Sports Nut

The King of the World

When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.

American WBA Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali on the the throne of his namesake, Mohammed Ali Pasha, at Al-Gawhara Palace, Cairo, Egypt, June 9, 1964.

Daily Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images, FotoWare fotostation

“The king! The king!” the crowd shouted, swarming the famous American as he sat in an open-top cream-colored convertible.

“Who’s the king?” Muhammad Ali called, basking in the adulation and equatorial sunshine of Accra, Ghana.

“You!” the locals assented, celebrating the arrival of the self-proclaimed “king of the world.”

From the moment Ali set foot on African soil, Ghanaians treated him like royalty, showering him with praise and gifts. At the Accra airport, on May 16, 1964, the minister of foreign affairs, the director of sports, the chairman of the Ghana Boxing Authority, and other state officials welcomed him. President Kwame Nkrumah, the first national leader to embrace Ali, directed the government’s radio stations and newspapers to promote the American champion as an African hero, “a source of inspiration to the youth of the world.” In the words of a writer from the state-owned Daily Graphic, “If there is one man who can assist positively to bring about [Nkrumah’s] cherished aims of projecting the African personality”—an Africa freed from the vestiges of colonialism—and disprove “the superiority complex of the white man, he is Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay).”

Ali told reporters that he was “anxious to get around and see Africa and meet my own brothers and sisters.” Unsure how his words would translate in a foreign land, he spoke cautiously when he explained that white slave traders had captured his ancestors from Africa and sold them into bondage in America. “We are glad to be back home to see things for ourselves, meet pretty Ghanaian girls, take pictures, and tell our people that there are more things to be seen in Africa than lions and elephants.”

As Ali prepared to leave the airport, children shouted his name and waved welcome signs while policemen brandishing truncheons ordered the crowd to back away from the motorcade. Driving through the paved streets of Accra, Ali marveled at what he saw: streetlights; honking buses and taxis; apartment buildings; and department stores, hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants where blacks and whites socialized amicably. The city came alive with the sounds of Highlife music blaring from storefront windows, laughing children running through the streets, and saleswomen bartering with customers in the Makola Market. He was surprised to see that Accra had “wide streets, tall buildings, and other modern features.” He explained to a local reporter that whites had so distorted the image of Africa that black Americans would not dare visit their homeland. “They never told us about your beautiful flowers, magnificent hotels, beautiful houses, beaches, great hospitals, schools, and universities.”

Like many Americans, Ali had imagined Africa as an exotic land, a vast jungle inhabited by wild animals, noble savages, and great white hunters. Most Americans knew very little about Africa beyond what they saw onscreen or read in magazines. In 1953, when Ali was 11 years old, Time published a feature article about the British Gold Coast that described the colony as “a rectangular patch of jungle, swamp, and bushland,” even though deserts, forests, and rolling savanna grasslands shaped its landscape. The British colony that would eventually become Ghana was nothing more than “a sunbaked wasteland,” filled with “primitive people” living “in holes in the ground; their women go naked with a tuft of leaves before and behind.” According to Time, the “happy-go-lucky Gold Coasters” crowded “their mud huts with radios, sewing machines, bicycles, and even TV sets (though there is no TV station to tune in to).”

Ali grew up in a culture saturated with myths about Africa. In 1960, during the Rome Olympics, he had compared America favorably to Africa, whose natives, he said, were still fighting alligators and living in mud huts. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay thought very little about Africa and cared even less. In his view, Africans were not a celebrated people; they were the butt of his jokes. In 1962, he told sportswriter Myron Cope a story about an encounter with two African men. “Man,” he chuckled, “I was down at the beach with two of them Africans. They so black they almost blue, but they said to me, ‘Cassius, we have to leave now and go put on our turbans and uniforms ’cause, if we don’t, people gonna think we’re Negroes.’ ”

Yet when he accepted the name Muhammad Ali, he embraced the idea of being an African born in America. In Accra, he proudly declared, “I am an African, and my proper name is Muhammad Ali. There is greater dignity in my new name” than his slave name. In America, he explained, too many blacks “disgracefully bear the names of our masters.” Echoing Malcolm X, he suggested that if “Negroes” could not find justice in America, then they should migrate back to Africa.

