Return to Transcripts main page


Muhammad Ali's Life and Career Profiled. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired June 4, 2016 - 14:00   ET





I must be the greatest.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He told the world he was the greatest before anyone believed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was something like caviar. You had to acquire a taste for him.

ALI: This will be a total annihilation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You couldn't shut Ali up.

CARROLL: Dubbed the "Louisville Lip," he fought his way to the top.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No fighter fought that way. He could jab and move back.

CARROLL: Worshipped in the boxing ring, once vilified in the public arena.

ALI: If I'm going to die, I'm going to die in the ring fighting you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ali lost a title. Came back 10 years later and won the title. That's unheard of.

CARROLL: He was a poet.

ALI: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

CARROLL: A prophet.

MARYUM ALI, MUHAMMAD ALI'S DAUGHTER: He made me feel I could walk on water.

CARROLL: And a role model.

ALI: The more we take part in wars, we take lives of other humans.

MARYUM ALI: I remember every conversation, which is amazing. He's always taught me make sure you exercise your soul and your spirit. And that's what my father fought for.

CARROLL: A fighter till the end, tonight, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.


CARROLL: The opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look who gets it next.

CARROLL: A surprise guest expected on stage.

MARYUM ALI, MUHAMMAD ALI'S DAUGHTER: Actually they kept that a big secret from everyone. The children didn't even know.

Muhammad Ali's daughter, Maryum.

MARYUM ALI: I got a call. And I was told your dad is going to light the torch, call all your siblings. I'm like, what? It was just a beautiful moment.


CARROLL: The crowd roared when they see the champ on stage.


CARROLL: And the world held its breath as Ali, diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a decade earlier, struggled to control the torch.

JERRY IZENBERG, SPORTS WRITER: He burned himself trying to keep his hand from shaking. Nobody knew it. That's Ali. I don't want anybody to know I can't light that torch. That was Ali.

CARROLL: When Ali lit the Olympic flame, it was an indelible moment in sports history.

MARYUM ALI: He needed that. He needed to see that people still cared for him even with Parkinson's disease.

CARROLL: I've always wondered what it would be like -- he's your father but he's also this world renowned figure.

MARYUM ALI: He always fought for freedom and love. He wanted this country to be accountable for treating all human beings equal. He was like really more than just a boxer.

CARROLL: He was really just the kid next door, born Cassius Clay junior in 1942 in heavily segregated Louisville, Kentucky. The older of two boys to mom Odessa, housekeeper, and dad Cassius, a billboard painter. He grew up here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cassius didn't appear to be the greatest athlete when he was a kid. I don't even think he played softball and basketball with us.

CARROLL: Robert Coleman lived down the street.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We saw camps through the YMCA. I remember Ali punched me in the chest. I said we can't play no more.

CARROLL: At 12 years old Cassius discovered the power of his punch through an odd twist of fate. When his bike was stolen, he told a police officer he wanted to beat up the thief. That cop, Joe Martin, was also a trainer and encouraged him to try that aggression out in the ring. He was a natural. Years later Martin and Ali were reunited on TV's "This is Your Life."

ALI: He taught me the jabs, taught me the hooks. Both of them together made me what I am today.

CARROLL: Cassius was hooked and dead serious about learning the ropes, trained at two gyms, hitting the streets before school.

RUDOLPH DAVIDSON, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: You could tell he was going to be different. We would ride the bus to Madison Junior High, and he would be running behind it, still training. And we'd laugh at him. He's just crazy.

CARROLL: Crazy fast, and driven. And by the age of 14 he had six Kentucky Golden Glove titles and two national titles under his belt. By 18 Cassius Clay he was an Olympic champ, winning the gold medal in the 1960 summer games in Rome. His long-time business manager Gene Kilroy.

GENE KILROY, FORMER BUSINESS MANAGER: I met him in the Olympics. If they could have made a mayor of the Olympic village in Rome it would have been him. Everybody loved him. He wore his gold medal around.

[14:05:05] CARROLL: Where do you think the confidence comes from?

KILROY: He just believed in himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cassius Clay of Chicago challenges Gary Joyce.

CARROLL: That confidence combined powerfully with his size, fast speed, and stinging jabs, he was a dancer in the ring. Clay turned pro in the '60s, winning most matches by knockouts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why all the crowd and all the cameraman? Why of course, Cassius has just hit town.

CARROLL: As his star power grew, so did his voice.

