Muhammad was like that. He’d always gather up his kids and take them wherever he was, or welcome them wherever he was. He had no problems putting them in the car by himself, taking them wherever. He just thoroughly loved kids, and he adored his own kids, of course. It was interesting that he would take this upon himself to take this journey to come visit his mom and bring the twins with him alone. I’m 15 years younger than Muhammad. I had to end up doing some babysitting, but it was fun.
The next picture is of Muhammad with his youngest, Laila, during her boxing career. Laila sort of broke new ground when she went into the boxing ring. He was very frightened for her. It scared me too, because I didn’t know how he would react if she got hit. When her first fight came about, it was in upstate New York. I didn’t know how Muhammad was going to take it. This was his baby. This was his baby girl. If she got hit, we didn’t know how Laila would do in the boxing ring. I was very frightened for her. I really was.
Laila was such a professional. She’s so much like her father. She never went into that ring half prepared. I know they had many talks about this. He realized that Laila had a good head on her shoulders. It wasn’t something she was playing around with. She was being very serious. She was training correctly. She had the right people around her. Her nutrition was good. She knew what she was doing.
It was interesting to watch that transition for him, because they would butt heads. To watch him watch her break new ground — just the way he did — Muhammad was extremely proud of her. Very, very proud of what she was accomplishing.
The next photo is of Muhammad in family settings with the kids. There’s a picture of Hana and Laila, who were so adorable when they were little — probably two and three. They were a handful too. They got to be with their dad much more than the other kids because he wasn’t on the road going to training camp and boxing and all of that. So they got to spend a lot of time with their dad. They were in his home office all the time with him. This was typical Muhammad — surrounded by people all the time. There’s another photo here of Hana and Laila grown up. Probably in their mid-20s. It looks like it was at a filming of Ali, with Will Smith. It’s interesting to see how they have grown up.
This is a photo of Muhammad’s oldest and dearest friend, Howard Bingham, who met Muhammad when he was photographing him for the L.A. Sentinel, which was a black newspaper. He was assigned to go take some photos of Muhammad at a weigh-in in Los Angeles, where Howard lived and Muhammad was preparing for the fight with Kenny Norton. Howard was tooling around downtown L.A. after that and happened to see Muhammad and his brother standing on a street corner, pulled over, asked them if they wanted a ride and they got in. The rest is history. They go way back. It’s like they were two peas in a pod because they both had similar personalities. Everybody loved Howard. Everybody loved Muhammad.
I remember we’d go places — Howard used to travel with us a lot. When I walked in the door people would say, “Where’s Howard?” And I’d say, “What is this? Why is everybody looking for Howard?” But it was so funny because they were always together. What one didn’t think of, the other did.
This photo is Muhammad at the Walk of Fame. It was quite an honor. Muhammad wasn’t a movie star, but he thought he was.
Usually people get down and put their hands in the concrete, but Muhammad had one requirement: He did not want his tile to be on the ground for people to walk on his name. Therefore his is the only one that sits up on a wall right at the Walk of Fame.
The last photos are of Muhammad with Pelé. They were two athletes that came on the public scene about the same time. Pelé was a great soccer player, and he had such respect for Muhammad. In fact, up until the time Muhammad died, Pelé would call — they would FaceTime. They remained friends through the years.
There’s the picture of Muhammad with [U.S.] Senator Barack Obama, at the time. He’s now President Barack Obama. We were so fortunate to have him stop through the Ali center in Louisville when he was making one of his campaign swings through the state, running for president. Muhammad was so elated. Actually Muhammad had met Barack a few years before at a fundraiser when he was still a state senator, I think. Muhammad was so proud of him. So proud of him.
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