IT was the age of the hippies and I was travelling around Asia. The other travellers were growing beards and their hair and taking drugs. I was keeping my mind clear, my clothes clean and my hair short. The reason? I wanted to look respectable when I met my idol, Muhammad Ali. It was March 1972 and I was in Tokyo.
Ali was there, too. He was scheduled to fight Mac Foster. He’d lost over 15 rounds to Joe Frazier 12 months before but had won three fights since then. I couldn’t rest knowing that Ali was so close. But he was surrounded by reporters from all over the world. Who was I? A nobody. A young traveller with just my backpack for company.
One day I had an idea. Journalists work late into the night and by the early morning – when boxers generally do their roadwork – they’re fast sleep. If I wanted to talk to Ali, I realised my best chance was to try and find him in the morning. At 3am I took a taxi to Otani Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Tokyo. On the way, as we drove through the city’s deserted streets, all I could think about was Muhammad Ali. This might be my only chance to meet him, I had to get it right.
I walked into the lobby, doing my best to look like a businessman. Or at the very least, respectable enough to not get thrown out straight away. Then I saw him. Ali appeared wearing those big boots he used to wear for his roadwork, a hooded training suit and he was covered in sweat. He had already finished his morning run. I darted over to him. I explained that I had some questions for him. He looked me up and down and smiled.
“You ain’t asking me nothing until I’ve showered and had some breakfast… then maybe we can talk,” he said. So I waited.
Ali returned, the sweat from his run washed away and the tracksuit replaced with smarter attire. He sat down to breakfast with his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and a young Japanese woman. Also there, but not at the same table, was Ali’s parents who looked up from their food from time to time to smile at their famous son. I waited again.
Ali strolled past me and I got up and followed him. He performed a magic trick with three pieces of rope and used them to illustrate a story he was telling about an old school teacher, who had informed young Ali he would amount to nothing in adulthood. I started my tape recorder and sat next to him. After a few minutes he told me turn off the tape recorder. “You don’t need that. This is not part of the interview.” Eventually we started talking about boxing, about Johnny Coulon, the former world bantamweight champion. I turned on my tape recorder again and this time Ali did not object.
Do you follow boxing history… do you know the name Sam Langford, for instance?
Oh yeah. An old time fighter. He didn’t get a break. In the era he was livin’, it was hard on blacks. In those days it was real rough.
Are they rough now too?
Not really. It’s rough if you make it rough. We who are Muslims, under the watch of Elijah Muhammad, we have it easy because we are free mentally. We are no longer Christians, we no longer call ourselves negroes, we’re Muslims. Now we’re citizens of 800-million Muslims on the planet, I’ve been to Mecca and recognised all the kings. So there’s no trouble when you’re free, when you pray to Allah. When you’re a Muslim you have a home in every country on earth. I have places to eat, places to stay. Just today I was invited by the government of Indonesia to visit and a place called Morocco. Both governments have invited me.
I have just got back from Saudi Arabia. I have a home in Riyadh, that King Faisel’s son gave me, Prince Faisel. It’s true that being popular has helped me but anybody from America who becomes Muslim under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad becomes free all of a sudden. So for blacks who are Muslim, there’s no problem. For those who are not, there are problems.
What does your religion say about violence?
We don’t believe in violence, the word Islam means peace. Muslim means entire submission to the will of God. We strip ourselves of weapons. We don’t think violence is the solution to no problem unless it’s a holy war or something declared by Allah, the divine supreme being. He fights our battles with nature in the way he sees fit.
We have nothing to do with violence, especially when it comes to the black people and the white people of America because there’s not enough black people to even think of violence. They don’t manufacture no weapons, don’t control no jet aeroplanes, don’t make no bombs; it would be a total mismatch. It would be like you jumping in the ring with me trying to win, you wouldn’t have a chance. So we’re not that ignorant. We don’t even think… we don’t even consider a physical confrontation with America or nobody, we’re peaceful.