ALI: He ain't nothing but a chump.

CARROLL: Clay craved the spotlight and became as famous for his rants.

ALI: This will be no contest. This will be a total annihilation.

CARROLL: And rhymes.

ALI: He's going around claiming to be the real heavyweight champ. But after I'm finished he'll just be a tramp.

CARROLL: As he did for his boxing.

ALI: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

BOB SHERIDAN, BOXING ANNOUNCER: Any fight that involved him was a circus.

CARROLL: Boxing announcer Bob Sheridan.

SHERIDAN: Athletes at that time prior to Cassius Clay were not brash and outspoken. They wanted those people in the seats to go and see him. He was a promoter's dream.

ALI: I'm the prettiest fighter in the ring today.

IZENBERG: There's a fine line between confidence and braggadocio. And I had no idea which side of the line he was on.

CARROLL: Sports writer Jerry Izenberg covered most of Ali's fights, including his first heavyweight bout against the ferocious Sonny Liston.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And here they come. Liston misses a long left lead to start it off. Lands a left jab on the nose. Clay is backing away and Clay moving to his left as they said he would do.

CARROLL: Ali was in the ring, but with his hands down and was moving around like this --

IZENBERG: He was the only fighter I ever knew who could punch moving backwards. He wasn't a big banger no matter what. His knockouts came after he hit you and he hit you and he hit you, and finally you fell down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jabbing with the left, jabbing with the left. Another left by Clay.

CARROLL: The big bear Sonny Liston couldn't withstand Clay's jabs. He was a beaten man by the sixth round. He didn't answer the bell in the seventh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sonny Liston is not coming out. The winner and the new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay.

CARROLL: It was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and Cassius Clay at 22 years old became the youngest Boxer to beat a heavyweight champ for a title.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come here, champ.

ALI: I'm the greatest thing that ever lived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next, Ali's biggest fight came outside of the ring.

ALI: Under no conditions do we take part in wars and take lives of other humans.


ALI: I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest. I told the world.

CARROLL: Almost as quickly as Cassius Clay arrived, he vanished.

IZENBERG: His life changed the next morning.

CARROLL: In 1964, after he stunned the nation by winning the heavyweight title, he joined the black separatist Nation of Islam, and became Muhammad Ali.

IZENBERG: Did the two of you ever talk about why it was important for him to change his name?

CARROLL: It was important to him because he did believe he had a slave name. He wanted a new identity.

ALI: You know my new name. Why are you calling me that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will your next fight be billed as Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali?

ALI: Muhammad Ali.

DAVID REMNICK, AUTHOR, "KING OF THE WORLD": The fact that he made this conversion from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali helped make him a figure in the Arab world, in Africa. It may not have been paying any attention whatsoever to American boxing champions. He basically was the sporting reflection of what would become the black power movement.

ALI: If I'm going to die, I'll die right here fighting you. You my enemy.

CARROLL: Ali, famous worldwide, was a radical voice at home. He criticized U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and refused to serve in the army as a Muslim and a conscientious objector.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell me, champ, would you have been prepared to go into the army if it hadn't been for the Vietnam War?

ALI: Under no conditions do we take part in wars that take the lives of other humans.

CARROLL: In an instant, Ali for many turned from sports hero to villain.

When he made that decision, a number of people in this country turned against him.

IZENBERG: A number of people didn't like him to begin with because he was what they call a braggart. And then when the army came up, it alienated a whole other section of the country. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Heavyweight champion Cassius Clay at a federal

court in Houston is found guilty of violating the U.S. Selective Service laws.

CARROLL: Ali faced five years in prison, and in 1967 was stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from the sport at the prime boxing age of just 25.

IZENBERG: I loaned him $20 one day in front of the Americana.

CARROLL: So he was broke?

IZENBERG: He didn't have any money. And he didn't have any income.

CARROLL: But his gift for gab helped him earned money lecturing at universities. Ali easily held his own.

ALI: You my opponent when I want justice. You my opponent when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home.

REMNICK: In a war in which young black men, mainly without any money and with little education, were dying in disproportionate numbers, this young black man, outspoken, stands up and says no.

CARROLL: Exiled from boxing for more than three years, Ali even gave acting a shot, taking a part in the Broadway musical "Buck White."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's the world famous world heavyweight champion.

CARROLL: He performed on the Ed Sullivan show.

ALI: We came in chains. We came in misery.

