Back in his imperious heyday, Muhammad Ali was acutely aware that he was carving his place in history.
A fearless champion of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protest, as well as the boxing ring, he was one of those rare sportsmen who have shaped the course of world events.
Determined to ensure he would be remembered as he saw himself and not as others saw him, Ali — who was never short of self-admiration — therefore embarked on an extraordinary project designed to burnish his image for posterity.
When he was away from home — which was very often — he would wire the phone in his hotel room to a whirring, spool-reel tape-machine, dial up one of his nine (acknowledged) children and record their rambling, intimate conversations.
Knowing this so-called ‘audio-diary’ would become a key primary source for future chroniclers of his story, he was particularly keen to present himself as a devout family man, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Even Ali’s most loyal defenders wouldn’t pretend that his personal life has been anything other than a protracted train-wreck.
Three bitter divorces, a series of affairs, two illegitimate daughters, and a procession of other children who claim him as their father stand testimony to that.
Until now, few outside Ali’s inner circle were aware the many hours of tape-recordings existed.
But after he began to suffer Parkinson’s disease, the fighter entrusted them to one of his daughters, Hana, 38, and now she has permitted them to be used in a new biographical film, I Am Ali, released this week in America and due in British cinemas next month.
‘History is so beautiful, but at the time we’re living it we don’t realise it,’ the legendary fighter remarks during the movie, by way of explaining why he was creating the tapes.
Perhaps so, yet the film serves largely to remind us of the sad shadow of a man Ali, ravaged by Parkinson’s for 25 years, is now. Indeed, the state of his health has become the focus of an intense public debate between members of his family in recent days.
Yesterday, the veteran British boxing promoter Frank Warren wrote in a newspaper column that he had been told Ali’s condition is more serious than it has ever been. Contrast this with the era when Ali made the tapes — his rich, Deep South voice as beautiful as his Adonis physique.
The Louisville Lip is silent now. Those rapier-quick rhyming couplets that reminded us he was ‘the greatest’ (and so ‘pretty’), and predicted the precise round in which he would dispatch his opponents, are lost beyond hope of recall.
In his hey dey, Muhammad Ali knew he was carving his place in history. He is pictured in 1963 (left) and 1974 (right)
Sonny Liston lies on the ground after being knocked out by Ali in the first round of his return title fight in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965
The most lyrical and vibrant vocal cords any sportsman has possessed are so brittle and thin that on his worst days, despite recent surgery, he can’t raise a whisper.
Whether at his Kentucky home or his gated mansion in Arizona, he spends hour upon hour propped in a huge leather armchair, watching old Westerns and re-runs of his epic fights.
The epoch-making ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman, and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ which saw him beat his arch-foe, Joe Frazier, after 14 of the most brutal rounds boxing has witnessed, are relived time and again.
Painfully frail, his face an expressionless mask, he usually communicates his needs via a series of grunts and gestures comprehensible only to his fourth wife Lonnie and her younger sister Marilyn, who serve as his carers.
Mercifully, however, on some mornings his voice makes a very brief and weak return, according to friends.
Then he will ask to be connected by Skype to his favourite grandson, Jacob — the 15-year-old son of his daughter Khalilah Ali-Wertheimer — and attempt to communicate with him.
Ali, we can assume, wouldn’t wish these painfully laboured phone-calls to be tape-recorded.
It is all he can do to express his love for the boy (who has been raised as a Jew by dint of his mother’s marriage, despite Ali’s devotion to Islam) and summon an amusing word or two. Sometimes he tries gamely to affect that aghast, pop-eyed face he made on the Michael Parkinson chat show — a trademark of his wit.
The boxer has endured three bitter divorces. He is pictured with his first wife, Sonji (left), with whom he parted ways in 1966 and with third wife Veronica and their daughter Hana (right)
His fourth wife, Lonnie, is not well-liked by certain members of the former athlete’s family who say she controls ‘everything’
Despite concerns from the athlete’s family, a spokesman for Mr and Mrs Ali said he was doing ‘very well’. He is pictured before the 1966 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia (left) and at the beginning of his career (right)
Ironically, the new film — judged an entertaining but blatantly selective and sugar-coated hagiography by America’s top critics this week — has also reopened the bitter divisions that have long riven the dysfunctional, factionalised Ali clan.
When it was premiered in Hollywood a few days ago, 72-year-old Ali was notably absent. Asked why the great man wasn’t there to witness the unveiling of a story he had been so eager to create, his younger brother Rahman — who attended the glitzy event with other friends and family members — said he was not well enough.
‘He is sick [and] he doesn’t speak too well, but he is proud we are here for him. He has given this film his blessing,’ said Rahman, 71, who last year created a major stir by announcing that his brother didn’t have long to live — a statement that he later recanted.
Since Ali was this week to be found on a business trip in Virginia, with his wife, and also appeared at an awards ceremony staged by his humanitarian charity a fortnight ago (a taxingly long event at which he sat, motionless, on the podium as Lonnie gave an address on his behalf), his health seems an unlikely explanation for his absence from the film premiere.