His Pan-African rhetoric pleased Elijah Muhammad, the supreme minister of the Nation of Islam. At a time when Malcolm, civil rights leaders, and the national media were criticizing the Nation of Islam, Elijah determined that Ali’s trip abroad would overshadow their attacks, helping him legitimize his Muslim movement. Sending Ali on an international excursion would bring “universal recognition” to the Nation of Islam. Before the heavyweight champion left the U.S., he went on a tour of Black Muslim mosques, where he signed autographs, sold copies of Muhammad Speaks, and announced his future travels, crediting Elijah for his worldwide fame. “It is because I am a follower of the Messenger that has brought me personal invitations from Asia and African presidents and prime ministers.”

Elijah predicted that Ali would receive a hero’s welcome in Africa and the Middle East, but he reserved profound doubts about the regions. Romanticizing his own journey there in 1959, Elijah embellished the way Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser graciously welcomed him into his palace. While he enjoyed meeting Arab and African statesmen and Muslim clerics, he returned to America disillusioned by the extreme poverty he saw, which he interpreted as a weakness in the people. Before his trip, he had talked about building an emigration movement to Africa, but afterward he ceased considering the plan.

Years after his trek abroad, he complained that Africans still lived “a jungle life,” deriding them as “savages” in need of his civilizing influence. Although he praised the emergence of independent African nations, he remained uninterested in building any genuine relationships with African leaders. Malcolm was convinced that Elijah had sent Ali to Africa solely for personal gain. “You cannot read anything that Elijah Muhammad has ever written that’s pro-African,” he charged. “I defy you to find one word in his direct writings that is pro-African. You can’t find it.”

For Elijah, Ali’s journey abroad served as a propaganda mission that he hoped would demonstrate his stature in the Islamic world, elevating his standing among black Americans. During his five-week trip, Ali was accompanied by Muslims and friends, including the champ’s manager, Herbert Muhammad; his brother Rudy, who had recently taken the name Rahman Ali; Archie Robinson, who now introduced himself as Osman Karriem; photographer Howard Bingham; and Ronnie King, an old friend. Herbert also hired Charles P. Howard, a United Nations correspondent, to write stories about Ali’s journey for Muhammad Speaks.

By the time Ali’s motorcade reached the government-owned, six-story Ambassador Hotel, it seemed as if the entire city was trailing behind it. Countless locals camped outside the hotel, hoping to get a glimpse of him. Not wanting to disappoint them, Ali emerged into view on the terrace, shouting below, “Who’s the king?”

“You are!” the crowd thundered.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali greets cheering fans Accra, Ghana, in 1964.

Gerry Cranham/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

In Africa, Ali discovered that he was more popular abroad than at home. While most Americans refused to recognize his Muslim name, strangers, writers, and dignitaries in Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt showed him respect by acknowledging it. Everywhere he went people cheered his name like he was their champion, a black hero whose name mattered as much as his accomplishments in the ring. “Muhammad Ali is in Africa, all over Africa,” he said later. “The name is in Ethiopia, Morocco, Syria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Algiers, Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Ali [was a common name] when I traveled. Muhammad is the most common name in the world.”

Ali’s African journey marked a pivotal moment in his life, ushering in a new era when he would become one of the most recognizable and written-about people in the world. But he had become something more than famous. His name had global meaning. During an age of rapid global change, decolonization in Africa and Asia, and the emerging political power of the Middle East, Ali became a liminal figure, quite literally a man betwixt and between cultures. More than any other athlete, he put the “world” into the title of “world champion.”

In Africa, one could sense that Ali’s views about himself, his country, and the world had changed. Something happened to him on that trip, something that stuck with Osman Karriem. “I’ll remember that trip for as long as I live because that was where I saw Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.”

* * *

About a week before Ali arrived in Accra, another famous black American checked into the Ambassador Hotel, igniting rumors that the champ had already arrived. While Malcolm X waited to meet his hosts, he sat in the dining room, overhearing conversations about the controversial ending to the previous evening’s world featherweight championship match between Cuban Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos and Ghanaian Floyd Robertson. Perhaps people confused Malcolm with Ali because the Ghana Boxing Authority had announced that the heavyweight champion would attend the match, bringing greater attention to the first title bout ever held in Accra, but Ali did not arrive in Ghana until a week after the fight.