CARROLL: His music career, not surprisingly, fizzled. In 1967, he got hitched to Belinda Boyd. They had four children.

MARYUM ALI: He wanted all his kids to be with him in the summertime. So he got himself a pool. There's Laila here, Hana, the twins, Muhammad.

CARROLL: Ali doted on all his children, seen here in a home video from the film "I am Ali."

[14:15:02] ALI: You want to go with me? Can you fight?

CARROLL: He called them from the road with fatherly advice.

MARYUM ALI: I remember every conversation, which is amazing.

CARROLL: Many of those conversations were recorded.

ALI: Everybody's born for a purpose. What do you think you were born for? MARYUM ALI: To make people feel better, to fix people up.

ALI: That's good. That's good, Maryum.

MARYUM ALI: I remember when I'd tell my dad he's too old to fight.

ALI: To go look another place like Deer Lake. It might be possible if I like it, I might fight again.

MARYUM ALI: No. Don't fight again, please.

But just for a man to ask me, an 11-year-old and get my take on it, it was pretty amazing.

MIYA ALI, MUHAMMAD ALI'S DAUGHTER: He would ask about boys. He would ask about school.

CARROLL: While married to Boyd, Ali had daughter Mia with another woman.

MIYA ALI: I remember growing up, and he used to play boxing in the street. It would start with one person and then there would be hundreds of people surrounding him. He never lost me, thank God.

MARYUM ALI: He just really was the glue that held it all together with his nine children. You know, my dad, if he makes mistakes, nine children and, you know, four wives, a couple of mistresses. What I love the most is that he doesn't pretend to be perfect. He never has. That's why he's always taught me make sure you exercise your soul and your spirit.

CARROLL: Ali's spirit, his convictions about the war, never wavered. He stood his ground, and eventually the nation came around. In 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. He returned to the ring and got a chance to win back his title. Billed as "The Fight of the Century," he match pitted Ali against current champ, Smokin' Joe Frazier.

ALI: I predict the fight won't go the distance.

IZENBERG: They were the two best fighters in the world. Bing, pop, bing, pop, and Frazier is plotting. He's got that left hook. You can make a comic strip about his left hook. It had a life of its own. When it wanted to go, it went. And when it went, you went down.

CARROLL: The slugfest went the full 15 rounds. Ali was losing but tried hard to psych out Frazier.

IZENBERG: He's screaming, "Fool, God says I'm the champion." When that happens, he slips a jab, steps inside, throws that left hook right on there. Ali goes down.

CARROLL: It was Ali's first ever professional loss. But he and Smokin' Joe were far from finished.

ALI: Joe Frazier is in trouble. Because the Muhammad Ali Joe Frazier is going to meet is going to be better than the Muhammad Ali he met three years ago.

CARROLL: When we return, the greatest comeback ever.

GEORGE FOREMAN, FORMER HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION: I thought he was going to fall. This was going to be a long night.


[14:22:37] ALI: Too much speed for him. I'm too fast. I'm too fast.

CARROLL: It was 1974, and 32-year-old Muhammad Ali was on a mission.

ALI: I'm going to retire the heavyweight champion of the world. That's right. If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I kick Foreman's behind.

CARROLL: Big George Foreman was boxing's most feared fighter, destroying Joe Frazier in two rounds.

GEORGE FOREMAN, FORMER HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION: I'm sitting on the throne. I thought I was doing a charitable contribution to Muhammad Ali by allowing him to fight for my title.

CARROLL: The match was called "Rumble in the Jungle."

FOREMAN: I was being offered $5 million to fight Muhammad Ali. I went to Africa to get my money, beat up someone, and go home.

ALI: They want to be like me, I'm getting ready to go whip George Foreman.

CARROLL: But the locals fell hard for Ali, and Ali, seen here "When We Were Kings," loved every minute of it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He loved people, and I think that's why they loved him so much.

CARROLL: And 18-year-old Veronica Porsche was hired as a poster girl to promote the fight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were told at the very last moment that we could go.

CARROLL: When did you start getting the butterflies?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was when -- we used to walk by the Zaire river in the evening, and that was probably during those times.

CARROLL: They would marry eventually. But first the fight that captured the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Foreman is head hunting, himself. Ali tries to hang on. FOREMAN: I hit him with all kinds of punches, and one thing about a

power puncher is every time you throw one big right hand, a left hook wide and wild, it's like 10 miles of road work that's going away from you, and you'll never get it back.

