The Greatest Wife: Exclusive Interview with Khalilah Ali
By: Ron Scarfone
There are only two people still alive who know Muhammad Ali best and were a significant part of his life when he was in his prime. One of the two people is Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. The other person is Khalilah Ali. Khalilah was married to Muhammad Ali for ten years from 1967-1977. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco was known as “The Fight Doctor” and served as Muhammad Ali’s doctor and cornerman for about 15 years. Muhammad Ali was not allowed to box professionally for more than three years after refusing to be inducted into the United States Army in 1967. Muhammad Ali objected to the Vietnam War and the killing that was done in the name of war, but he was still convicted of draft evasion. Muhammad Ali was 25 years old at the time. He would not fight again until 1970.
He did get back into shape, but he was never the same boxer in spite of the success he had after he obtained a license to box again. His prime years were taken from him. When he returned to the ring, his trainer Angelo Dundee said that Ali was more flat-footed which made him easier to hit. Prior to his forced hiatus from boxing, it was very difficult for opponents to hit him. Khalilah was married to Muhammad Ali during the time that he could not box up until the time that his skills were so diminished that people were urging him to retire.
Pacheco left Muhammad Ali’s team in 1977 because he knew that his health was at risk and he did not want to be a part of it. Khalilah and Muhammad Ali divorced in 1977. Khalilah was a fighter like her former husband, but she trained in martial arts. Khalilah trained with Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly who both starred in the famous martial arts movie Enter the Dragon. Khalilah eventually became a ninth degree black belt in a style which was a blend of different disciplines.
Prior to the art exhibition, I met Khalilah for the first time at a healing get-together organized by a friend of mine. My friend wanted me to come because I am an energy healer and also so I could meet Khalilah. A book that I have in my collection is titled Ali: The Greatest Champ which was published in 1976. The book is about Muhammad at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. The book has a photo of Khalilah while she was there at the camp when Ali was training there. The book states that her name is Belinda which was her name before she changed it to Khalilah. When I arrived at the get-together, I immediately recognized Khalilah who was selling a coloring book that she had written. The book has no International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and it is self-published. Khalilah has written another book that would be much more lucrative, but it has not been published yet. It is an autobiography about her life and marriage to Muhammad Ali who was formerly known as Cassius Clay, but he changed his name after his conversion to Islam in 1964.
Khalilah told me about the art exhibition that she was having of Dr. Ferdie Pacheco’s paintings, so I went on opening night. A few of Pacheco’s paintings were on display for the public to view at Atelier 3 in Hollywood, Florida. One of the paintings of Muhammad Ali shows a young Ali at the original 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, Florida. Another painting of Ali shows his face, but it looks like a Romero Britto painting with black outlines and bright colors. At the art exhibition, Khalilah spoke on a small stage to the people who came and said that we must have “gracism” instead of racism in our society.
Khalilah agreed to let me interview her at a later time and we met at a restaurant in Deerfield Beach, Florida. The city of Deerfield Beach is also where the headquarters of Don King Productions is located which is promoter Don King’s company. I brought my book titled Ali: The Greatest Champ to the interview and showed Khalilah her photo in the book. She was happy to see this book which she never saw before or knew about, although she did recall the time when the photographer for the book was there at Muhammad Ali’s training camp in Deer Lake which is where the photo of Khalilah was taken. Before I began the interview, I gave Khalilah the book for her to keep and she said to me that it is a great gift. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Boxing Insider: Hi Khalilah.
Khalilah Ali: Hi Ron.
Boxing Insider: Nice to see you again.
Khalilah Ali: Good to see you again. Ron the healer.
Boxing Insider: Yes, and I work for Boxing Insider. You married Muhammad (Ali) at 17 (years of age), right?
Khalilah Ali: Mmm hmm.
Boxing Insider: How old were you when you (first) met him?
Khalilah Ali: When I first had an encounter with him, I was 10 (years of age).
Boxing Insider: At the time when he was called Cassius Clay, you didn’t like his last name (Clay). You were saying it was kind of like mud. (Writer’s Note: Muhammad gave Khalilah an autographed photo of himself when she was 10 years old.)
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I actually broke it down (for him). I said “Your name is Cassius Marcellus (Clay). Did you know that Cassius Marcellus was a Roman name?” He said “It is?” I said “Yeah, do you know what the Romans did to people?” He said “No.” I tore up the autograph (photo) and I gave it to him and I said “You need a name of culture, respect, and honor. Favorably a Muslim name. But you can take that back with you. I don’t want it.”
