Maryum and Hana Ali were born daughters of one of the most legendary boxers in history – Muhammad Ali.
But aside from his sporting prowess, Ali, now 73 and a Parkinson’s sufferer, is also an adoring, sensitive father with a wicked sense of humour and predisposition to tears. As a new documentary, I Am Ali, is released in the UK, two of his nine children share their stories of the playful, engaging family man behind the boxing gloves, who is not as unwell as the international press have alleged. In fact, he’s in good form, and is delighted by all the media attention his apparent brush with death has brought him.
Here, they detail how he reacted when he lost fights, what makes him cry (a lot apparently) and his constant need to be told he was loved.
Independent: What do you think I Am Ali reveals about your father that the public don’t already know?
Hana: “Director Claire Lewis told his story with new material with added personal home family recording, so you get the added benefit of knowing what he was like at home with his children. The film speaks of the essence of who he is as an individual.”
“He is playful, loving and sensitive; he has no problem showing his emotions like most men do. My dad even asks for directions if we’re lost. Most men don’t do that. He’s very secure with himself. He’s so secure he doesn’t mind crying at the drop of a hat. It doesn’t matter who’s there or who’s watching. He’s not shy. He’s not sorry for it. He loved us, he would tell us that all the time – even with his sons he’s say, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ He needed to hear it more than he said. He’d often ask, ‘Let me hear you tell me you love me’ over and over again. He needs to be loved and he loved to loved.”
Maryum: “He was a great teacher; he used to preach a little bit. He liked hearing from us. I remember him asking me, ‘What do you think about me returning to the ring?’ I was only 11. He really did engage with us. He cared, he loved getting our perspectives. He’s so funny too. He’d tell me off for using a profanity, then he’d say, ‘But I’m curious, what do you sound like when you use a profanity? Let’s hear it.’ He was just an interesting person and he got a kick out of how we thought.”
Great boxing rivalries
Great boxing rivalries
1/10 Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier – 1971, 1974 & 1975
Possibly one of the greatest rivalries of all time, not just in boxing but in any sport. These two titans met three times, with Ali taking home the spoils 2-1. The first was known as the ‘Fight of the Century’ in which two undisputed title holders came together, it ended with Frazier winning after 15 rounds via unanimous decision. The final fight was dubbed ‘Thrilla in Manilla’, where Ali retained all three of his heavyweight titles.
2/10 Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling – 1936 & 1938
Among two of boxing’s most historical fights. With Schmeling’s origins of Nazi Germany, these two represented something a little more than just two heavyweight boxers at their peak coming together. Louis was undefeated coming into the first fight while Schmeling already had 60 fights under his belt. The German won it with a 12th round knockout. By the time the pair met again, Louis had won the world Heavyweight title. It only took him one round to knock out Schmeling. Louis’ performances gained him national recognition and became one of America’s first African American heroes.
3/10 Micky Ward v Arturo Gatti – 2002, 2002 & 2003
The first time these two met proved to be The Ring Magazine’s ‘Fight of the Year’. A famous left hook body shot in the ninth brought Gatti to his knees and proved the deciding factor in the judges’ decision. A rematch was agreed immediately with Gatti knocking Ward down in third, however the American managed to finish the fight before losing by decision. The final fight also won The Ring Magazine’s fight of the year, Ward knocked down Gatti in the sixth, but before the referee could count to ten, the bell sounded. Gatti was able to come back and win via unanimous decision.
4/10 Nigel Benn v Chris Eubank – 1990 & 1993
In what was initially a fierce domestic rivalry, became one of world interest between these two British greats. Eubank was originally the challenger and began shouting out for Benn after only 10 fights. After winning his WBO middleweight title, Benn agreed to face Eubank. With each fighter saying they were going to knock the other one out, it was the challenger that actually did. With a technical knockout in the ninth round. The re-match was watched by half a billion people worldwide, with both defending titles it was so even, it ended in a draw.
5/10 Gene Tunney v Jack Dempsey – 1926 & 1927
Fighting twice, these bouts have gone down as two of the most famous in boxing history. Tunney won the first over 10 rounds via unanimous decision. The second is why these two were forever known in boxing history. In the seventh round Dempsey threw a flurry of punches to knock Tunney down for the first time in his career. The referee couldn’t count until Dempsey had reached a neutral corner. He didn’t oblige, buying Tunney valuable time. Tunney managed to rise at a time many say was over ten seconds. This is why the fight is known as the Long Count. Tunney went on to knock down Dempsey in the eighth and win by unanimous decision.
6/10 Manny Pacquiao v Juan Manuel Marquez – 2004, 2008, 2011 & 2012
One of the greatest modern day rivalries which will go on to be imprinted in boxing’s history. Having fought four times to this day, Pacquiao has won two, Marquez one and the other being a draw. Marquez winning the most recent with a sixth round knockout, handing the Pac-Man back to back defeats. The Ring Magazine awarded it not only ‘Fight of the Year’ but also ‘Knockout of the Year’.
7/10 Ken Norton v Muhammad Ali - 1973, 1973 & 1976
Ali’s second defeat came to the man known as ‘The Black Hercules’. In what was their first fight, Ali was the 5-1 favourite and had won 10 fights since his first lost to Frazier. Norton broke Ali’s jaw in the fight, despite The Greatest carrying on, he lost on a split decision. Six months later, Ali avenged Norton winning also on a split decision and re-gaining his NABF Heavyweight title. The third and final fight was some three years later after Rumble in the Jungle, Ali won via unanimous decision.
