Muhammad Ali’s ex-wife claims the champion was insecure and envied Elvis Presley
Ali’s ex-wife, Khalilah, said the two were such close friends of Elvis that she even gave Ali a custom robe that read “The People’s Choice” after he beat Joe Bugner.
He was revered as the king of the ring after becoming the greatest heavyweight boxing champion the world has ever seen, with his courage and intelligence that made him an inspiration.
But behind closed doors, even Muhammad Ali suffered from bouts of insecurities – and his appearance was unfavorably compared to that of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. The champion’s ex-wife told how he secretly envied the singer for being “prettier”.
Despite his physical prowess, Ali also considered Brazilian football legend Pele a “real athlete”. He was in awe of the Beatles, becoming obsessed with their mop hairstyles. In a rare sharing of his way of thinking, his second wife, Khalila, recalls: “Mohamed loved Elvis. “Elvis is really beautiful,” he told me. People love him because all women love him – he’s so beautiful. “I’m not as beautiful as Elvis and he attracts all the women out of nowhere.”
The two stars were close friends in the years before Presley’s death at the age of 42 in 1977, with Ali dubbing himself the “Elvis of boxing.” Presley gave the boxer a bejeweled robe with the words “The People’s Choice” instead of “The People’s Champion” wrongly written on it before his victory over Britain’s Joe Bogner in 1973. “Whenever Muhammad and I were with Elvis, he would go with Elvis,” Khalilah, 73, adds. Always humble, like Muhammad, he loves giving and helping others.
“Sometimes, when people are that great or popular, they have arrogance and conceit, but Elvis and Muhammad weren’t like that. “He used to play his records all the time. He was fond of the Beatles and was very fascinated by their hairstyles. “He was pulling their hair up.”
Khalila, who married the boxer in 1967, when he was 25 and she was 17, also tells of Ali’s admiration for Brazilian striker Pele, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, as a fellow black man at the top of his sport. Pele is known for winning the World Cup three times with Brazil, while Ali has won the world heavyweight title three times, with a professional record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, and five losses.
Khalila, mother of four of Ali’s nine children, recalls: “In 1975, Mohamed and I went to Cairo in Egypt and discovered that Pele was performing at a concert at the Nile Stadium. He was absolutely amazing. Mohamed couldn’t believe it and said to me: ‘This man is a real athlete. “When we were there on the field, the crowd exploded and saw two black men at the top of their sport admiring each other. “It was amazing to see that connection. They loved each other and smiled with so much joy and love.
Originally from Chicago and now living in Florida, Khalilah met Ali at her hometown mosque when she was 10 years old. He was still known by his birth name Cassius Clay, which he left after converting to Islam in 1964, and was still Belinda Boyd. During their marriage, they lived with their children — Maryam “My Mai,” twins Jamila and Rashida, and Muhammad Ali Jr. — in a six-bed ranch-style home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey with a pool, hot tub, tennis court, and porch. basketball court.
Khalila says their home was a revolving door of celebrities — and strangers — during their nine-year marriage. “I had to get up in the morning and get fully dressed because I knew someone would always come home,” she recalls. “Muhammad would open the door to strangers and walk them through the house. He liked to show off his beautiful house. I had to put up with it but I didn’t mind.
“I remember Michael Parkinson came to our house in the 1970s. Mohammed was saying: Woman, give me some food, as if he was the master of the house. He played the master and I played the submissive and he (Parkinson) fell in love with him. He was very funny.” He was not a cook. A lot, but he loved eating more. But we would do chores and fix things together. He cut the grass and said to me: This is good exercise. I can do this because it keeps me in good shape.
“He loved chopping down trees and making wood for the fireplace. He loved manual labor. But I’ll tell you, when we had the twins, it was hard to struggle with having two at a time.” Their marriage fell apart when Mohamed began an affair with 16-year-old Wanda Bolton. Khalila later accused her ex-husband of fathering many illegitimate children.
Ali was married four times – to Sonny Roy before Khalila and to Veronica Burch and Lonnie Ali after their separation. Reflecting on his betrayal, Khalila says: “Every man has weaknesses – we all have weaknesses. He admitted that he was weak in front of women and I understood that. But I said to him: “How can you not be strong?” I was strong in my convictions. I said: Everyone wants to be like you. So I’m curious who you want to be like?
“I was expecting him to say someone heroic and creative. He said, ‘I don’t want to pat you on the back or anything, but if I were half as strong as you, I’d be really happier.'” “I didn’t see that coming. At least he admired me, his wife, for her strength, my tenacity to succeed, and to stay focused on being strong in my faith.
Khalila stuck up for Ali in 1967 when he was stripped of his world championship and threatened with prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam, using her college money to help keep the family afloat. She was his right-hand man for most of his career, handling PR, promotions and strategy behind the scenes. After their divorce in 1977, they remained friends for decades until his death in 2016, at the age of 74, after battling Parkinson’s disease.
Despite this, Khalila says she was not consulted about the 2001 Hollywood film “His Life on Me,” starring Will Smith. She says: “I lived with Muhammad Ali for more than 10 years as a family and helped him in his career. They didn’t call me. I was the one who was with him for most of his career directing him and no one from the film asked me anything. They didn’t put me as part of his life, they should have.
“When they cast Will Smith, it was fine. Will Smith tended to like Ali a lot and he looked like this for the role, but the only thing about it was that they were directing him in the direction of anger all the time. Muhammad Ali was never that angry. He was a happy person. He got along with people very well. He was always joking and having fun with people. I miss him so much.
■ Undefeated: The Untold Story of My Forgiveness, Healing, and Redemption by Khalilah Ali is available on Amazon. Additional reporting: Fayyaz Rafiq