Saturday 24 August 2019

Muhammad Ali: 'I'm a prisoner in my own body but my mind is good'

Inside story: 'I Am Ali' is a more intimate and heart-warming look at the man
Inside story: 'I Am Ali' is a more intimate and heart-warming look at the man

Gareth A Davies

"There's an old Chinese proverb that says we're never dead as long as we're remembered, and people like Muhammad, Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela will be remembered forever," says Gene Kilroy, with his slow, gravel-tone voice, as the man who was business manager to 'The Greatest' looks back at five decades past.

Several films and a library of books and essays have been written about Muhammad Ali, his career, and his impact on people and society. 'I Am Ali' is different, made by a woman - British director Clare Lewins - and, significantly perhaps, draws from a more intimate and heart-warming look at the man behind what was an extraordinary boxing career in an epoch of change.

Kilroy, Ali’s long-time business partner and now friend, was part of the story, part of the movie, and believes it will become a significant tome as a record of the revered former boxer.

It is Ali as we’ve never seen him before, told through exclusive access to Ali’s personal archive of ‘audio journals’ with interviews and testimonials from his inner circle of family and friends, including his daughters, son, ex-wife and brother. This is the story of Muhammad Ali - as fighter, lover, brother and father.

The conversations Ali recorded with his daughters Maryam, Hannah and Laila, plus the video footage, are testament to the love and humour and teachings he wanted to pass on to his children. We see Ali lecturing students, eschewing his Vietnam draft, a free spirit in full flow with researched footage from BBC interviews and news clips of the time. Ali's outspokenness on his forced exile from boxing and his eloquence on his stance are compelling to watch. But the impact of 'The Greatest' on those around him is unmissable.

Kilroy, now Las Vegas-based, still speaks with Ali regularly, and told The Telegraph: "Clare Lewins came to interview me when she first started this and I said this will be a great thing if it's done right. There have been so many documentaries on Ali. We talked about having his children involved.

"She orchestrated this by getting them in and having them be involved. She did a great job. To me, it was one of the better documentaries done and it's just a shame it wasn't a big hit when it was released in cinemas. Everybody who saw it loved it. It should have been a real big blockbuster. It was 100 per cent better than 'When We Were Kings' and I was around when that was made.

"There was a lot of depth to it. Clare had a way of bringing everything out. I thought for sure it would win an Academy Award for documentaries but it didn't even get nominated. Universal and Focus Vision dropped the ball by not promoting it right. If ESPN or HBO was involved in it, it would have been a sensation."

Kilroy believes the movie reveals how Ali really was, behind the headline stories which are now legion, from his glittering career and subsequent fame. "Muhammad was a very sensitive and passionate and kind person. He was a good person with a good heart. He has that fire and that lightning and thunder from his dad, but he also had that kindness from his mother, who I got to know very well - I was a pallbearer when she was buried – and she instilled that in him.

"He'd bring home friends from high school and she'd make sure they always had enough to eat in their house. The father believed that the mother should never work and should stay home with the kids. They raised two great considerate boys, Rudi and Cassius, who later became Rahman and Muhammad."

We see Ali with his parents in the movie. Touching, indeed.

Kilroy, who got to know the man himself in 1960 at the Rome Olympics, when he was still Cassius Clay, also spoke of Ali's intellect. "He wasn't much of a student in high school. He put all of his time into fighting," Kilroy told The Telegraph. "He didn't believe in studying. If he would have dedicated himself to scholastic the way he did athletics, who knows what he would have been, maybe a lawyer or a doctor. But he concentrated on boxing."

The movie recalls, through footage, how society was at the time. And how Ali helped bring change. "Being around Muhammad Ali was my heaven. If I should die and go to heaven tomorrow, it would be a step down. Can you imagine what it's like to be driving down the highway, pull into a gas station and you're with the most recognisable man on planet Earth," recalled Kilroy.

"People would swoon all over him and be kind to him and all. I never met a person who met Ali and didn't like him."

Ali's former business manager believes that Ali's religious beliefs lifted him to another level in his desire to fulfill himself. "If he hadn't accepted the Nation of Islam, he would have been just another fighter. That put him above everything else. It gave him a cause about life. It gave him a way to live. It made him a teacher.

"He was bigger than Martin Luther King and Malcolm X worldwide. He travelled the world. He was truly the heavyweight champion of the world and the most recognisable man on planet Earth. We were in Africa and we went back to the jungle where they had no communication, no television, nothing. People had never heard of President Kennedy or Winston Churchill but they did hear of Muhammad Ali. He believed that God had picked him to be a leader and do things. He never wanted to let God down or disappoint him."

Like others around the great fighter, Kilroy had wanted Ali it retire after regaining the world title against George Foreman, in Zaire. "I wanted him right after Zaire to retire. But here's the thing, fighters can beat everything but Father Time. He was going to fight Joe Bugner and was getting three million and he said, 'I wouldn't even hire Bugner as a sparring partner'. Then the Frazier fight came up."

Kilroy says no fighter forgets Ali. "I go to all the fights here and I run into a lot of the guys who fought Ali. We discuss it and they say when they fought Ali that was their best fight. They made the most money for that fight and it made them famous. Foreman, Shavers, Holmes, Lyle, Quarry, Norton, so many of them say the same. George Foreman wasn't a humble man until he got defeated. He was the bully. He became humble after Ali. Today, if Muhammad Ali was healthy and just having breakfast with his wife and was on pay-per-view, he would draw just as much as the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fight."

Kilroy is in regular contact with Ali, now 73, who has lived with Parkinson’s disease for more than three decades. "When he got Parkinson's and his voice wasn't as strong as it used to be, he said, 'Well, maybe God is punishing me for some of the things I didn't do right. I believe that when you die and go to heaven God won't ask you what you've done but what you could've done. Maybe I'm getting punished. He said I'm lucky, I have no pain with this Parkinson's. I'm a prisoner in my own body but I don't have any pain. My mind is good. My speech maybe slurred but my mind is good'."

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport