Life and Love with 'The Greatest': Muhammad Ali

July 29, 2012

When Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams was six years old she looked out of her front door in Louisville, Kentucky, and saw an energetic young man holding court to a wide-eyed gaggle of neighbourhood boys, including her brother.

“Who’s that big man?” she asked her mother, not knowing that the answer would change her life.

“That’s Cassius Clay,” her mother told her. “The Champ”, “The Louisville Lip”, the 1960 Olympic gold medallist and the most exciting heavyweight boxer the world had ever seen.

Lonnie crossed the street to find out for herself what all the fuss what about: “He was wearing a crisp white shirt and a black bow tie, and all the boys were crowding around trying to listen to him. There were kids’ bikes all over the lawn. He saw that I was the only girl and he beckoned me over and started to talk to me — but he scared me, he was so huge.”

Despite her apprehension, it proved to be the start of a lifelong conversation. Fast forward through almost 50 years, three other wives, two religious conversions and a series of unforgettable victories in the ring — combined with historic controversies outside it — and Lonnie is now in London where her husband, frail but determined, took part on Friday night in the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Her moment of destiny at six years old has made her the guardian of a very special sporting legacy.

A large part of that legacy has been the opening of the Muhammad Ali Centre, a museum and educational facility in Louisville, followed by the launch of Generation Ali — a youth leadership programme based on what Ali identified as his six core values: spirituality, confidence, conviction, dedication, respect and giving.

Muhammad Ali, now 70, took the stage with David Beckham at the Beyond Sport summit in London last week to present the first Generation Ali award to Matiullah Haidar, a teenager who lost most of his family in the war in Afghanistan, and now works to encourage other young refugees to play cricket.

“That young man didn’t actually know who Muhammad was,” Lonnie says, which she found an unusual experience.

“Before we got married I knew Muhammad was famous,” she says. “But he was also the guy across the street who came to our house and talked to me, and ate with me and my parents. It wasn’t until after we got married that I realised the enormity of his celebrity. We would go to Egypt and old women would come up to him crying and holding him like a son. In Pakistan grown men would actually chase him through the airport. It was quite shocking.”

She admits that the legacy of Muhammad Ali meant many different things to people — and that Ali himself wasn’t always so universally loved.

Back in the days when he was Cassius Clay, living in a modest house directly across Grand Avenue from the Williams family, he played a more divisive role in American life. White America was enraged when he joined the Nation of Islam, refused the draft to join the Vietnam War, rejected Clay as his “slave name” — and simply refused to fit into any racial stereotype. Louisville, a segregated town on the border of the American South, declined to host a dinner for their returning gold medallist after the 1960 Rome Olympics, with the town council claiming that the schedule was “too busy”. Later, only a 6-5 vote in favour led to one of the city boulevards being renamed in his honour.

While Ali’s father, a sign painter, had imbued in him the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader, and often bitterly criticised the prejudice he encountered daily, Lonnie says she was barely aware of the racial tensions of the Civil Rights era.

“We never talked about race in our house. People were people and that was it. Of course racism was there and I learned about Civil Rights in school, but I went to a mixed Catholic school and I was really quite naïve. I didn’t experience it.”

The Clay and Williams family lived in a working-class black part of town, which had none of the wealth of the white areas, but was still far removed from the poverty of black slums.

Later, as a student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, Lonnie recalls that the Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan spoke on campus, but none of this hampered her career as an academic, and then a successful businesswoman: “If I’ve been discriminated against because of my colour or sex, I’ve never noticed it.” She entered university as a pre-med student, but changed course only when she realised she couldn’t dissect a cadaver.

Always in the background of her life was Muhammad Ali. “When I was about 17 I had an epiphany that we would eventually get married and be together,” she says. It was more of a moment of knowing your destiny, rather than lovesick yearning. “Muhammad had other wives, and I liked them. I went out with some other guys, and I even thought about becoming engaged to one.” Ultimately, though, none could compare to Ali.

“He had the full package, you know,” she says. “He had the perfect human physique. Look at him not as a woman would look at a man, but artistically — he was beautiful. And he was so vivid and alive. He had this incredible confidence and self-assurance.”

Ali’s fast-paced poetic quips initially infuriated his opponents and sports writers, as did his famous “I am the greatest” chant, which he first uttered after his debut — and rather less than legendary — victory as a teenage amateur.

“He said he was ‘the greatest’ but actually he was also a very humble person. He was the kindest and most giving person I’ve ever met. Even after he was famous he’d still want to talk to everyone in the room, he never cared about how important anyone was. And when we were eating in restaurants he’d often go back into the kitchen with his plate to talk to the staff and offer them some food.”

Living with a legend might prove wearing, though: always in the spotlight, everyone always wanting a piece of him. Didn’t he ever get on her nerves? “No!” she says. “Muhammad has never got on my nerves. And he’s never bored me either. That’s not to say he hasn’t exasperated me — he has a very stubborn streak.”

Such stubbornness extended to his reluctance to adapt his life to the constraints of Parkinson’s disease.

“He still hates taking his medication,” Lonnie says, “He was never a pill popper, it was always mind over matter.”

It was the Parkinson’s diagnosis that finally brought them together.
“Muhammad was always in my life. When I was a little girl he was sitting at the kitchen table telling me about the importance of the ‘heart’, telling me about life — actually, looking back he was rehearsing speeches he gave to college students. Then when I was older he mentored me about going to college, and talked to me about my life.

“I was sort of like a little sister to him. So, later, when he called me after his third marriage broke down I knew something was wrong, I could hear it in his voice. He knew something was wrong, too, he just wasn’t himself.”

Lonnie flew out to be with him, and encouraged him to see a doctor. After the Parkinson’s diagnosis she stayed with him for support and their relationship “gradually evolved.”

“Mohammad is not romantic. Any romance came and went with his first wife, Sonji. He didn’t get down on bended knee. Our relationship was a natural progression, you knew it was going to happen – it was just when and where.”

The couple adopted a son, Asaad, now 21, and Lonnie took over managing Ali’s business affairs, and became his primary carer.

She had already converted to Islam before their marriage, and identifies with the struggle faced by Muslim Americans.

“When I told Mohammad I was interested in Islam, he became very excited of course. I said to him – don’t tell me about it! That will drive me in the other direction. Just let me read the books and think it through for myself.”

While her husband is more of a Sunni Muslim, she is influenced by Sufism, and is dressed modestly wearing a long sleeved silk top. “People think Islam diminishes women, it doesn’t. Islamic society is built around women. Women hold society together, and Islam realises how powerful woman are”

She found the period after 9/11 particularly difficult, and resented “a small group of people for hijacking a whole religion.”

“I became more aware of being a Muslim. I understood the feelings people had about that attack, but I also understood the discrimination that we were enduring. It became a huge issue. My anger was directed at people hijacking a religion for their own purposes and distorting it. Islam is a peaceful religion, and this has been very difficult for us.”

The couple now divide their time between a farm in southern Michigan and a winter home in Arizona where Ali can get outside and remain active.

“He is still active every day,” she says, “He never complains about anything, I think he has a high threshold for pain.” Compared to other Parkinson’s sufferers his disease has advanced relatively slowly since the mid-1980s, and he still likes to get out and meet people. “I think having Parkinson’s has opened Mohammad up to more people. Before he was ‘perfect’, but now by having this illness people can see that he is just like everyone else. His illness has made him seem more accessible.”

Not that Ali himself can quite believe it: “He still asks me – but do you think people really know I’ve got it?” She rolls her eyes slightly. “He still says his best is yet to come.”

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