But Allah fights the battles. He’s got ways of doing it with nature: tornados; droughts; hurricanes; disasters and anything can happen when God himself is moving.
But what about your boxing then? Isn’t that a kind of violence?
Well, it’s not the action that makes a thing right or wrong, it’s the purpose behind the action. You see, I could kill a man today, being violent, then kill a man tomorrow and the same judge will send [sentence] me up for death for the man I killed today but not for the man I killed yesterday. Why? Because the purpose for killing the first man was because he was in my house, in my bed, with my wife. I don’t get a day in jail for that. The other man I killed was over an argument over our beliefs, then I go to jail. The judge has to decide ‘why did he kill?’. It’s the purpose that makes it right or wrong. My purpose in boxing is not to kill. My purpose is not to hurt. That’s why I’m criticised for not knocking out James Ellis [better known as Jimmy Ellis, Ali’s stablemate who he stopped in 12 rounds in 1971] when I could have hurt him. Buster Mathis, I could have probably killed him. Fighters can have brain concussions. One died not long ago, George Chuvalo’s sparring partner. I think the best precaution is if you see the man in trouble, if you see you’ve got the man unconscious, why pound him and beat him until the referee stops it just to please the crowd?
I’m justified by God himself, Allah, because my heart and my purpose is not to kill. In war, in violence, the purpose is to kill. Mama killed, daddy killed, baby killed. Use machine guns, use bombs, use fire, use poison. In boxing we have a referee, we have doctors. The roughest thing we have in boxing is the gloves – if war and violence was the same as boxing there would not be deaths because all we use is padded gloves.
When we look at it and break it down scientifically, we find out beyond a shadow of a doubt there is no way you can compare boxing with violence unless your intention is to be violent, if your intention is to inflict harm and create pain and blood. It is up to the man and his motive and his purpose. My purpose is not to hurt or to kill, it’s just a sport and that’s the way I box. Beautiful, fast, class, rhythm, dancing and art. My boxing is no way considered with violence because I don’t make it that way.
Has your attitude towards your sport changed since you became a Muslim? Were you thinking in another way before that?
Yeah. I get a man [opponent] and I tried to kill him. If he’d have died it wouldn’t have made no difference but now I couldn’t live with myself if I killed somebody just for a sport event. If they died and it brought grief to their family and their children and I had something to do with that just to please a bloodthirsty crowd. I’m too civilised for that. In the barbaric days they did that in Rome, they let two men kill each other while everyone drank wine and watched it. That’s silly. I’m not that angry with nobody that I want to kill them.
What about your fights with Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson [Ali was accused of ‘carrying’ Terrell and Patterson because they refused to address him as Muhammad Ali]? If you look back how do you regard those fights?[Sighs] Oh those were two of them who called me Cassius Clay, they didn’t want to call me Muhammad Ali. I just punished them, I didn’t hurt them, I just gave them a good whupping.
If a future foe acted in the same way would you act in the same…[Interrupting] Yeah, same, same punishment. I’d give them a good holy whupping. A religious and divine whupping. I’d chastise them.
Has the attitude of your opponents changed? You are accepted now but you were not some years ago.
Yes, because the things I did then were not popular [at the time]. But they’re common today. Everybody is believing it and doing it. Same with the drafts, the black power movement and everything that I do, most black people are doing now. People are changing their names. Lou Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], the great basketball player, LeRoy Jones [Amiri Baraka], the civil rights leader are starting to change their names now to African names. I was just about eight years ahead of my time so they all see now that I was right.
You lost a lot of money because you were eight years ahead of the others [embracing his religion and refusing to fight in Vietnam resulted in Ali fighting outside of America and subsequently being banned from the sport for three years]. Do you regret that?
No, I’m making it all back now. I’m making more money now, and fighting more regular than I did then. That’s really made me more popular, more greater.
You don’t consider the loss when you’re fighting for your life or your family or your freedom or your religion or God. Then the money means nothing. Even life and death means nothing. So we don’t consider the loss [because] we’re doing it from the heart and we’re doing it for what we want to do. If we do it for profit then it ain’t from the heart. If we worry about what we lose, then we didn’t do it from the heart.
