New Again: Muhammad Ali
In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present.
Today is St. Stephen’s Day, or Boxing Day, a national holiday in the UK. As we couldn’t think of anyone interesting named Stephen (kidding, Stephen Hawking and Dorff are both great in their own ways), we decided to commemorate December 26 by reprinting an interview from our archives with the world’s “greatest” boxer, Muhammad Ali. In the interview below, Ali discusses religion, fame, naming children, and the place of women in society, and shamlessly flirts with his interviewer, Daniela Morera. It is August of 1977, Ali is nearing the end of his boxing career and has just married his third wife, Veronica Porsche Ali. The boxer begins the interview reticent and sullen, but ends it on a decidedly more animated, if offensive, note.
Muhammad Ali, the most popular human being on earth, has been proclaimed the man with the most sex-appeal in the world. On March 8th, 1971, before the fight with Joe Frazier, he pronounced the famous sentence, “I’m The Greatest.” Ali has five children, he is a black hero, the most famous promoter and defender of the faith of Islam. Many crowds follow this legendary personality not really to acclaim his celebrity but to communicate the profound belief that they feel for this prophetic man. The elements of religion are the main ingredients in his existence and it is through religion that he creates the very special relationship with the crowds.
He was in NY recently for a few days to promote the movie The Greatest, the story of his extraordinary life. There is a journalist line that has been waiting for two years to interview him. A much bigger group of hundreds of fans always waits outside his hotel to follow him, to touch his hands, to ask for an autograph. When you talk to Ali, you always use words like greatest, prettiest, most famous, richest, extraordinary, strongest…
I go to the hotel suite where he is staying with an entourage of about ten people. We enter. In the first room there are a few men, all of them tall, strong. We go to the living room where a journalist is saying good-bye to John Marshall, the perfect, English accented producer. Ali comes in: he is big, handsome, tired. He rubs his face with his marvelous, sophisticated hands.
DANIELA MORERA: I think I want to call this story ‘Talking to Superman.” What does it mean to be a superman? How do you feel?
MUHAMMAD ALI: I don’t know. I’m not a superman.
MORERA: But you are The Greatest.
ALI: The Greatest, but only in relation to fighting.
MORERA: I know that you are interested in many other things like poetry.
ALI: Yes, sometimes. Ehi! People, come on, come here [calling his friends who are in the next room waiting] Please call John. What is all that about? They are now talking to me about poetry. [Until now his voice is slow, quiet, almost dragging, bored.] Wasn’t I supposed to talk about the movie? [still tired]
MORERA: Please, don’t get nervous. It’s so difficult to have an interview with you that at this point I can accept anything, on the condition that you talk. You can talk about anything you like. I’m going to leave the recorder here on the table and you can say anything.
ALI: I want to talk only about the movie.
MORERA: Mr. Marshall, don’t worry. We want to make a big story on him, for The Greatest!
JOHN MARSHALL: Please go ahead.
MORERA: I don’t want to disturb you. That’s the last thing I have in my mind. This has been your first movie, right?
ALI: Before they did a couple of documentaries on my life. I’m tired, always questions.
MORERA: I’m sorry. I hate to come and be so aggressive when you are trying to relax. It would have been much better if you would have met me in a different situation, perhaps you would have liked me better. Let’s try to help each other, or do you prefer that I go?
ALI: No, no, I’ll talk to you.
MORERA: How many interviews do you have ever day?
ALI: For 14 years they haven’t stopped interviewing me in every town, every country I go.
MORERA: You must hate that.
[Moving his hands towards me, pretending to fight. He is starting to smile, to play, his eyes are starting to open, they look at me.]
MORERA: No please! I’m not strong enough. It would be such a miserable fight! My dear, you can kill me in one second.
ALI: Which part of Italy are you from?
MORERA: From Rome, but I don’t live over there anymore.
ALI: I’ve been to Rome, Milan, and Genoa. Christopher Columbus’ house is in Genoa. You were a little kid when I won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rome.
MORERA: How old are you?
MORERA: I thought you were like Jesus Christ. What do you do for your beauty, for your body?
[Amused, doing the imitation of a funny girl]
ALI: If I tell you everything you would be very surprised! Ehi, John, are we going to Italy?
MARSHALL: Yes, in August. First we have the opening in London, on August 11th with the Royal family, a big party and second we go to Rome, Milan, Copenhagen…
MORERA: Such a pity. I’m not going to be in Italy in that period.
ALI: We cannot invite you then…
MORERA: How come you wanted to make this movie? For the money, the new experience, or to become even more famous?