Malcolm had had no idea that boxing was so popular in Africa and the Middle East until about a month earlier, when he arrived in Cairo. In Egypt, he “was mistaken time and again for Cassius Clay.” Talking to Egyptians, he learned that theaters across the country had shown Ali’s fight against Sonny Liston, and popular newspapers, like Al Ahram, had published pictures of them together in New York. Ali was so popular in “the Muslim World,” Malcolm wrote in his diary, that “even the children know of him.” When Ali defeated Liston and publicly embraced Islam, the young champion “captured the imagination and the support of the entire dark world.”

Throughout his five-week tour of the Middle East and Africa, Malcolm recorded his thoughts in a diary. His journal revealed that he still considered Ali his brother, even though many assumed that once Ali sided with Elijah Muhammad, his brotherhood with Malcolm was over. In his mind, they remained on good terms. On April 20, 1964, he wrote that Muslims in Saudi Arabia had “mistaken” him “for Cassius Clay,” but when they “learned that I am his friend, many questions [were] asked about him.” Malcolm quickly recognized that Ali was the most famous Muslim American in the world. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where most people spoke Arabic, locals’ understanding of boxing and their recognition of Ali allowed Malcolm to communicate without speaking. Muslim men, women, and children smiled when he proudly pointed at a picture of himself with Ali. By sharing that picture and his stories about Ali, Malcolm gained friends and credibility among Muslims abroad.

In Accra, Malcolm toured the city with his camera, snapping pictures like a tourist. He absorbed the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Immersed in Ghanaian culture, he spoke to street vendors, students, and intellectuals. He gave interviews, delivered university lectures, attended lunches and dinners with government officials, and met with President Kwame Nkrumah.

Before flying back to New York, Malcolm planned four more days of traveling in Senegal, Morocco, and Algiers. On Sunday morning, May 17, Maya Angelou, Alice Windom, and Julian Mayfield met him in front of the Ambassador Hotel. They were all laughing and talking about their time together when suddenly they heard loud American voices. One voice sounded especially familiar to Malcolm. He turned around and saw the handsome face of Muhammad Ali.

“The next moment froze,” Angelou recalled, “as if caught on daguerreotype, and the next minutes moved as a slow montage.” Malcolm brightened at the sight of him. “Brother Muhammad! Brother Muhammad!” he shouted with a crooked smile, uncertain how Ali would react with everyone watching. At that instant, Ali had to make a split-second decision. He knew that he could not publicly embrace Malcolm, not as long as Herbert stood next to him, not as long as he had professed his loyalty to Elijah. Malcolm had betrayed the Messenger and the entire Nation of Islam, and no true Muslim could maintain a friendship with him.

Ali paused in the middle of his conversation, looking quizzically at Malcolm, who appeared almost unrecognizable sporting a reddish goatee, white robe, and sandals. At first, Ali said nothing. He just kept walking, slowly moving away from his friend, leaving him behind like an old suitcase, heavy baggage he no longer wished to carry. When he and his entourage reached a row of parked cars, Malcolm rushed up to him, hoping to flag him down before he drove away. “Brother Muhammad! Brother Muhammad!” Finally, Ali stopped and faced Malcolm.

“Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest,” Malcolm said.

Glaring, Ali shook his head. “You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” he said, his voice as cold as his eyes. “That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.”

Malcolm wanted to explain that he did not leave Elijah; he was forced out of the Nation of Islam. But there was no time to explain, no way to make Ali understand that he never intended to hurt him or Elijah. Ali abruptly marched away, leaving him puzzled and wounded. Malcolm had never expected his friend to treat him so harshly, not after he had shown him how much he cared for him, standing by his side in Miami when the whole world was against him, when Elijah refused to publicly claim him as one of his own. Malcolm did not have the words to convince Ali that they could remain friends. All he could do was sadly watch him walk out of his life.

Visibly shaken, Malcolm rejoined his friends, walking with his head down, his shoulders slumped. “I’ve lost a lot. A lot,” he repeated. “Almost too much.” Then, saying nothing else, he crammed his long legs into the front passenger seat of Maya’s tiny Fiat, “the heavy mood destined to stay.”