For me, it was not a loss. It was a delight and a pleasure to stand up against power for my black people and my God and against the slave society in America. It was an honour and I’d do it 10 more times. I’m just sorry it’s over and I’m still not fighting it. I have nothing to do now but I like the idea of standing up for my freedom and the poor black slave people. So I love it, it ain’t no loss. America loses 40 or 50 million dollars a day in Vietnam but she don’t say that’s a loss, she says it’s a matter of principle. So what’s a few dollars to free the black folks? They ain’t free yet. All the Vietnam fighting, all the Japanese, the Koreans, Germans fighting, the negroes still ain’t free and the same Vietcong can go where negroes can’t go after the war. I ain’t given up a damn thing, I couldn’t give up enough. My life wouldn’t be enough. So it ain’t no loss when you think like that. It’s for 30-million black people in America so it can’t be enough. America fights and spends millions to free other nations, and kill their own and black people to free other nations – so what’s a few dollars for the poor negroes, for our fight?
You lost the world heavyweight title. Do you regret that?
No, I haven’t lost the title either. It’s a strange thing. Joe Frazier makes 150-thousand dollars for his fights and I get 300-thousand. He draws as much as six-thousand people and I draw 40, 50-thousand. Here [against Mac Foster in Tokyo] I’ll draw about 14-thousand. Joe Frazier, in the two fights since I fought him, he’s been seen on home television, it’s cheap. My fights are going to be bounced across the world where you have pay to come in. There’s no comparison. Joe Frazier has had two fights [since we fought] and this will be my fourth. Next month I’m fighting Chuvalo in Vancouver, that will be my fifth fight, and all the people I’m fighting are more popular and higher ranked than the two people [Terry Daniels and Ron Stander].
I’m the champion of the people, the champion of the physical world. I’m the first fighter to fight in the Middle East who can attract these people. I’m the first one to box an exhibitions throughout Arabia – Riyadh, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Syria, Lebanon – and I’m the first one to be recognised in the real world, I’m fighting all over the world, I’m going to Vancouver to Russia to China. I’m the first real world champion who has actually been in these countries doing something. Most of them just recognise the white countries, like England and Germany. They’re [just] in Ring Magazine or boxing books but I’ve gone way past boxing. Movie companies from Japan and all around the world are following me doing interviews…
What I’m trying to say is I whupped Frazier physically, he went to hospital for one month and the world know it, they saw me win nine [of 15 rounds] but they gave it [the decision] him because I’m a Muslim. They gave it him because I didn’t go to Vietnam, I was still fighting that. The world see it and they’ve proved it because I’m employed and Joe Frazier is unemployed.
I will be recognised again on paper, as you say, when I get him next time because next time I am going to annihilate him.
What do you mean by that?
Destroy him. Beat him until the people knows that I’m the winner.
You are very anxious to fight him.
No, not really. He’s more anxious to fight me because he ain’t making no money and he’s losing popularity. Everywhere he goes people don’t believe he’s champion, they keep bringing up my name and they don’t recognise him and they keep saying I won and he won’t be recognised until he’s whupped me twice. So he’s more anxious to whup me because you have to beat the champion twice before you’re recognised. I had to beat Sonny Liston twice. Floyd Patterson had to beat Ingemar Johansson three times…
Yeah. People don’t go for it, especially when it’s close. Frazier is gonna have to whup me decisively to believe him.
What went wrong last time?
Two more minutes and I’ve got to let you go… I just played last time. I didn’t play like I should. I won nine rounds and I lost six, I still won the fight but I played with him for three rounds. I just stood there and let him throw punches just to show that he couldn’t hurt me, I didn’t dance and move around like I should. I was in good shape physically but I wasn’t right mentally. Next time I’ll be more serious and I’ll get in better shape… I gotta let you go, man…
Listen to the original recording of the interview here: