Chicago Journalist Shares His Memories of Muhammad Ali

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A Muslim prayer service was held Thursday to honor the boxer Muhammad Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Ali died Friday in Arizona.

“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74,” family spokesperson Bob Gunnell said in a statement.

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As part of a Nation of Islam delegation, Salim Muwakkil met Muhammad Ali in Kingston, Jamaica in 1974, just months after the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight against George Foreman when Ali won the heavyweight championship for a second time.

Muwakkil said it was Malcom X who brought Ali into the Nation of Islam.

“There was a still a lot of suspicion about his genuine commitment, so he had to prove that often. So he was very intent on demonstrating his commitment to the Nation’s doctrine,” Muwakkil said.

But Muwakkil said a paradox existed in Ali’s embrace of Islam. At the time, the Nation of Islam doctrine regarded sports and games as "bread and circuses."

“[The doctrine] wasn’t exactly friendly toward what was called ‘sport and play.’” Muwakkil said. “It was a distraction from the real purpose and the real need for African Americans to begin to build their own economy, their own school system – all of that. Sports was seen as a distraction.”

This wasn’t easy on Ali, said Muwakkil.

“It was a strain on him and I think it added to that skepticism about his authenticity as a member of the Nation, because if he was indeed a sincere member, he would adhere to the strictures of the Nation. And yet he was a boxer. And at the same time, it was that skill as a boxer that attracted a lot attention to him, and through that attention, the Nation gained celebrity as well.”

According to Muwakkil, Ali wanted to demonstrate that he was committed to bigger issues than his standing as an athlete.

“He thought that the statesman-like skills were his highest qualities. And he was exceedingly proud of the fact that, in Jamaica, he was treated like a statesman, not like an athlete,” Muwakkil said.  

When Ali was unable to box, he lived in Chicago. Muwakkil said the African-American community in the city was very welcoming of Ali.

“People had access to him. He walked the streets freely without body guards. He really enjoyed that. He spoke very highly of his time with the people of Chicago and how they accepted him and embraced him as a member of the Chicago community,” Muwakkil said. 

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"The Trials of Muhammad Ali"

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