Ali’s encounter with Malcolm convinced him that everything he had heard about his old friend was true. Malcolm had gone mad, the Black Muslims said, and now Ali had no doubt that they were right. “Man, did you get a look at him?” he asked Herbert. “Dressed in that funny white robe and wearing a beard and walking with that cane that looked like a prophet’s stick? Man, he’s gone. He’s gone so far out he’s out completely.” Ali did not understand that Malcolm, like other penitents who had completed the hajj, wore traditional Muslim attire. “Doesn’t that just go to show, Herbert, that Elijah is the most powerful? Nobody listens to that Malcolm anymore.”

If Ali hardly recognized him, Malcolm perceived that Ali had changed, too. He could see that the boxer was no longer the sweet, affable young man who had once bounced Malcolm’s daughters on his knee. This man, Muhammad Ali, was Elijah’s loyal subject, wearing a new mask, playing the part of the serious, vindictive Black Muslim. When Ali cut Malcolm out of his life, he revealed a new side of himself that the public had not yet seen, an angrier, crueler side that would develop more and more in the coming years. Whenever there were other Black Muslims around, he assumed this role, conforming to the expectations of the Nation of Islam, punishing anyone who crossed them, whether it was his father, Floyd Patterson, or Malcolm X.

Yet, after their confrontation, Malcolm could not help but try to protect Ali. Before he departed Accra, he sent Ali a telegram, offering brotherly advice as he always did, reminding him of his immense cultural power. “Because a billion of our people in Africa, Arabia, and Asia love you blindly, you must now be forever aware of your tremendous responsibilities to them. You must never say or do anything that will permit your enemies to distort the beautiful image you have here among our people.” When he made a vague reference to Ali’s “enemies,” he was really referring to his own adversaries in the Nation of Islam, those who would exploit Ali, use him up, and discard him when he was no longer valuable, just as they did to Malcolm.

* * *

Ali moved on as if he had never seen Malcolm. He performed his usual shtick, making outrageous pronouncements and entertaining strangers. When a local man asked him why he was going to visit Egypt, he answered that he intended to find his future wife there. Actually, he was “going to get four wives” and bring them back home, where he would build a castle. One of his wives, “Abigail,” would feed him grapes. Another wife, “Susie,” would rub olive oil all over his “beautiful muscles,” while “Cecilia” shined his shoes. He was not sure what his fourth wife, “Peaches,” would do. Perhaps, she would entertain him, singing or dancing. It was all part of his fantasy of being worshipped, being loved, being king of the world.

Mesmerized by the crowds of ordinary men and women who followed him at every stop, Ali fell in love with Africa. He toured Ghana like a politician courting voters. Whenever he met government authorities, state boxing officials, or casual fans, he made sure that he won them over with his charm, endlessly praising Ghana, hugging women, and kissing babies. He claimed that he wanted to build a home and a gym in Accra so that he could train among his people. “Until I came to Ghana, I never realized that I was so popular and loved by Africans, my people,” he said. “I am so overwhelmed and fascinated, and I feel it is my obligation to arrange for my next championship fight to be staged in Accra.” This was one of many empty promises he uttered during his visit. He never intended to defend his title in Ghana, let alone move there. In fact, he would not return to Africa until a decade later.

Soon, Nkrumah invited Ali to Ghana’s presidential palace. Draped in a striped orange and blue kente cloth, Ali towered over the tiny president as they toured the Flagstaff House. Nkrumah, dressed in his signature khaki pants and open-necked shirt, a modern look befitting a man who aspired to lead Africa into the modern age, presented Ali with his two books, both promoting African nationalism.

They visited for a short time, just long enough for the state’s photographers to snap pictures for the next day’s newspapers. Ali told reporters that he was honored to meet Nkrumah, which translated into the headline, “Mohamed Ali Meets His Hero.” The press exaggerated his reverence for Nkrumah, a propaganda ploy advancing the Ghanaian leader’s agenda. Just as he did for Elijah Muhammad, Ali followed Nkrumah’s party line. When they met, he said, “I humbled myself before him, a thing I rarely do, because I saw in him a dedicated man who is anxious to free Africa and bring about unity.”

On May 18, the same day he visited Nkrumah, Ali met with Ambassador William Mahoney at the U.S. Embassy. Less than four months after protesters demonstrated outside the embassy, the State Department feared that Ali might inflame anti-American rhetoric. Consequently, the United States Information Agency, the government’s foreign affairs propaganda machine, did not publicize his tour. Even before his meeting with Mahoney, Ali understood the political implications of his trip. “Many Negro celebrities,” he said, “take State Department ‘goodwill tours’ of Africa or Asia, but few have received the personal congratulations and invitations from so many world leaders.” Promoting black athletes as symbols of American democracy, the State Department figured that famous stars such as Rafer Johnson, Bill Russell, and Floyd Patterson could counter anti-American views among Africans.

