Los Angeles-based writer Hana Ali has written three books about her late father, the iconic and beloved heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Thanks to newly discovered audio tapes by him and newly found love letters to her mother, Ali has been able to write a new memoir, At Home with Muhammad Ali: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Forgiveness, a new intimate portrayal of the great boxer just published by Amistad Press.
PW spoke to Ms. Ali about the writing of the book, her father’s family life, his heath, and what it’s like being the daughter of one of the most famous people in history.
Your previous books, More Than a Hero (2000), The Soul of Butterfly (2004), and Ali On Ali (2018), are good entries into the complexities of your father. At Home with Muhammad Ali features dozens of audio recordings, and some newly discovered love Letters from you dad and your mom. Describe the genesis of the book.
The original title of the book, was Conversations with the Greatest. I got the idea to write a book based on my dad’s audio recordings. When he actually gave them to me in 2003 I was finishing up writing Soul of a Butterfly. The longest stage of writing the book was listening to the audio recordings. I had to stop because I got depressed. I felt like I was in a time warp, transcribing the tapes and listening to him.
The subtitle of the book is A Memoir of Love, Loss and Forgiveness. Can you give us examples from the book?
The love he had for his family, and for me. The loss of his health; and the loss of his marriage.
Your father was so well-known that we think that we know everything there is to know about him. What did we learn about your father when you wrote this book?
The biggest part for me was learning about how much he stressed about taking care of the people he was taking care of: not only his family, extended family and friends, but also his religion. He was giving about 30% of his paycheck to Islam. He built many mosques. He thought that spreading the word of Islam was so important. He wanted to be like an evangelist: the black Billy Graham [laughs]
In one of the tapes, your father wrote a beautiful poem about the importance of friendship. Many will be surprised to know how well he got as long with his greatest boxing rival, Joe Frazier.
He had Joe Frazier’s number. He always called to wish him a Merry Christmas and to check on him. I’ve always said in interviews that their rivalry was one-sided. If my dad said anything negative on Frazier, it was because Frazier said something negative about him, and he, in turn, would respond. But my dad held no grudges. And he and George Foreman were friends, too. They always talked about religion and God.
When you lived with your father you wrote: “I grew up inside a fairy tale. A family of four, living in a beautiful mansion, complete with a trellis and floral vine harmony. My father was the most famous man in the world, and my mother one of the most beautiful women in the world.” All of that ended when your parents got divorced because of your dad’s infidelity.
I know my dad was not perfect. But I respect and love how we handled his faults. I unfairly blamed my mother for the breakup of their marriage. I was a daddy’s girl. He could do no wrong in my eyes. And those feelings intensified when I discovered my dad’s love letters to her. How could she have not known about them? But after a while, I eventually saw her relationship with my father through her eyes.
Not to long after the divorce, you start to see, in hindsight, the early effects of Parkinson’s Disease. Around the time of Ali’s fight with Leon Spinks in 1978.
The doctors don’t believe that he got it from boxing, although it could have made the effects worse. They believe he got it from pesticides. It’s still a mystery. But regardless of what happened, my father wouldn’t change anything about his life. He looked at the disease as part of his destiny on earth.
In one of your father’s tapes, you and him are singing a song with the lyric, “off in the morning off to school...” He also said that you would thank him for making the tapes.
That’s one of my favorite tapes! [laughs]. And yes: he said that on numerous tapes. He said “I’m so glad I’m history conscious.” [laughs] I thank my father everyday! He thought it would be so amazing to hear them.