By Olukayode Thomas
“This life is not real. I conquered the world and it didn’t give me satisfaction. The boxing, the fame, the publicity, the attention, it didn’t satisfy my soul. Who could be more popular? Who could achieve greater heights; it’s all nothing unless you go to heaven. You can have pleasure, but it means nothing unless you please God.”
In 1983, Esquire assigned Bob Greene to interview Ali. He was one of the 50 most influential personalities in the world to be profiled by the magazine to mark its 50th anniversary.
“How much are you going to pay me” Ali asked Greene, who replied that Esquire doesn’t pay people they write about.
“You’re just using me to sell your magazine. You just want to put me on the cover”
No, replied Greene, Ali would not be on the cover but will be in good company.
“I’m the most famous man in the world” Ali said, but Greene replied that there will be other more famous people in the issue.
“Who?” Ali asked. “John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and others” Greene replied.
“They’re all dead” said Ali.
33 years later, precisely on Friday June 3, 2016, God came to take his champion home, according to Iron Mike Tyson, and the world stopped for several hours as humanity mourned the death of the most famous man in the world, unarguably the greatest of all times, the King of the World.
Back to 1983, Greene challenged Ali’s claim that he is the most famous man in the world.
“Who is more famous” Ali asked.
“What about Ronald Reagan” Greene replied.
“Be serious” said Ali. “If Reagan were to go to Morocco or Persia, he could walk down the street and no one would bother him. If I go there, they have to call out soldiers to guard me. I can’t go outside.”
“Why you? You were a great boxer, why you?” Greene asked.
“What do you mean ‘why’? Ali asked. “I don’t know, I’m not smart, I’m dumber than you are. I can’t spell as well as you. I can’t read as good as you. But people don’t care. Because that shows I am a common person just as they are.”
On the flight, Ali looked down from the plane and told Greene, “Look at all those houses, those are all my fans. Do you know I could walk up to any of those houses and knock on the door and they would know me? It’s a funny feeling to look down on the world and know that every person knows me. Sometimes I think about hitchhiking around the world, with no money and just knocking on a different door every time I needed a meal or a place to sleep I could do it.”
But Ali told Greene his goal was something higher: “My desire, my main goal now is to prepare myself for the hereafter. That should be all men’s goal.”
“What about life now?” Asked Greene.
“This life is not real. I conquered the world and it didn’t give me satisfaction. The boxing, the fame, the publicity, the attention, it didn’t satisfy my soul. Who could be more popular? Who could achieve greater heights; it’s all nothing unless you go to heaven. You can have pleasure, but it means nothing unless you please God” said Ali.
Standing Up for Black People
Ali was probably the only man who ever lived that could knock on any door in any part of the world, and he would not only be recognised, but people would have met his needs and wished him stay on permanently.
But Ali’s journey to his more than legendary status was not as straight as a rope; it came with a lot of sacrifice, including the lose of millions of dollars in his prime because he decided to stand up for what was right and just, especially in the heydays of the civil rights movement – the 1960s and 70s when blacks were second class citizens in the United States and denied many rights.
In an era when black sports and entertainment personalities were apolitical, as being vocal about injustice could hurt their brand, Ali dared to be different. In an interview with Black Scholar, Ali said, “I hate to see black women and men, once they get prestige and greatness, go marry somebody else. Floyd Patterson and his first wife, Sandra, pretty black woman and four beautiful kids; he quit her and went all the way to Sweden to marry a white woman. That is why I gave him such a good whopping. Or I’d be like Charley Pride the folk singer or Wilt Chamberlin and others who just don’t get involved in the struggle or racial issues cause it might jeopardise their position.”
A firm believer and preacher of being your brother’s keeper, Ali told Playboy, he will gladly part with all for the less privileged. “Sure I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catching 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 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 black people.
“For instance, Kid Gavilan was a black boxing champion who had trouble in Cuba after he retired and wound up in Miami working in a park. Newspapers 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 what he made in the park.”
Why Ali Will Sign Autographs
While most stars sometimes feel disturbed when fans ask for autographs, Ali never denied any of his fans, and he told Playboy magazine why.
“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 was there. I’d watched all his fights and I just wanted to see him and touch him. I waited outside for him to leave the club and I was hoping he will talk to me and maybe give me his autograph. Man, I’ll never forget how bad I felt when he turned me down. Sugar Ray said, ‘hello kid, how ya’ doing, 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 going to treat ‘em different.”
Islam Vs. Christianity
In 1997, in an interview with Detroit News, Ali said “I have seen the whole world. I learn something from people everywhere. There is truth in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, all religions. And in just plain taking, the only religion that matters is real religion – love.”
But in the 1970s, Ali, though born a Christian and christened Cassius Clay converted to Islam because the white man, the custodian of Christianity in America are the oppressors of black race, he told Playboy.
“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 organise 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 killings, on war. France, Germany, a bunch of them – it’s been one long war ever since they have existed. And when they are not killing each other over there, they are shooting Indians over here.”
Between White and Black
During the same era, Ali advocated a separate country for black Americans. He told Playboy, “black people will never be free as long as they are in the white man’s land. We can’t be free if we don’t control our own land. Man, there is only ten million people in Cuba and when they tell America to stay out, America stays out.”
Although he disagreed with Elijah Muhammad’s preaching that all white men are blue eyed devils, he still told Playboy that he abhors integration with whites. “We know every individual white ain’t devil-hearted and we got black people who are evil. When I think about white people, it’s like there is a thousand rattle snakes outside my door and maybe a hundred of them want to help me. But they all look alike, so I should open my door and hope that the hundred that want to help will keep the 900 off me, when only one bite will kill me? What I am saying is that if there’s a thousand rattlesnakes out there and hundreds of them means right, I’m still gonna shut my door. I’m gonna say, ‘I’m sorry, you nice one hundred snakes, but you don’t really matter’.
‘Listen, your great granddaddy told my great granddaddy that when my granddaddy got grown, things will be alright. Then your granddaddy told my granddaddy that when my daddy was born, things will get better. Your daddy told my daddy that when I grow up things will get better. But they ain’t. Are you telling me that when my children get grown, things‘ll be better in this country?’”
Thomas, a two-time CNN African Journalist of Year writes from Lagos