Yet Ali rejected the role of the State Department’s goodwill ambassador. As an independent guest of the Ghanaian government, he assumed no responsibility for the embassy’s agenda. During a press conference, he criticized the NAACP and derided the Civil Rights Act as a deceptive attempt to convince blacks that integration would work. The law, he charged, “won’t change the hearts of the slave masters. And like the counterfeit money it is, if the Negroes tried to spend it they would be arrested.”

Four years before, as an Olympic champion in Rome, he had defended America. Now he abandoned the government’s official line. Emerging as a potent international symbol of anti-American defiance, he described America as a violent country where blacks who demanded freedom were “getting killed” and children were “being bombed in churches.” History showed, he said, that whites and blacks could not get along because “the so-called master doesn’t want his slave to be his equal. This is America.”

* * *

On Friday, May 22, Ali flew by private plane to Kumasi, Ghana’s “Garden City,” where more than 5,000 people greeted him. Rivaling his welcome in Accra, locals filled the streets as his caravan meandered downtown, paralyzing traffic. Sitting atop a convertible, Ali, perspiring beneath his white shirt and loosened dark tie, led the crowd in his usual call-and-response routine. Shopkeepers, clerks, and merchants left their jobs just to see the famous American champion. Teenagers climbed trees, scrambling for a better view, while others rode bicycles alongside his car. For them, Ali was a symbol of black pride. “By returning to Africa,” a Daily Graphic columnist wrote, “he has fulfilled a long-cherished mission which the other great Afro-American champions left unaccomplished.” Ali, another writer explained, “is a real specimen of the African. He thinks anything the white man can do the African can do better.”

At Kumasi Sports Stadium, thousands of fans watched him spar with his brother, raising money for the Kwame Nkrumah Trust Fund, a charitable organization. Throwing very few punches against Rahman, he mostly stalked his brother around the ring and chased the referee. Near the end of the match, he “feigned grogginess, then fell to the canvas, stunning the crowd.” Bouncing back to his feet, the crowd roared with applause. Assuring his fans, he said, “If we had been really fighting, I would have won in one.”

* * *

After spending three weeks in Ghana, on June 1, 1964, Ali traveled to Lagos, Nigeria. For hours, a few thousand fans waited at the Lagos International Airport, holding signs that read, “Welcome Back Home Mohammed Ali King of the World.” Reporters, photographers, and government officials greeted the champ while fans shouted his name, convincing him that he really was the most popular man in the world. A crowd swarmed his car, pressing against it as they reached out to touch him. “They love me, they love me,” he kept repeating.

The ebullient mood was short-lived. Many local newsmen disapproved of his egotism, listening to him deride Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson for not being “true world champions willing to travel everywhere like me.” Making matters worse, Ali angered his hosts from the National Sports Council when he informed them that he could not stay more than three days. The council had expected him to visit for a week and perform two boxing exhibitions, just as he had in Ghana. Stunned by Ali’s sudden change of plans, the officials could not understand why he had reneged on their agreement. A day after he arrived, he visited the American Embassy, where he explained to his hosts that he already had plans to travel to Egypt. “They got big things planned for me in Cairo. Nasser is gonna see me, and it’s gonna be really big. The only plane to Cairo this week [leaves on] Wednesday, so I gotta go.” His hosts protested, reminding him that thousands of Nigerian fans were counting on him, but he insisted that Egypt was “more important than Nigeria.”

Outraged, Hogan “Kid” Bassey, former world bantamweight champion and Olympic boxing coach, scolded Ali. Egypt, he said, was not more important than Nigeria. Gripping the arms of his chair, he explained that Nigeria was the biggest country in Africa. In fact, 1 in 5 Africans lived in Nigeria. Of course, “every Nigerian schoolboy” knew that, but Ali didn’t.

“Well,” Ali replied, “isn’t Egypt the powerfulest country with all them rockets and their big army and their dam?”