Boxing Insider: You were talking about his first and middle name which was a Roman name, but then you talk about the last name.
Khalilah Ali: Then, the “Clay” was dirt and mud. I said “That’s what your name is. Your name is Clay. That you’re mud. That’s what it is.” And he said “Yes.”
Boxing Insider: You were married to him in 1967, right?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, he had already won the title in 1964. He became a Muslim. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave him his Islamic name which he was looking for all the time from our first encounter. He had actually (originally) named him Cassius X after he became a Muslim. He said “No, I don’t want Cassius X. I want a name of respect. I want a name of culture. I want a Muslim name.” The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (therefore) gave him the name Muhammad Ali. He (Muhammad Ali) didn’t make up the name. He didn’t give it to himself.
Boxing Insider: You were married to him and they (the U.S. government) were attempting to draft him (into the U.S. Army because of the Vietnam War).
Khalilah Ali: No. They drafted him first, but he failed the psychological test. Then, he became a Muslim. All of a sudden, he becomes smarter. They drafted him again. They are not supposed to draft anybody twice, but America does what it wants to do. It makes the laws. It breaks the laws.
Boxing Insider: I know that. I believe you.
Khalilah Ali: That’s the whole point of being a Muslim. We know the white man’s ways.
Boxing Insider: The first time (he was drafted), you said he failed the psychological (test) and therefore he could not be in the war. They drafted him again?
Khalilah Ali: They overturned it and they drafted him again.
Boxing Insider: He did not want to fight in a war. He rejected it.
Khalilah Ali: That’s what Muslims do. We are conscientious objectors.
Boxing Insider: Then, the sanctioning body took away the title. The boxing commissions took away his license to box.
Khalilah Ali: Exactly. As a punishment.
Boxing Insider: During that three years (of inactivity), it was a very tough time. I know that you were supporting him financially during those tough times because he couldn’t box. He couldn’t make the money. How was that back then?
Khalilah Ali: There was a lot of support behind him. I was supporting him with the money that I had. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad supported him as well. The Muslim organization also supported him and then gave him a job to be a minister so he could get paid for the work he was doing by spreading Islam and going around to colleges.
Boxing Insider: And he made money from the speaking engagements?
Khalilah Ali: Exactly. It wasn’t that much, nothing he was used to. It was something (which was) better than nothing. He had to raise a family.
Boxing Insider: I also read that, during that time, he was very distraught over what happened.
Khalilah Ali: Of course. It was a big blow. You become an Olympic champion and then you become a professional boxing champion and they take everything and they strip everything that you have won and owned and earned and they are just going to take it away. Taking away your license to fight is one thing, but taking away your passport where you can’t travel to any countries to be supported by any other country.
Boxing Insider: They took his passport away too?
Khalilah Ali: Of course. It was devastating. He was devastated. He couldn’t leave the country. I don’t understand what that has anything to do with not going into the army.
Boxing Insider: So essentially, he was not under house arrest. He was under country arrest.
Khalilah Ali: Country arrest. Yeah.
Boxing Insider: He could not leave the country.
Khalilah Ali: He was imprisoned in his own country.
Boxing Insider: He did not have total confidence that he was going to get his license back to box.
Khalilah Ali: What would you think? It’s like you’re in your prime and they stripped everything that you know how to do. You don’t have a college degree. You have no education to go and have a law career or a doctor’s career or a medical career or a mechanical career. He would have to go back to school. The man is in his prime to work as a fighter.
Boxing Insider: Even if he learned a trade, the money wouldn’t be nearly as much as boxing.
Khalilah Ali: Nowhere near it. You’re talking three long struggling years. It can take a toll on a person. My objective was to keep him in a positive state of mind, his mind directed and focused on a family, focused on people, to be The People’s Champion. This was like a political campaign for me because my objective was to keep him in a positive zone. He’s always been a person that people liked. Everywhere he would go, he has recognition, but it doesn’t pay the bills. It took time. It didn’t stop him from traveling to New York or California. We would set up speaking engagements to build up his morale, to build up his People’s Champion title.
Boxing Insider: When he did these speeches, what was he mainly talking about?