Moreover, the couple’s spokesman Bon Gunnell assures me that Ali is ‘doing very well’ — and on Thursday he tweeted a new picture of Ali, attempting a smile of sorts, as he posed with fans at his Virginia hotel.
So why wasn’t he at the film launch? Mr Gunnell insists that he simply couldn’t find time in his hectic schedule to travel to the West Coast. However, Ali’s cousin, Charlotte Waddell, 67, offers a very different explanation.
She is convinced that Lonnie will have decided her ailing husband should not expend any energy to promote the film — because they weren’t involved in the production.
‘Lonnie controls everything he does — it’s sickening,’ Mrs Waddell told me angrily from her Kentucky home. ‘I can’t stand to be around her. It wouldn’t take me two seconds to spit in her face!’
Laila Ali (pictured), a female boxer, is one of the star’s many children to different women. The pair share a tender moment after a victory in the ring in 2005, when Muhammed Ali was in better health
Strong words. Intriguingly, Mrs Waddell also revealed that the boxer’s second wife, Belinda Boyd — now known as Khalilah Camacho and said to be working as a nurse in Florida — is writing her own ‘tell-all’ book about Ali.
She claims it will contain ‘juicy’ new details about his life with Lonnie.
The fourth Mrs Ali has been a hate figure among sections of the Ali family ever since she took up the reins of his chaotic life, some 30 years ago.
Hearing how he had fallen ill with a then-undiagnosed illness, Lonnie — who had adored the boxer since she was a little girl living opposite his parents’ home in Louisville — abandoned her promising career with Kraft foods, upped sticks and moved to California, ostensibly to become his nurse.
But she quickly replaced his third wife, Veronica Porsche — a flighty model who had caught his eye in Manila when he was training for the showdown with Frazier — and married him in 1986.
At the time he was going broke, having squandered his fortune on women, spongers and failed business ventures (largely conducted via the U.S. fundamentalist sect Nation of Islam). But Lonnie, instigating a rescue plan she called ‘Corporate Ali’, restored not only his wealth — about £60 million at the last estimate — but his reputation.
In doing so she ruthlessly froze many people out of his life, including his only natural son, Muhammad Ali Jr, now 41, whom I tracked down two years ago to a garret in a Chicago ghetto.
While Ali and Lonnie’s adopted 24-year-old son relax in the Arizona mansion, the hapless ‘Junior’ (who took part in the film but was also strangely absent from the premiere) still lives in that squalid neighbourhood.
The champion’s long-time friend, Howard Gosser, says Ali would help his natural son if he had the strength, but told me: ‘For the first time in his life, Muhammad has held up his hands and quit the fight. Lonnie has power of attorney over his affairs. She runs the show now.’
Despised though Lonnie is by some family members, Gosser maintains that Ali’s life today would be infinitely more miserable without his formidable fourth wife. Many other friends concur, for her devotion is undeniable.
The Alis will shortly decamp for the winter to their palm-fringed estate in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the warm climate helps him cope with his condition, but remain for now in their colonial-style home in rainy Kentucky.
Wherever they are, however, Lonnie ensures her ailing husband follows a strict routine, noting his every activity — how long he sleeps, what he eats and drinks, even his mood variations — on her iPad, to ensure nothing is overlooked.
After dressing Ali, usually in a loose-fitting cotton shirt and slacks, either she or her sister — who lives with them and does much of the practical care work — dose him with the pills that stabilise his condition (he has always hated taking drugs and has been known to hide them, with boyish defiance, in the flower-pot when their backs are turned).
His powerful medication combats tremors and other symptoms, but can cause serious side effects, for example accentuating the depression, anxiety and panic attacks that strike a high percentage of advanced Parkinson’s sufferers.
The supreme physique we see in the film has long gone, of course. In his prime, Ali stood 6ft 3in and weighed around 16st; today he is so hunched and stiff that he appears to have shrunk by several inches and lost at least 4st.
The athlete (pictured in 1974 when he was the heavyweight champion of the world) will be grateful the new film does not remind his admirers of the tragic figure he has become
Still, he retains a good appetite and enjoys the wholesome Southern food of his youth, such as chops with gravy.
When he is feeling sufficiently robust, one of the sisters will summon a black limo and take him to watch a baseball or basketball match; and, to the anger of some family members, Lonnie still wheels him out for big events (who will forget her standing beside him at the London Olympics, where he served as a flag-bearer, vainly urging him to ‘wave, Muhammad, wave’?).
For long hours, however, he is confined to his living-room, where Lonnie encourages him to maintain a modicum of flexibility and co-ordination with a programme of exercises.
One task, designed to improve his fine motor skills, involves threading string through holes punched in a patterned piece of cardboard.
For the most graceful boxer the world has seen, a once hugely powerful man who appeared to defy the laws of gravity as he floated like a butterfly across the canvas, the humiliation of struggling to perform this childlike task is barely imaginable.
Ali will doubtless be grateful the new film does not remind his millions of admirers of the tragic figure he has become, focusing instead on the years when he truly was The Greatest.