This article by our brilliant former Editor, Harry Mullan, first appeared in full in Boxing News on December 13, 1974. Just weeks after scoring one of the finest victories of his glittering career over George Foreman in Zaire, ‘The Greatest’ was in London where this interview took place.
THE Brothers are everywhere, impeccably polite, helpful, and courteous. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I find them somehow frightening.
They guard Muhammad as if every man is his enemy’ to get to see him, you go through three or four intermediaries, and when you’re talking to him every word is tape-recorded, very ostentatiously, by a large bearded gent sitting at your elbow, lest you dare misquote the Man.
It’s not ideal conditions for a pleasant, relaxed interview, but when you’re offered a chance to meet the heavyweight champion of the world you don’t haggle about the terms.
He sits by the French windows, feet up on a chair, and looks out over Hyde Park. “Man, I love this town,” he says to nobody in particular. “I must get to spend a little more time here, maybe bring my family for a vacation.” It’s a futile hope – part of the price he pays for being Muhammad Ali is that he can never have a vacation as others understand it, for wherever he goes he’ll be treated as a superchamp rather than just a family man on holiday.
He speaks in a flat, bored monotone – he’s heard it all before. However, he shows some animation when I mention his family.
“All this travelling that you do means that you lose a lot of time with your wife and kids. Do you resent that at all?”
“Yes, I do sometimes, but it’s all well worth it. I’m makin’ a lot of money for them so they won’t have to do all this hard work, and I’m also doin’ it for my people and helpin’ humanity, so I’m satisfied with what I accomplish when I’m away from them.
“I can’t be a strict father. My wife is strict, but I can’t be that way. I whup them one day for doin’ somethin’ and the next day I allow them to do it. If they want a cracker or a piece of candy I tell them: ‘No, you gotta have dinner first’, and all they gotta do is look sad, work on my heart, and they’ll get it.”
I remarked that we don’t see many pictures or stories on his family over here, and asked him was it difficult to keep his domestic life private. “My children have been in all the magazines and sports books in America, and maybe a few here which you haven’t noticed.
“They’re publicised a lot. They don’t like it, but sometimes you can’t help it.”
“If you had had the opportunity to choose a life for yourself other than boxing, what would it have been?”, I ask him.
“Just a minister of Elijah Mohammad. There’s nothin’ as great as working for God, just savin’ people, helpin’ them, convertin’ them, helpin’ them to lead better lives, cleanin’ them up physically, morally, and spiritually. This is a great work.
“I would have to do somethin’ like that if I wasn’t boxin’, to satisfy myself. Somethin’ that would help people, and my people are the ones that I would want to help primarily. God blesses those who help themselves, and charity begins at home first at home, so I cannot worry about the problems of other people.
“We all have to worry about our own problems first before we can talk about helpin’ somebody else, so the onliest way I could really help my people is to teach them a clearer knowledge of themselves, their religion, their God, their names and their languages which have been robbed and taken from us since we have been under the white rule of America for the past 400 years.”
He speaks with obvious sincerity – believe me, his racial and religious attitudes are no gimmick, and this becomes even plainer with my next question. It has always intrigued me whether someone who is himself idolised by millions has his own personal heroes, and if so, who are they.
“I don’t like that word ‘idolised’,” he says. “I’m not lookin’ to be idolised. I’m not in boxing to be recognised as great in everyday life. I’m the greatest in the ring, but when I come out I’m just a brother, humble like other people.
“I don’t try to be idolised, I don’t want to be idolised. You should idolise God, and the prophets and messengers of God, so you shouldn’t idolise men. You can like me, but there’s no need to idolise me.
“Who are my heroes? Who would I like to meet? I’d like to meet the leader of China, Mao Tse Tung. Yeah, I’d like to meet him. A man who can take 600 million people who are starving and feed them…600 million people! Let me tell you my friend, that’s a lot of people.
“Just one million people is a lot of people, 100,000 people to feed is a lot of people, but a man who can feed 600 million people and be independent of the European and the Western powers – man, this is great.
“I’d just like to meet him and see him, talk to him through an interpreter and ask him questions, and learn how he did it, what made him strong.
“I’d also like to meet Jomo Kenyatta, a great African freedom fighter, and Fidel Castro – I’d love to meet him.
“I’d like to meet anyone who struggles against all the powers that are against him, whether it be in America or wherever, and is victorious. Anyone who comes under the style of what the Americans would call ‘rebels’, that is against America. These are the type of people I would like to meet.
Defeat for Muhammad Ali means so much more than just losing a fight – it means the shattering of his whole mystique. How much does he fear defeat, and how does he adjust to it when it happens?
“I never fear defeat at all. You’ve never really lost a fight as long as there’s a voice inside you sayin’: ‘Keep on fightin’,’ and I feel that I’ve lost when I don’t hear that voice.