Khalilah Ali: He was talking about why he didn’t go into the army, why it was necessary to stand up for your own beliefs since he was in the Muslim world and he was learning a part of the Muslim world running around with Muslim ministers, things like that, trying to learn the religion as he grew. That entitled (him to be on) a lot of TV shows, talk shows, interviews as a ploy to keep the person alive, to keep him active, to keep him marketable because the main objective is to get that title back.
Boxing Insider: And there was a lot of support for him and he finally came back.
Khalilah Ali: It was tough because a lot of people didn’t like the fact that he did not go to the armed forces. He was like a thorn in everybody’s side. Why did this guy do this? He is American. Why didn’t he go into the army? You had conversations from Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. It was all negative toward him. Masses of black people thought it was disrespectful not to be an Uncle Tom. To us, that’s what it was. Uncle Tom. Your uncle fighting in a world and in a life where the masses of civil rights are in action. The revolution is on the forefront and there are a lot of things going on in our country (at the time). The Black Power. Black people are standing up for their struggle to be free. You had a lot of people on the scene during that period. You had Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Sonia Sanchez. These were freedom fighters and Ali was in the middle of this swarm of freedom fighters. By being in the middle of the freedom fighters, he activated a lot of love toward the brothers. With all this going on, they gravitated toward Ali’s strength, Ali’s dedication, and Ali’s stand. This is where I met all these wonderful people. I was excited just meeting these activists, these people of truth and peace fighting for our rights. We were right in the middle of it.
Boxing Insider: And now you do speaking engagements around the country and you in a similar way are talking about things like that.
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, the journey that I’m on basically hits on our humanity. I have a coloring book called Color To Learn that teaches manners and etiquette. We have a new process right now. We’re not dealing with civil rights anymore. We’re dealing with humanity right now. We’re dealing with people having competition with the police. Black lives matter. It’s a different kind of revolution. It has to stop. The same thing that is going on now was going on then. It isn’t stopping. It’s just in a different generation. I have been working on the humanity and I mean humanity for all people. It’s all about humanity now because we are as one. We can work together. We don’t have to go into separate bathrooms or (drink from) separate fountains. That’s all over. We’re all working together, but we still have some of that embedded racism still there.
Boxing Insider: The Jim Crow laws are gone, but we still have racism in South Florida.
Khalilah Ali: Of course. There is racism everywhere. It is only visible when you look at it to visualize it. If you ignore it, it doesn’t (appear to) exist.
Boxing Insider: You had an art exhibit recently with some of Ferdie Pacheco’s work. It was titled Return to Grace and you talked about the word “gracism,” a word that you coined. Would you describe what that word means?
Khalilah Ali: I will. Returning to Grace means that people are coming to realize that there is humility and we must bring forth harmony and peace with grace. It is very hard to see on certain people. People tend to react in different ways as if they don’t care about human feeling. They’ve lost compassion. They’ve lost respect. They just roll over people. You got people on cell phones walking down the street. This is all they do 24/7. If the satellite would go out, what would these people be doing? What is so important that you walk down the street and walk into a pole if you cannot see your surroundings? They do it in the car. They cannot communicate on a one-on-one basis anymore. It’s all texting. You know what we used to do in the old days? We would write letters (and) take time to write letters. They don’t do that anymore and that takes away the compassion. It takes away the spirit of the soul. It becomes plastic. Non-loving, non-fearing, nothing. There’s nothing there. Children go to school and they don’t teach cursive anymore. They can’t even read cursive. They say, “What does that say?” That’s a sad thing to see a young child (or) an adult teenager (that) can’t read cursive. What does that tell you? They would rather type rude words on the Internet and a kid can lose his own life.
Boxing Insider: I know that the parents sometimes teach it (to their children) if the school doesn’t.
Khalilah Ali: How many parents are going to sit down and teach their kids cursive when they have a 9-5 job?
Boxing Insider: Not many, but I know with the phone, if they were conversing (and) talking to people, it’s different. They’re mostly texting it seems. They’re not really interacting that much.
Khalilah Ali: No. They’re just throwing out words and they can throw them out very cruelly too. I’ve seen teenagers kill themselves (because of) the cyberbullying (which) is the worst of all. Once you upload something on cyber, it is there forever, so it stays embedded. That’s sad with the young individual that doesn’t have a foundation and base of knowledge of the Supreme Being, so they give up. That’s a sad thing.
Boxing Insider: Also, the schools have the separation of church and state.
