It has now been just over 8 weeks since Muhammad Ali passed away, and I still can’t seem to let this fact settle in my heart. Growing up I had 2 people I really admired and looked up to. Ali was one of them, the other was a stand-up comedian called Bill Hicks. Hicks was white, he drank, took drugs, smoked, and died at the age of 32 in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. Ali, on the other hand, was pretty much the opposite of all this. Yet both had a huge cultural and intellectual influence on my life, and still do.
I appreciate that Hicks is relatively unknown outside of the stand-up comedy circuit, but Ali is a global icon. Despite this, I often wonder how well do you know Muhammad Ali? If you think he changed his name to Muhammad Ali from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or vice versa, then you need some serious Ali education. And this where the following two documentaries come into their own. I Am Ali (2014) covers various aspects of the life of Ali, whilst the HBO documentary Thrilla In Manila analyses the 1975 fight between Ali and bitter rival Joe Frazier, focusing on the verbally bruising rivalry leading up to one of the greatest fights of all time.
Both documentaries are well worth watching, and below are some of my favourite quotes. Enjoy!
We were in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, one time and there was a little boy there who looked frail and he wanted to meet Muhammad Ali. I said, “No problem,” and I brought the boy in and his dad. Muhammad looked at the boy and he said, “Why do you have this hot wool hat on?” He said, “it’s so hot out there today.”
He said, “I got leukaemia and I lost all my hair. I’m getting this chemo.” And Ali said, “I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna beat George Foreman and you’re gonna beat leukaemia.” The boy looked at him. He said, “Oh, I hope you’re right, Ali, I hope you’re right.”
I went and I got my camera and I took a picture of the little boy and Ali. And I got the father’s address. I had Ali write on the picture, “I am gonna beat George Foreman and you’re gonna beat cancer. God bless you, Muhammad Ali.”
So about two weeks later I get a call. It said, the boy’s father, he said, “Jimmy’s very sick. He’s in the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. He’s not gonna make it, but the thrill of his life was meeting Muhammad Ali.” I said, “Jeez, I’m sorry to hear it. Is there anything we can do?” “No.”
So that next morning we’re doing roadwork, 4:30 in the morning before the sun is up, when he can run, and I tell him about the boy. He said, “OK, here’s what we’re gonna do. When I get done, my exercise and all, we take a shower, we head down to the hospital.”
So we go down to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, a two-hour ride, and we went in. Here’s the little boy with a white sheet. White kid, no hair, big blue eyes. And he said, “Muhammad, I knew you would come.” And Muhammad reached and he held the little boy. He said, “Remember, I told you that you are gonna beat cancer and I’m gonna beat George Foreman and that’s the way it’s gonna be.” And the little boy said, “No, Muhammad, I’m gonna meet God and I’m gonna tell Him that I know you.”
There wasn’t a word said in the two-hour ride going back. About a week later, the little boy died. The father called me and Ali said he didn’t want to go to the funeral. It was too sad. So I went over to the funeral and in the casket, they had the boy laid out and they had the picture there. “I’m gonna beat George Foreman, you’re gonna beat cancer.”
The boy was gonna go to Heaven and say he was a friend of Muhammad Ali’s to get a better seat or a better place. That’s…that’s a great compliment, isn’t it? – Gene Kilroy, actor, from the documentary I Am Ali (2014)
Back in the days when Muhammad and I was young kids, he would say, “Rudy, I can see it in the stars. God is talking to me.” He would tell me his destiny, how great he would be. He said, “And I want you to be with me. I love you, my brother.” He’s a sweet, sweet, sweet person. God blessed him with having insight to predict the future. “I’m gonna be the world’s greatest boxer. I’m gonna be a great man.” He wanted to become famous to help people. He’s a wonderful, wonderful…[breaks down crying] – Rahman ‘Rudy’ Ali, younger brother of Muhammad Ali, from the documentary I Am Ali (2014)
I can remember feeling very proud of my father and just an overwhelming sense of pride. I guess it’s a euphoric feeling. You know, when I was…From an early age, just anywhere we’d go together, because not just him getting attention, but the way that people would react to him and sometimes they’d be in tears.
And I know my mother hadn’t seen my dad, maybe, I would say, three or four years after the marriage. You know, he would come around and three years might have gone by where she hadn’t seen him and when he came to the house, we lived in the Venice Canals at the time, she was remarried, and she looked at him and she hugged him, then she started to cry and she left the room. And my father looked at me and he says, “Why is she crying?” So I had to go to the room and ask her and she said, “Well, I looked into his eyes and I saw God.”
So, you know, and I said, “Oh! I know what you mean, you know?” He has this twinkle in his eye and he has this spirit within him that’s so profound that people sometimes are moved to just silence when they see him. It just makes you more, I think, cognizant of just the spiritual side of fame and celebrity. Not just famous for being famous, but it makes you wanna know why. Why he was famous, why people love him, the stands that he took, the controversy. Everything that he went through, it’s all part of his story of getting to where he is now. You know, the ups and the downs that all makes him who he is. – Hana Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, from the documentary I Am Ali (2014)
Narrator: [Joe Frazier is] a man unable to let go of the bitterest and most intense sporting rivalry ever seen. In the space of 4 years in the early 70’s, Ali and Frazier contested a trilogy of epic fights that are landmarks in the history of boxing. Muhammad Ali is renowned around the world, but what the world does not know is that Ali provoked a blood feud with Joe Frazier, for which Frazier believes Ali is now paying the eternal price.
Joe Frazier: Whatever he indulged in, in his lifetime, it comes to show up later on as you get older. I don’t care who you is. Whatever you done when you’re a young man, it comes to bite you in the butt, when you get older. Trust me.
Interviewer: So do you think he’s paying the price for what he did as a young man?
Joe Frazier: And said. And said. That’s right. God marks it down. – from the documentary Thriller In Manila (2008)
I’m just hoping that, you know, somewhere down the line, that he would like, ask the Lord to forgive him, that’s all. All the things we have done and he said. Before he take that last [he gasps], and you do this [closes his eyes], you ask for forgiveness. – Joe Frazier, from the documentary Thriller In Manila (2008)