BROCKTON — Khalilah Camacho-Ali brought her singular presence to the Brockton Public Library, delighting the crowd with stories from her life with The Greatest.
“He was 8 years older than me. I was 8 years smarter than him,” Camacho-Ali said of her former husband, the late Muhammad Ali. “He’ll always be my champion.”
Camacho-Ali, 72, resplendent in a purple caftan, commanded the room Saturday, March 4, as more than 75 attendees listened closely and applauded often. Her visit was co-sponsored by the Brockton Area Branch NAACP and the library.
No single moment drew louder applause than when she recited a poem that Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, performed in the run-up to his February 1964 world championship fight against Sonny Liston.
“This is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today,” she began, mesmerizing the crowd through the ending lines, “No one would dream when they put down their money, that they’d see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
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But here’s the thing — she wrote that poem for him on a brown paper bag as a 14-year-old girl with the confidence to call out the soon-to-be world champ.
“I start writing this poem,” she recalled. “I never wrote a poem in my life, but somehow God just put it into me and I just wrote it out just like I thought he would say it out, right?”
Camacho-Ali remembers telling Clay, “Here’s a poem I want you to tell Sonny Liston, because I don’t like him.”
You can compare their deliveries in the video above and this archival video of Clay delivering his version of the poem. That was his last fight under his “slave name” Cassius Clay. After briefly being called Cassius X, Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam gave him the name Muhammad Ali.
Her influence on Ali ran deep, from his conversion to Islam to the ways she guided him in getting press and branding himself as the people’s champion.
“We were a team,” she said. “We were leaders, watching two Black people stand up for freedom, justice and equality.”
Camacho-Ali, born Belinda Boyd, married Ali at 17 and divorced him before turning 27. The couple’s years together spanned many of Ali’s best-known triumphs and challenges, including the three years he lost in the prime of his career over refusing to join the military before his vindication at the Supreme Court. They had four children.
‘Nobody has matched what Ali has done’
In a boxing town like Brockton, Camacho-Ali had a knowledgeable audience.
“I’ve seen a lot of fighters,” said Brockton’s Miles Jackson, 65, “and still to this day, I tell young people that Holyfield, Tyson, Sugar Ray, even Marvin, nobody has matched what Ali has done in the ring as well as outside the ring as a champion of social justice. You don’t see the fighters doing it this day and age like Ali did.”
‘Don’t teach children to hate cops’
Camacho-Ali did not shy from stating her conservative beliefs.
“Black Lives Matter? So they say. But even though they had good intentions about it, it’s always God. Don’t use that [phrase.] Every life that God has created on Earth matters,” she said.
The author, aviator, actor and martial-arts expert urged parents not to coddle their children.
“Whatever you do, don’t go to jail because I’m not getting you out,” Camacho-Ali said. “You got parents that set up their mortgages on their house and they still mess up. Don’t do that. Do not put your house up for sale. Do not pay the bail bondsman nada. Do not bail them out of jail. You [say] ‘My poor baby might get raped.’ Well, he shouldn’t have got in there.”
Camacho-Ali put strong emphasis on manners and etiquette. She showed off pages from coloring books she wrote that teach do’s and don’ts like removing one’s hat at the table.
“Don’t teach your children to hate cops,” she said. “Don’t hang around people who aren’t respectful.”
A piece of the Liberty Tree
While she was in Brockton, she visited City Hall and received a piece of the Liberty Tree from Mayor Robert Sullivan. She plans to return soon on a book tour once her autobiography comes out.
Camacho-Ali’s visit was also a family reunion. Her cousin Nathan Raines of Cambridge attended. Raines said he saw a lot of Ali when he was younger. He recalled hanging out with the champ and watching his fights together.
“We’d go back and forth making jokes,” Raines said. “He’s like, ‘You’re prettier than I am but I’m pretty,’ you know, all these jokes.”