Khalilah Ali: That’s sad too. They have no prayer in school anymore. This is why we have so much catastrophe and famine and shooting and killing. It’s no longer safe.
Boxing Insider: Regarding the police, there are unjustified killings, (but) I think a lot of what the police does that is wrong and that doesn’t get a lot of publicity is their abuse of authority that don’t involve killings. It’s just that they are abusing their authority not only against African-Americans, but against other people as well.
Khalilah Ali: It happens to a lot of people. It depends on where you are and who you’re with and what frame of mind that the individual is in too. The police officers, they are supposed to be there to serve and protect. The majority of them, 75% of them are on their jobs doing just that, but coming out of their homes to go do their jobs is one thing. Their lives are always on the line. People don’t care about popping a cop anymore. People are killing each other, let alone the cops. They don’t care. You do have the 1% that will antagonize, bully, harass, but they’ve always done that, but it’s only 1%. You have to understand the other guy on the other side with the gun. You’ve got people who harass the cops. They call them names, profanity. That’s a living threat to a cop, period, so we have to develop discipline within ourselves and with our men and our women. We have to not be aggressive when it comes to authorities.
Boxing Insider: Are you saying that sometimes the police do make justified killings and sometimes they don’t?
Khalilah Ali: No. They don’t have to be justified to kill anyone. They’re spooked and they have to retrain the officers. There are a lot of ways of stopping, of deterring trouble without killing a person. You don’t have to kill. You can kill when you go out there hunting, but not when you are confronted with a human being. If a person has a gun and he’s out to shoot you, self-defense. That’s justification. You have to negotiate with people, talk people down. These people, they’re not out to stop you. They’re out to kill you. These people are out to kill. They don’t care.
Boxing Insider: With the young people, there are problems with the educational system. 1 in 5 kids don’t graduate high school. That’s 20%. That’s across the nation. That’s in Florida. That’s a problem.
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, that’s a problem. A lot of this, I think, is because of the mentality of the students themselves and we don’t have enough positive role models in the world to go around and help and give a good word to an individual. Sometimes, the kids are just lost around mothers and fathers arguing and fussing and cussing and using physical abuse on one another. They’re trapped and we have to train our young people before they even start having children. They’re having baby mama dramas. They have no men with their sons teaching them and the women are (also) not there teaching the children.
Boxing Insider: Father absence is a big problem.
Khalilah Ali: Father absence is a big problem. Their homes should be sound. They should get married (and) be serious in their responsibilities. You’ve got a man and a girl living in the same house (and) not married. There is no responsibility there. There’s a big gap. One does what it wants to do and once we stop doing that and taking our lives seriously, getting married and doing the right thing, there is nothing wrong with being married. There are responsibilities in marriage. If you cannot take responsibility, you are going to be a lost soul and your kid is going to end up worse. I believe in the marriage. I just believe in it. I believe that God blesses those who do the right thing. Shacking up. Living up. What kind of lifestyle are you teaching your kid right then and there? Mothers ain’t married. What do you mean you’re not married? They don’t care because it’s not a priority. If you have a home that’s unstable, the community is unstable and that community makes that state unstable and then the country becomes unstable. It’s all about family. Animals take care of their families. They do what they have to do and they don’t argue. They don’t boast. They don’t protest. They do everything that’s natural and in order in line with what God has made them and created them to be. God has aligned us and He created us in the same way, but we don’t hear it no more. We don’t listen to God’s word anymore. We don’t care. We’re individuals now. We don’t have to have God’s word anymore.
Boxing Insider: That seems to be the trend.
Khalilah Ali: But you know what? I’m going to tell you something. Out of the whole world, I say 75% is in order with God. It’s the last 25% that’s not. That’s all. We don’t want that number to keep growing. This existence right here, we would be in turmoil and chaos if it was more percentages out there than it is. We have to do that by getting that home front intact and being serious about our lives.
Boxing Insider: Getting back to the boxing. When he came back, Ali was not physically in his prime as much as before. Did the stress of waiting to get back, did that take a physical toll on him do you think or was it just age or inactivity?
Khalilah Ali: It didn’t really affect him that much. He came back just like he was in his prime because he wanted to be the best and focus on the way he focused. He’s a very tactical athlete. He has great strategies. The guy is the greatest when it comes to strategies. He kind of defeats his opponent before he even gets in the ring. Half his battle is already done because he is going to intimidate you. That’s half the battle.
