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Muhammad Ali
'The Greatest': Out of the Arena but Never Out of the Spotlight

listen Listen to Part One of Juan Williams' report on Muhammad Ali.

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Dec. 19, 2001 -- Muhammad Ali. The Greatest. King of the world. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The most famous athlete who ever lived. Once widely considered the most famous person on Earth.


Muhammad Ali
Photo: Library of Congress

As Hollywood prepares to release Ali, the movie about the boxer's life starring Will Smith, NPR's Juan Williams sat down for a Morning Edition interview with the former three-time heavyweight champion.

At six-foot-two, Ali is still an imposing figure despite his trembling arms and slurred speech due to Parkinson's. But the disease hasn't stripped Ali of his trademark humor. Asked how much he weighs, the former boxer says "299... I'm joking. I weigh 260. I'm feeling great. Feel like I could go 10 rounds."

Some 15 years after his retirement, Ali re-took the world stage in 1996 when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. It was an emotional scene, Ali's arm shaking as it raised the flame in the darkened stadium. Just like his boxing heyday, the audience went wild.

But Ali was not always a universally beloved hero. In the 1960s he joined the Nation of Islam and shed his given name of Cassius Clay to become Muhammad Ali.

Ali gives autographs

Ali gives autographs to children at a recent event in Los Angeles.
Photo: Tom Bullock, NPR

"I used to think blacks should be with blacks and whites should be with whites..." Ali says. "Now I believe that all people are God's people and they should come together."

In 1967, a day after refusing induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector, Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight championship title and his boxing license. His draft-dodging conviction was overturned four years later by the U.S. Supreme Court. The controversy helped further divide a country that was already ripped apart by the Vietnam War.

Today when people tell Ali that he was a draft dodger he tells them they are wrong. "I tell them I didn't dodge the draft, I just avoided it," he says. "Vietnam turned out to be wrong and I ended up right... all you people who say I was wrong, I ended up right. The war was bad, I ended up right. I'm still the winner."

Previous NPR Coverage

Read about Ali vs. Frazier: The Second Generation, the June 2001 fight between the boxers' daughters.

searchSearch for more radio coverage on Muhammad Ali.

Other Resources

Visit the Ali Center Web site.

See the 35 Sports Illustrated covers that featured Ali.

View photos by Ali friend and photographer Howard Bingham.

Read the 'Time 100' profile of Ali.

Read about the 1971 Ali-Frazier 'Fight of the Century.'

View Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves at the Smithsonian.