8/10 Marco Antonio Barrera v Erik Morales - 2000, 2002 & 2004
Involving two of more modern days most famous Mexican boxers, the Barrera v Morales trilogy is a famous one, spanning over three different classes. Their first fight was in the super-bantamweight division with both holding titles. Morales won the first on a close split decision. Deciding to move up classes, Morales went to Featherweight, where again he met Barrera for a title match. This time Barrera won, in what was Morales’ first ever career defeat. The third and final time they met was in the Super-Featherweight division, where again Morales lost and with it his WBC title.
9/10 Riddick Bowe v Evander Holyfield - 1992, 1993 & 1995
These two Heavyweight giants came together three times in a famous blockbuster conquest. In the first fight, Holyfield walked in with Lineal, WBC, WBA & IBF Heavyweight titles having beaten Buster Douglas and George Foreman. Bowe had never tasted defeat and to everyone’s surprise, won via unanimous decision. The re-match went the distance with Holyfield winning on a split decision. This was Bowe’s first and only career defeat. The third, unlike the other two, was ended after eight rounds when Bowe knocked out Holyfield.
10/10 Sugar Ray Leonard v Thomas Hearns – 1981 & 1989
These two first met in a heavyweight clash with both boxers’ welterweight titles on the line. Ray Leonard known for his boxing skill, and Hearns for his vicious punching. The epic battle lasted 14 rounds before Leonard unleashed a series of punches, forcing the ref to stop the fight. The re-match, known as ‘The War’, had both fighters again holding titles, this time in the super-middleweight class. After 12 rounds of back and forth punishment, the fight was scored as a judge’s draw. The two never fought again with Hearns moving to light-heavyweight.
I: What was he like as a father?
M: “He was actually so present. He made me feel like the most special girl in the world because he gave me so much attention to detail. His office was never closed. Every little scribble I did, he kept it in a box. He’s got it down in his basement. He loved his children.
“He was extremely sensitive. My father is the kind of person who would see an old couple walking down a street and he’d start to cry because it’d remind him of his own parents. But he has such an amazing heart.”
I: Was it difficult watching your father fighting in the ring?
M: “For me it was. I’ll never forget when Ken Norton broke his jaw when he lost in 1978. Her best friend is Kenny Norton’s daughter you know, so that was funny.
“It was hard, but he won most of the time. When he broke his jaw I thought he’d never talk again. His jaw was wired shut and I was so worried for him. But he’d say, ‘It’s going to come off Maryum. Don’t worry, I’ll be ok.’ It was nerve-wracking though especially towards the end.”
H: “I never watched the last two fights. It’s too depressing. It’s not that I feel he should have stopped, everything is part of his legacy, of who he is and his lessons on earth, his spirituality tells him to do certain things. there’s nothing he shouldn’t have done. It was just hard knowing what was going to happen and seeing him not do his best knowing he had Parkinson’s.
“He didn’t let us come to the fights. I do have a memory of him losing a fight and him being by the edge of the rope, sitting there with his head down wearing his robe. I remember him looking up, seeing us and opening his arms and we went to hug him.”
M: “That last fight we were praying that he would lose. And when he did we were so happy, we were jumping up and down and people around us were like, ‘Aren’t they Ali’s kids?’ Because we knew he would have to stop.”
H: “He physically couldn’t do it. It was the Parkinson’s.”
I: How is your father’s condition now? He is reported to bedridden and struggling to talk...
H: “Parkinson’s is progressive and people don’t study enough, so they don’t understand that what they’re seeing is normal. They see him looking tired, he’s 73 and has Parkinson’s. Usually when they see him like that it’s because he’s been out the night before. But at home he looks peaceful. Every day is different. Some days he’s more tired than others so those days he may not talk as much, but he has moments every single day where he communicates fine. He just has a low pitch. He can still talk.
“We actually have conversations with him in the mornings as that’s when he’s at his best. He still loves being Muhammad Ali. He’s not bedridden. He would never spend the day in bed. He gets up and gets dressed every day and has his day planned. If he’s tired it’s because he was out the night before at a benefit or a fight night, so he might rest a little longer. But he’s never just in the bed.”
I: How has he reacted to the false reports?
H: “My dad loves making the news even if he means he’s dying, so he doesn’t think it’s bad. I’ve said to him, ‘Dad you’re in the news, people think you’re dying.’ He says, ‘They do? Did I make the front page?’ That’s all he wants to know.”
M: “There hasn’t been one story that’s been real about his health. There was one that was real where he was dehydrated but he wasn’t dying.
“Parkinson’s is… the brain produces dopamine and his brain doesn’t produce that anymore. It controls your motorfunctions, so his motorfunctions are deficient. He doesn’t walk the same anymore, he doesn’t move the same way. He’s had it for 30 years and the progression was very slow. It attacks people differently. With Michael J Fox, it doesn’t attack his speech as much, but he shakes more. A lot of people with Parkinson’s speak in whispers.
“Unless you get a report from his wife or children, it’s all fake because we would never lie about his health. We’re just not that kind of family. People who know him, but are not near him a lot today like his brother, don’t understand Parkinson’s. It’s been amazing how negligent reporters have been. But however, we know it sells magazines. He’s a big figure, he has an illness. It used to be bad for us, the first time it was reported I panicked and called my stepmother and said ‘is this true?’. Now when we hear it we don’t panic as much.”
H: “I talk to my dad every day so I know it’s not true. I know he’s fine. They’re just trying to find a way of writing about him. Our brother is not trying to do wrong; it’s just that they don’t see him a lot. When they do see him, they might tell an interviewer what they think and the reporter will take that and run with it. They’re not trying to be malicious, they’re talking the truth as they know it, but it’s not coming from the facts.”