Boxing Insider: I read though that before he fought George Foreman, you were not happy with his training.
Khalilah Ali: I wasn’t. He was making a big mistake because he was doing the same thing when he was getting ready for Joe Frazier the first time. He was lazy. He was focusing on a lot of garbage outside. He was getting relaxed. I just simply backed off to see what he was going to do. It was time for him to lose so he could see the value of being who he should be, training the way he should train, so I had to back off and allow him to lose.
Boxing Insider: He lost to Frazier in the first fight. With the Foreman fight…
Khalilah Ali: I wasn’t going to let him lose the Foreman fight. On my watch, I said I was going to stand there and support him and just put the clamps on him because this fight is the one we had been waiting for for a long time, going to Africa. This is a big thing. We even got a lot of the Afro-Americans here to experience going to Africa for the first time. It was an epic trip. We had singers that had never been to Africa. We had trainers that had never seen Africa. We wanted to see what our former homeland is and to show them that it’s not a jungle. Everybody thinks of Africa, you think of jungles. You think of Tarzan. It’s not real to them. This was going to be a fight that we’ve been waiting for for a very long time and it’s on my watch and I said I was going to support him and stand by him and do everything I can so he wouldn’t lose this fight and I tried every tactic that I can.
Boxing Insider: You wore a shirt that said “George Foreman.” Is that right?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I did. It said “I love him because he’s “The Greatest” (on the front). (On the back, it said) “George Foreman.” He didn’t like it at all. He took everything seriously. Boom, but we won that fight.
Boxing Insider: So you’re the reason why he won in a way, indirectly.
Khalilah Ali: I would think so because I took it very seriously. I made sure he took it seriously. He saw me being serious. He thought “I am going to get serious too.”
Boxing Insider: He won against Foreman, but he was getting older and Dr. Pacheco was concerned, particularly after the third Frazier fight. What were your feelings about whether he should continue or not after the third Joe Frazier fight.
Khalilah Ali: Ferdie Pacheco is a really nice individual. To be honest with you, I made it my business to help him with this (Foreman) fight and I felt that this was going to be my last fight with him.
Boxing Insider: You mean as a wife?
Khalilah Ali: Uh huh. After the Foreman fight was over, I was happy about that. I just didn’t see a future for me (with Ali). It’s almost like giving your boss a two weeks notice.
Boxing Insider: So you were planning on divorcing?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah.
Boxing Insider: Was it related to what was happening outside the ring?
Khalilah Ali: Outside the ring basically.
Boxing Insider: But you stayed with him a little longer until 1977.
Khalilah Ali: Sometimes, it is good to give a person a test to see if it would be good to keep working in this arena with him. I had to give him a few tests and he failed all three tests. It took a little time. I didn’t want to just jump up and run. I had to think things out real clearly about what I wanted to do. That took a little time. I didn’t want to rush into something. I wanted to make sure if I came back on this platform that things were going to be different, but they weren’t.
Boxing Insider: So he was fighting and he was winning, but he was winning 15 round decisions and taking a lot of punishment. Pacheco was concerned. He was saying you’ve got to stop or else there are going to be
consequences. People (on his team) didn’t want to stop because of the money.
Khalilah Ali: Yeah. I told him to stop fighting after George Foreman. I think it was time to hang up the gloves. I thought that would be the best time for him to come out a winner. I flash back to the time I talked to Rocky Marciano (who said) he’s not going to stop. If he won it (the title) in the ring, he’s going to lose it in the ring. He’s not going to ever stop. I believed him. I said (to him) you’re probably right. (Writer’s
Note: Marciano probably talked to Khalilah in the late 1960s while Ali was on a forced hiatus from boxing. Marciano died in a plane crash in 1969.) I didn’t want to force the issue. If you can’t get your life straightened out bad enough, I can’t do it for him. He has to do that for himself.
Boxing Insider: Well actually, he didn’t really lose it (the title) in the ring. (Writer’s Note: After winning the heavyweight title for a third time in 1978 against Leon Spinks, Ali announced his retirement. Ali returned to the ring against Larry Holmes in 1980, but Holmes was the world champion.)
Khalilah Ali: It was on the outside of the ring that we had the problems.
Boxing Insider: He lost to Leon Spinks. He lost his titles and then he won the rematch against Spinks. That was in 1978.
Khalilah Ali: That was luck.