ALI: A little bit of everything. But absolutely not for the fame. Sometimes I would like to go quietly in the streets by myself and go to the restaurant without being bothered.
MORERA: I saw you last night on 6th Ave. There were thousands of people. You couldn’t even walk. People love you. They were asking to touch your hands and to ask for autographs. And you were alone, with all your powerful body exposed to the mercy of it all: Isn’t that dangerous? Don’t you go around with bodyguards?
ALI: Never, I always have friends with me, I’m the greatest fighter in the entire world, how can I be afraid? I love people and people love me.
[A door opens: tall, very beautiful with her hair combed to one side in a tail, wearing pants and a T-shirt, Veronica appears.]
VERONICA PORSCHE: Please let me change this check.
ALI: This is Veronica, this is Daniela, Italian. John, this check.
MORERA: How do you do? Veronica is so beautiful!
[The door closes. Another friend comes into the room.]
FRIEND: Do you need anything? Are you okay? [Talking to Ali]
MORERA: But if your friends want to stay here, if they want to talk with you, please…
ALI: O.K. Anywhere I go there is always an incredible crowd that follows me. In Rome as I land at the airport even the men kiss me. I love Rome.
MORERA: I understand that your privacy is troubled by your popularity, but I think that to be on TV and to see your portrait on magazine covers doesn’t bother you.
ALI: Only for one reason. I need to be famous so I can talk about religion. I can talk about God. It’s an expensive price that I have to pay to be the most famous man on earth and I do it with pleasure only for God. My fight is only and introduction to the real fight, the one for God. Fighting by itself doesn’t interest me anymore. I want to help people, the black people and I need any kind of media to spread my thought: God, charity, peace.
MORERA: I know you are very much into religion. You are a great promoter for the Islam. When did you start all of this? When did you change your name?
ALI: All black Americans have slave names. They have white names; names that the slave master has given to them. You are an Italian and you have got an Italian name that fits your culture as do the Chinese and the Arabians. The Cubans have got Spanish names but the black Americans have got European names. Cassius Clay is a name that white people gave to my slave master. Now that I am free, that I don’t belong to anymore to anyone, that I’m not a slave anymore, I gave back their white name and I chose a beautiful African one.
MORERA: Did you choose it by yourself?
ALI: No, Elijah Muhammad, the American Muslims’ leader, chose it for me.
MORERA: What is the meaning?
ALI: Muhammad is the most common name in the world and it means “worthy of all praises” and Ali “the most high,” such a beautiful name! While Clay means “dirty with no ingredients”—these American names have no meanings; Mr. Smith, Mr. Fish, they mean nothing. Hannah, my little daughter, means “happiness and peace of mind.” Jamillah, another daughter, a very pretty girl, five years old, means “beautiful.” We have very pretty names with good meanings.
MORERA: Did you discover your African roots?
ALI: No, I don’t have enough time for that. All of us are so mixed. My great-grandfather was white.
MORERA: We forgot completely to talk about your movie. How has been your first experience as an actor?
ALI: I’ve been acting for 20 years, all over the world, all my life.
MORERA: Of course, but isn’t it different for a movie?
ALI: I’ve got good reviews!
MORERA: You were great! Can you say how much money you have got for the film?
ALI: 33% of whatever it makes. 10% is already a lot, the maximum for the others, but I’ve got the 33. Half a million to sign the contract; it’s the first time in history. My manager is very wise. He gets more money than anybody else; 12 million dollars for one fight!
MORERA: What’s happening next?
ALI: Who knows? I said 10 times that I was going to retire and I’m still here, so who knows the next surprise?
MORERA: Do you change your mind very often? Are you moody?
ALI: Ah, I know very well what I want. I change things according to the circumstance.
MORERA: I’m sure you like to be wealthy, to have all this money around.
ALI: Only to give it away. For charity, for children, old-folks’ homes. Last year I gave 100,000 dollars to a Jewish home.
MORERA: How come Jewish?
ALI: We are all God’s people. We are prejudiced and we separate into Jews, Mexicans, Italians, but God doesn’t see colors. God knows that my purposes are helpful.
MORERA: You like luxury cars, anyway, like your famous cars, for instance.
ALI: I’ve got two Rolls-Royce, one Lamborghini, two Maserati, two Eldorado-Cadillacs, a mobile-home Greyhound bus, two airplanes, 180 acre farm, cattle in Pennsylvania. In Washington D.C. I’ve got 12 million in real estate, 6 million tax-free government bonds. I gave a furnished house to my mother, and another one to my grandmother. I don’t know how many millions I’ll make this year, so I have to give some back to charity. God blesses me with the money, but only if I give some away.