IZENBERG: Ali's got his gloves up here. So the round goes by, boom, boom. He's hitting gloves. Boom, boom.

CARROLL: He's going to wear him out.

IZENBERG: He's going to make him wear himself out.

FOREMAN: Somewhere around the sixth round, I hit him and he folded, and I thought I got him now. He just fell over and whispered, "Is that all you got, George?" That's when I realized this was going to be a long night.

CARROLL: Round eight, Ali leaned back on the ropes, purposely absorbing punch after punch until he was ready to attack.

[14:25:05] IZENBERG: I never saw a fighter fall in sections. Like his ankles hit the ground, his knees hit the ground, his chest hit the ground. And then he would hit the ground.


CARROLL: Against all odds, Ali made one of the greatest comebacks in history.

ALI: I told you, all of my critics, I told you all that I was the greatest of all time.

GENE KILROY, FORMER BUSINESS MANAGER: Ali lost the title and then came back ten years later and won the title, won the title, won the title. That's unheard of.

FOREMAN: I was a good fighter, very good fighter. But Muhammad Ali was better than me.

CARROLL: A year later, Ali got his revenge against Smokin' Joe Frazier in their final brutal fight called "Thrilla in Manila."

IZENBERG: Frazier is standing there with his legs the consistency of wet spaghetti. All Ali has to do is walk three feet, push him. Ali could not walk those three feet. Neither one was ever the same again. They took everything they had out of each other.


CARROLL: Frazier's trainer stopped the fight after the 14th round. Ali won with a TKO, ending one of the biggest boxing rivalries of all time. Friends and family begged Ali to hang up his gloves and go out on top.

IZENBERG: Ali came up the aisle, and he said, this is the closest you fellas will ever see to death. KILROY: I pleaded with him to retire, retire after this fight.

Retire, retire.

CARROLL: ABC Sports announcer Howard Cosell, who covered Ali for most of his career, even tried to talk the champ down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You told me three-and-a-half weeks ago, one more fight, that you'd had your full of it. One big fight, a lot of money, and that was it. Now there are more fights in the offing. Why?

ALI: Well, because I've changed my mind. I feel that I will go another few years. The fans want to see if.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that in effect is our show today. Ali still the heavyweight champion of the world. Knock it off!

MARYUM ALI: They loved each other, man. They really did. They were like brothers. They really were.

CARROLL: Over the next six years, there were 10 more fights, two more marriages, and three more children, including daughter Laila, who followed in her father's footsteps.

LAILA ALI, MUHAMMAD ALI'S DAUGHTER: Just being Muhammad Ali's daughter, people are always going to want to test you. And I've always been the one to take it on and not want to back down.

CARROLL: Then Muhammad Ali would take on his toughest opponent.

MARYUM ALI: We saw the slurred speech, a little slowness.

CARROLL: How did you find out that your father had Parkinson's?

MARYUM ALI: The diagnosis came years after he actually had it. That was a time when even the top researchers did not know that young people can get Parkinson's.

CARROLL: He was 38-years-old. In 1982, after three decades of redefining boxing with a lifetime record of 56 wins and only five defeats, Ali retired for good.

LONNIE ALI, MUHAMMAD ALI'S WIFE: The disease had a very slow progression for him, and it hasn't stopped him from doing anything he wants to do.

CARROLL: Like that moment in 1996 that brought the world to its feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once the most dynamic figure in sports --

MARYUM ALI: That was a very positive highlight for him, and it was massive. I mean, millions of people saw that.

CARROLL: Millions of fans all over the world continued to worship the champ.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: When you say the greatest of all time is in the room, everyone knows who you mean.

CARROLL: And in 2005, the one-time objector of conscience received the country's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

CNN's last visit with Ali was at his home, the champ moving slower, his voice, barely a whisper.

ALI: This was the gymnasium of my comeback.

CARROLL: His spirits unshaken until the end.

FOREMAN: I still look at the guy and see the greatest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muhammad Ali had no fear.

MARYUM ALI: He always fought for freedom and love.

MIYA ALI: That was his mission in life is to help people.

FOREMAN: We were privileged to lay on hands on him a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muhammad was bigger than boxing.

FOREMAN: But to say a great boxer, give that to some boxer. The guy was one of the greatest human beings I've ever met in my life.

ALI: I am the greatest!