Boxing Insider: Then he retired and he didn’t have the title.
Khalilah Ali: I wasn’t in his life.
Boxing Insider: You weren’t in his life and then he fought Larry Holmes.
Khalilah Ali: I would have never told him to fight Larry Holmes. I would have told him to never fight your sparring partners ever, but he didn’t listen.
Boxing Insider: Because they know your weaknesses, right?
Khalilah Ali: It’s not only that. It’s that they want it badder than he does. When you get to a certain point, somebody is going to want it badder than you. Whoever wants it bad enough, that’s who is going to win.
Boxing Insider: He (Holmes) was also in his prime. He was a future Hall of Famer. That was a difficult fight.
Khalilah Ali: (When Ali fought) George Foreman, 1974, that was his best prime. That was it because most of his prime was sitting out.
Boxing Insider: Some people think that his prime was lost when he was out for three years. When he looked his best was in his fight just prior to him being suspended for three years. In a way, we lost his prime like we lost Mike Tyson’s prime for about three years.
Khalilah Ali: He did his best when he beat Foreman. That was like his ultimate best because he had support. I was supporting him. He had somebody in his corner that is going to motivate him to win. When that is taken away, he’s going to lose it.
Boxing Insider: Everyone (athletes) needs a good coach and a companion to help them.
Khalilah Ali: Spiritual support is more powerful than anything in the world.
Boxing Insider: Do you think he lost some of that?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, when I left. He lost it because I was the key person that kept him on top of things. That’s just my opinion. People might say “No. He’s the champ. He can do what he wants.”
Boxing Insider: You left him in 1977. Was that after the Earnie Shavers fight or before? Do you recall that?
Khalilah Ali: I didn’t go to any Earnie Shavers fight.
Boxing Insider: That was where he took a lot of hits. (Writer’s Note: Shavers is considered to be one of the hardest punchers in boxing history. Ali won a unanimous decision after 15 rounds. In his next fight, Ali lost his heavyweight titles to Leon Spinks.)
Khalilah Ali: I wasn’t with him (at the time). He’s not going to get hurt on my watch. I allowed the (first) Joe Frazier (fight) because I knew he wasn’t going to win that one because he did not train (well). You have to understand one thing. When Muhammad Ali trains his best, he cannot be stopped.
Boxing Insider: So why was his motivation fluctuating sometimes? Was it distractions?
Khalilah Ali: A lot of distractions. When the person that you know should be there for you is not there for you, that’s the biggest distraction of them all. You have to realize one thing. He is good at what he does. Nobody can tell him anything about that ring. I would never get in the ring with this guy. I’m just saying he’s one of the best and if he’s in rare form running backwards, this guy runs ten miles backwards. I mean, who does that?
Boxing Insider: You were a high degree black belt.
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I was. I didn’t really want him to know I was doing karate, but he found out anyway. I don’t compare anything to him. I’m just saying that he was as good at what he does. Like I said, Muhammad Ali distracted his opponent and he beat him psychologically first and foremost. If I come in to you and I tell you “Let me tell you something. You look like a rabbit” and I dangle carrots in front of you, you’re going to go “Is this guy nuts?” Half the fight is over because you know this guy is nuts. He says “I can’t beat this nut.” Your whole inner self-confidence is gone out the window. You’re intimidated.
Boxing Insider: So it wasn’t just his physical (abilities), it was his psychological (abilities).
Khalilah Ali: That was 90% of the fight. The other 10% is hitting and not get hit. Ali was fast. He was known not to get hit. When you thought he was getting hit, he wasn’t getting hit. When you thought he was getting hit, he was weaving. He bobs and weaves. He’s fast and then when he gets real mad at you, he starts running backwards in the ring on you and then you’ve got to come toward him, so he’s got you. He’s got control of the whole fight.
Boxing Insider: But towards the end though, he wasn’t as fast. His ability to evade shots (was in decline). Pacheco was very adamant that he should quit. Were you as adamant to Muhammad that he should quit?
Khalilah Ali: I told him to quit after the Foreman fight, way before Pacheco (told him).
Boxing Insider: Were you constantly on him that he had to quit?
Khalilah Ali: No, because you can’t make nobody do anything. When I said you should quit, this would be the best time for you to quit. When he said no, I let him go. You can’t make anybody do anything. That’s not me in the ring. That’s him in the ring.