“My jaw was broken with Ken Norton but I came back. I lost the first Joe Frazier fight but I came back, and I wasn’t supposed to beat George Forman. All the experts said I’d get beat, but that voice said keep on goin’ and I won.
“No sir, I don’t fear defeat at all”.
Since he mentioned Foreman, I asked him how far in advance he had planned the extraordinary tactics he used – tactics which should have been suicidal against a hitter with Foreman’s supposed power.
“I didn’t plan the tactics until about the middle of the first round: I found I was movin’ and dancin’, I was usin’ twice as much energy as him just to keep out of his way, and I figured that after 10 rounds of that I’d be flat-footed and tired, not able to raise the fitness.
“Ten rounds is a long time, and after five more rounds he could probably have got me. He’d got the punch for it, so I figured that if I just lay on the ropes and let him punch hisself out…I’d noticed his goal is always to catch you on the ropes and just whale away, blast away.
“He can whale you, bang you and hurt you and I figured that if I go to the ropes like I do in trainin’ a lot, and if he can’t really hurt me, if he don’t get nothin’ through, then I figure mmmm, he’ll get tired, but if I went to the ropes and found he was as powerful as I’d heard and he was hurtin’ me, then I’d have took a gamble on dancin’ the whole distance and hopin’ that I’d knock him out, just waitin’ till that moment came when I had to go to him.
“After goin’ to the ropes I found that he was doin’ a lot of punchin’ but a lot of them weren’t aimed right, they were meaningless punches. He wasn’t aimin’ right and he was tirin’, so after I’d tried it in the middle of the first round I decided I must stay on the ropes in every round if this is what tires him out.
“Not just stay on the ropes, but hit him at the end of every round, take the shot whenever I could see it, and after round seven you saw his arms so heavy and so tired he couldn’t stand.
“He was mostly exhausted – he was knocked out and exhausted. If I’d knocked him down in the second round he would probably have had the power to get up again. The strength was taken out of him BEFORE the knockdown, so that to recover from the knockdown and pull himself up was too much.
“That is what happened, My plans were to move the whole fight if I had to, but I found that I didn’t really have to.”
Self-confidence, supreme and total, has always been Ali’s trademark, but I have often wondered whether, inside himself, he ever had any real doubts about a fight.
“I’ve had a lot of fights like that.
“I always go in there hopin’ I can do it – not really doubtin’, but I’m not SURE. I wouldn’t use the word ‘doubt’, but I’m not really that sure, and this is a good sign. When you get too sure, when you’re not nervous, most likely you’re gonna get beat.
“The first Frazier fight I wasn’t too nervous, I was confident, too confident. The first Norton fight, I’d never heard of him, and these were the two fights I lost. So when I’m a little nervous, when I get that doubtful feelin’, then I’m a little frightened and nervous, and this is a good sign in an athlete, whether he’s a ballplayer or a boxer, so I always have a little bit of that.
“I always have it in my mind what I would like to do. Maybe I get problems and I can’t do it, but I always try to do it.”
You probably couldn’t even begin to estimate the money Ali sacrificed through his refusal to join the American Army in 1967. Does he ever regret that decision?
“You don’t regret somethin’ you’re losin’ for a belief. Fellas go to Vietnam, they go to war, they fight for what they believe in. You got the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland fightin’, you got the Biafrans and the Nigerians fightin’, you got the people of my race fightin’ in America.
“Whatever the fight’s for, if a man believes in what he’s doin’ then he don’t consider nothin’ a loss, even if it means dyin’. I can’t consider anythin’ a loss that I did for my black people of America. It was a gain, not a loss.
“I didn’t lose no money, I gained. The Lord God has blessed me now to make 10 times more money than I would have made if I hadn’t rejected the Vietnam war, abjurin’ my religion.
“I’m offered now 10 million dollars a fight, and I’d have never got this if I didn’t fight the Vietnam war callup, so how can I regret losin’ them pennies? I’m 10 times bigger now.”
His courageous stand against the war – and don’t forget he was one of the first public figures to oppose American participation – didn’t just lose him money. It also cost him a lot of popularity in his own country, yet over here he is probably more popular than anywhere else. Why did he think this was?
“A prophet is never honoured in his own home’, I told you. I’m not a prophet, but I’m popular here and they love me. I’ve got many fans in America – there are so many more of those who like me than those who don’t that they don’t really matter.
“I’m a clean boxer, and they like clean boxin’ here in England. England wasn’t with America on the Vietnam war, England isn’t with America on a lot of things. I’m not gonna say nothin’ against America, but I’m not with her on a lot of things.
The room by this time is almost full, mainly black fans with a fair number of Muslim sisters immaculate in their long linen dresses, and I can see that Ali is anxious to greet them, so I cut it short.
“One last question, Muhammad,” I say. “There have been suggestions that you hypnotise your opponents. Is there anything in that?”
“Sure I do,” he says with that irresistible grin. “Sure I hypnotise them – I hypnotise them with skill!”
It was a typical Ali exit line.