MORERA: Do you live in Chicago?
ALI: I live in a house that costs 800,000 dollars.
MORERA: Do you have enough time to see your children?
ALI: Not enough, unfortunately, I suffer for that.
MORERA: But all the children have a special love for you. How come?
ALI: Because children and animals live by instinct, and they understand immediately the falseness and reject it, while they find in me a real friend. I take them as an example to talk to my brothers. I think that one of the main problems of the black man is to give more love and protection to his children. I always say, pointing to the kids, “Here is the future of our race!”
MORERA: A man so busy like you, how and when can he have fun?
ALI: I have fun only when I got to the Mosque and I see people from Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Mali, Kenya, Indonesia, Zambia; all of them down in the floor to pray. My “fun” is to thank the Lord for my health, my feelings, my children who are beautiful and healthy, my parents who are still alive… my happiness is this; it isn’t going dancing or to the theater. To go to bed early in the evening and wake up in the middle of the night when there are no cars, no pollution—I take a shower, I brush my teeth and I go to the park breathing deeply. The fresh air, with out anyone around, just myself and nature. Then I feel happy.
[Veronica opens the door again and whispers to Muhammad.]
ALI: Oh!!! [smiling] Hannah is walking. My daughter is walking. We left Chicago two days ago and she [his little daughter is only nine months old] couldn’t walk. Now Veronica called the house and the maid said that she walks. [to Veronica] Give me a kiss.
[Suddenly a romantic music penetrates from the other room, such a sweet vision!]
MORERA: Do you mind to change and put on your dark suit, with the white shirt and the tie? I always see you dressed in a very traditional style with perfect suits. Are they made to order?
ALI: I’m not into fashion at all. I always wear the same thing: dark suits. I don’t even know where I get them. I know that the pants always need to be fixed because they are too big. I travel all the time and I need to be very easy. I take one dark suit that doesn’t need to be pressed and some white shirts. I change the shirt and the suit is alas the same for days and days.
MORERA: You don’t even wear jewels like all your friends here.
ALI: I don’t like jewels. The more spiritual I get, less I care about material values. “The closer I’m drawn to God, the more things of earth lose their color and taste.” Someone very important wrote this.
MORERA: The entire world would need to become more spiritual, especially this country.
ALI: America is the most immoral, corrupt, and dirty country in the world.
MORERA: But you like it?
ALI: Not on the evil side.
MORERA: Could you ever live in any other country?
ALI: I was born here. I love America.
MORERA: Have you ever been to Mecca?
ALI: Of course, with King Faisal. We went together and even at Mecca it never stops—the people were stopping to watch me, because they recognize me. The women were lifting up their veils to perceive me.
MORERA: Can we take a few shots of your muscles?
ALI: No, I don’t like to show off. I never push in front my muscles, only my religion, so I’m protected. Now I’m going to change. Look at you, you are a vey fashionable young woman with a lot of style, you can be dangerous. Not for me because I’m protected, but the way you move, your legs, the way you dress so light and silky, you are a temptation.
MORERA: What about you? You are not only The Greatest but also The Prettiest.
ALI: You tell me. How come you are so pretty!
MORERA: Oh you like me, that’s marvelous.
ALI: Tell me the truth, do you think I’m a little fat? I put on some weight lately, but I’m going to lose it.
MORERA: Are you kidding me? You look so perfect. How come you feel heavier, didn’t you exercise enough?
ALI: It’s always a women’s fault.
MORERA: What do you mean? Too many women taking care of you? Usually it happens the opposite, too many women and you lose weight!
ALI: I’m joking, but don’t speak loud because she is next door. Do you have a boyfriend?
MORERA: I’ve got a husband.
ALI: O.K. You have to leave him and stay here with me. You know what I’m going to do now? I’m going to lock up all the doors, so you can’t leave. I’m going to keep you here. Ehi, turn that machine off. This is not for the interview. [smiling]
MORERA: You are a molto simpatico, a great actor.
ALI: I’m always serious. Come here, come here, pretty lips. I should try an Italian kiss.
MORERA: You are absolutely charming. Nice sense of humor. Sexy. Tell me something about sex.
ALI: Sex has been created by God for procreation, but the man took possession of it and used it in his own way.
MORERA: What about you?
ALI: I’m a man.
MORERA: As a man how do you see women?
ALI: They are not equal with men, that’s sure. When the woman is in danger she always looks to the man for help. We are superior by nature. The black or white woman needn’t worry in life because the world is ruled by the white man.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AUGUST 1977 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
For more New Again, click here.