Boxing Insider: Up until the time that you got the divorce, did you notice signs of any…
Khalilah Ali: No, he didn’t have all that. He didn’t get that until afterward. He was a little crazy. Maybe he had brain damage then. I can see him going a little crazy or nuts. He wasn’t thinking rationally anymore like he used to. I can see that.
Boxing Insider: His abilities were declining, but he wasn’t recognizing that or he wasn’t admitting to it?
Khalilah Ali: No, the only time that I saw anything different was his hands. He used to soak his hands in ice water and solution. He used to have pains in his hands. I saw that during the Foreman fight.
Boxing Insider: They said that he had injections to numb (the pain).
Khalilah Ali: Yeah. He had injections in his hands. Something was messing with his hands. He wasn’t shaking at the time, but there was something definitely wrong with that. He had to soak his hands.
Boxing Insider: Did he have fractures in his hands?
Khalilah Ali: I don’t know what was wrong with them. It was just his hands. It was nothing else.
Boxing Insider: He never had X-rays on his hands?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, he had X-rays and everything. That’s when he started putting injections, but then they would heal after a while. Then, he would have no problem. He would hit you in the right spots where he didn’t have to use too much force, but it was only his hands. I didn’t see any sickness or anything other than him not thinking rationally.
Boxing Insider: Your book is coming out next year, right?
Khalilah Ali: God willing.
Boxing Insider: Do you have any title for it or can you say the title?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah. I don’t want to say the title right now, but I do have a working title.
Boxing Insider: I read that you were maybe going to call it I Molded The Clay.
Khalilah Ali: No, that’s not it.
Boxing Insider: So you changed your mind on that one.
Khalilah Ali: No. Somebody else thought that up because when I write the book, it’s my life story. It’s not a (Muhammad) Ali life story. It’s my life story. He’s just a part of my life, so I’m not really telling a Muhammad Ali story like everybody else. I’m speaking to him as my husband as a man and I just had these moments with this particular person. It’s my personal perspective, my personal moments that I want to share. There are certain moments that I’m sharing. It’s about Ali the man, the father, the husband. I had my moments about him, how great he is and stuff like that, but it is not a Muhammad Ali story. It’s my story.
Boxing Insider: And we have plenty of those anyway. We need one about you.
Khalilah Ali: I’m telling about my experiences and what I saw that no one else saw.
Boxing Insider: Do you feel that, of the people that are still alive today, that probably you and Ferdie Pacheco are the ones that know Ali best? Would that be correct?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah. I talked with Ferdie Pacheco last month and they were saying that he wasn’t doing well. But when I talked to him, it seems I brought his energy back and the feeling of being with Ali and the things that we talked about that we can relate to. It brought his life back. (Writer’s Note: Before this interview, I was told by Khalilah Ali’s manager that Pacheco was very ill in the hospital, so I did a distance energy healing on him. Apparently, he recovered from his illness enough to leave the hospital, but I do not know how much or how little that I contributed to his recovery.)
Boxing Insider: We’re in Deerfield Beach right now. I know Don King’s headquarters is in this city. I would imagine that you talked to him back in the 1970s when Ali was fighting.
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, it wasn’t any long conversation.
Boxing Insider: So you don’t talk to him today?
Khalilah Ali: Oh, I talk to him. I have no problem with Don King. Don King didn’t manage me. He managed Ali. I only saw him at certain points when we went to the Africa fight. He wasn’t always in our life all the time 24/7. I don’t have any problem with talking to anybody back in those days. He never did anything bad to me. He’s doing different things for the community in Deerfield (such as) giving out turkeys (for Thanksgiving) and I support him. He does a lot of community things. He will not do anything on your agenda, but if you’re with him doing it on his agenda, he’s open arms to everybody. I don’t have anything against Don King. I admire him in one aspect that he changed his life around. He had a real rugged, wild life.
Boxing Insider: Was Muhammad Ali okay with Don King?
Khalilah Ali: No. They had issues. I’ve never got into their issues.
Boxing Insider: With regarding money mostly?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, but I never got into it.
Boxing Insider: Did Ali feel that he was not compensated fairly?
Khalilah Ali: As I said, I didn’t get into it. Whatever they had against him, they were talking to the lawyers and stuff like that. I wasn’t a part of that.
Boxing Insider: I see. Do you know how many pages your book is going to be approximately?
Khalilah Ali: 200, 300 maybe.
Boxing Insider: And you wrote it with another writer or did you write it yourself?
Khalilah Ali: I wrote it myself and notes that I have been writing all along when I was living with Ali.
Boxing Insider: You had a diary in a way?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I had a diary. Yes, I did. It has been over 30 years of writing things that come to you here and there.
Boxing Insider: I know you’re probably going to have everything in your book, but is there one thing that you could reveal about Muhammad Ali right now that you never told anyone before publicly?
Khalilah Ali: There are a lot of things I haven’t told publicly. That’s the whole point of writing a book, right?
Boxing Insider: Yeah. Just one thing if you can reveal something.
Khalilah Ali: He can’t cook.
Boxing Insider: Did you cook for him?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I cooked for him. I’m a good cook. He can’t cook. He can eat. I made a chocolate cake one time, 8 or 9 inch cake. I put the icing on it and set it in front of him and I went away to get a saucer to sit next to him and the cake was gone. It was gone that quick.
Boxing Insider: He ate the whole cake.
Khalilah Ali: I said “What happened to the cake?” He said “I was hungry. It was good.” That was amazing to me. I’ve never seen anyone devour a chocolate cake like that in my life. If they had one of those fast eating cake contests, Ali would have won. He’s the champ. I just turned my back to get the saucer and I turned around and I go “Whoa!” It was literally an empty plate. Now, that’s something I never told anybody.
Boxing Insider: Okay. Well, you heard it here first.
Khalilah Ali: (laughs)
Boxing Insider: An exclusive. (laughs)
Khalilah Ali: He was a jolly fellow. (laughs) Hilarious.
Boxing Insider: After you divorced him and after the (Larry) Holmes fight and the (Trevor) Berbick fight, he retired in 1981. When you were seeing him, how did you feel about his physical condition?
Khalilah Ali: Scary. I went to my daughter’s wedding and he was shaking. I was like what’s going on? And it looked really weird to me because I never kept up with what was going on and everything. I saw him shaking. He was mumbling. I said “You can’t talk? Can’t you talk? Come on, open your mouth.” Ali is full of tricks a lot of the times. I said “Oh man, you better open your mouth and talk. I’m not going to talk to you acting like that.”
Boxing Insider: You thought he was joking?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I did. Then all of a sudden he said “I’m okay.” I said “So why are you doing that?” He said “I’m just trying to get the sympathy of the people.” I said “Man, you don’t have to go through all that. That’s not good.” That’s when I first started seeing the signs. That was pretty scary, but in the latter part, I couldn’t even look at him for five seconds. It was just too heartbreaking to see him (as) a person who I don’t even know. He was a different person altogether. It was just sad to see that. It was very sad. I mean, you’re talking (about) a person who was vibrant and energetic and funny.
Boxing Insider: It was a big change.
Khalilah Ali: It was a change. It was like a metamorphosis. It was like he was Frankenstein. He was like a whole different person. That was scary. I didn’t like seeing that.
Boxing Insider: He couldn’t talk well. Were you talking to him at all in the 1990s or in recent years?
Khalilah Ali: Yeah, I would whisper jokes and he would laugh and I would bring him back up to speed and he would kind of get out of it for a minute, but it was still sad to see. I would only whisper things and we would laugh and I would make him laugh, but it was still sad to see.
Boxing Insider: I read that you attended his funeral.
Khalilah Ali: Of course. He’s the man of my life, my first love, the father of my children. Of course, I am going to be with him until the end. Thank you so much Ron. Where is this going to be at?
Boxing Insider: Edited, but on Boxing Insider.com. There are a lot of good articles on there, not just mine. A lot of good writers.
Khalilah Ali: Do you know we have a South Beach Boxing gym?
Boxing Insider: Yes.
Khalilah Ali: South Beach Boxing is run by Jolie Glassman.
Boxing Insider: It used to be South Florida Boxing. (Writer’s Note: South Florida Boxing used to have a few locations in South Florida. One was in the city of Pembroke Pines. Another was in Miami Beach which is the location where South Beach Boxing is.)
Khalilah Ali: It has a fantastic array of trainers. They train you like a boxer, not (necessarily) to be a boxer, but like a boxer. I want everybody to come down to South Beach Boxing gym.
Boxing Insider: And you train there.
Khalilah Ali: I train there as much as I can.
Boxing Insider: Thanks Khalilah. Great interview.