“Mr. Muhammad,” Bassey exclaimed, “you are a champion. You are supposed to keep your promises. We scheduled an exhibition in Ibadan. Thousands have bought tickets to see you. We organized a soccer game especially in your honor. We invited important officials to banquets. You were picked to judge the Miss Nigeria contest Saturday.” His voice rising, Bassey fumed, “If you leave us now, you’ll mess everything up.”

At that point Bassey and Ali were no longer just talking. Now they were sparring with words, and Ali was determined to prove that he was the better fighter. “Now look,” he said, pointing his finger at Bassey, “I don’t appreciate anybody telling me to do this or do that. Nobody tells me what to do or when to do it but me.”

Herbert Muhammad tried to calm everyone down. Ali stood up and shook hands with his hosts, but the tension remained. Afterward, they packed into cars so that Ali would not be late for a radio interview, but along the way he ordered the driver to stop the car so that he could buy a record player. Infuriated, Bassey vented, “That clown! He wants to go shopping? He calls himself a champion?”

Critics lambasted his treatment of Nigeria as a “disgrace.” Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins suggested that Ali’s “diplomatic blunder” might damage America’s reputation in Africa. Ali had “insulted Sonny Liston and got away with it, so why should 36 million Nigerians concern him?” Yet a Nigerian writer defended Ali, suggesting that any criticism of his early departure was unfair. The Daily Times’ Cee-Kay blamed his short stay on the National Sports Council for poorly planning the boxer’s visit after he had already arranged his trip to Egypt. Comparing the heavyweight champion with a foreign minister, the columnist argued that Ali deserved better treatment. “Apart from being a world champion,” he wrote, “Mohammed Ali is our own brother. He is even more than that. He is an ambassador of his country. And that is more reason why he should be given V.I.P. treatment.”

* * *

For months, Egyptians had anticipated Ali’s arrival. Immediately after he defeated Liston and announced that he practiced Islam, Egypt’s Supreme Islamic Council invited him to visit the United Arab Republic. His religious declaration had thrust him into the international spotlight. Yet American diplomats feared that if Ali accepted the invitation, he might embarrass the United States. Equally troubling to officials, the Arab press made no distinction between orthodox Muslims and the Black Muslims, giving Ali and the Nation of Islam “undeserved credit and status” throughout the Middle East. In advance of his visit, the State Department attempted to diminish Ali’s appeal by planting articles in newspapers and magazines that exposed the “true nature of Black Muslims,” making it clear that the sect was “not genuinely Islamic.”

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali rides near the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, 1964.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On June 3, Ali finally reached Cairo International Airport, where an eager crowd nearly crushed him as he made his way through a terminal. Scores of policemen, soldiers, and ex-boxers struggled against the people enveloping the champ. Looking at the crowd of nearly two thousand people and placards reading, “Victory to Islam,” Ali realized that these people loved him not only for his boxing talents but also because he was a Muslim. “I’m fighting for Allah,” he declared. “I’m proud to be a Moslem, and among you. I feel at home.”

In Cairo, Ali showed far greater respect for his hosts than he had in Nigeria. Elijah Muhammad had taught him that the “Asiatic black man” had descended from the rich Nile Valley region, and that ancient Egypt was once the most powerful black nation in history. Perceiving Egyptian superiority, Ali viewed his surroundings as evidence that he had reached the most advanced Muslim country in the world. From his balcony at the Nile Hilton, a gleaming 12-story white slab replete with modern amenities and air conditioning, a panoramic historic vista met his gaze. Overlooking the western bank of the majestic river, in the distance he saw the Citadel, ancient mosques, and the pyramids, surrounded by desert. Looking eastward, he glimpsed Tahrir Square, Cairo’s commercial district. In his reverence for Egyptian history and culture, he adopted a more dignified countenance befitting a distinguished Muslim. Studying his performance, Charles Howard observed, “Muhammad Ali is not only a boxer—he’s an actor.”

During his 20-day tour of Egypt, Ali met the Supreme Islamic Council; watched a boxing tournament at an athletic club; visited monuments, museums, and the Aswan Dam; and performed a few boxing exhibitions. Outside Cairo, near the pyramids of Giza, he straddled a stubborn camel, tightly pulling the reins when the ornery bull bucked. He confidently waved off the camel’s owner and steadily gained control. “I’m the champ,” he announced with a grin, “and I can tame a camel just like I handled Sonny Liston.” While some locals laughed at his boasts, others resented his jocular behavior. “A real king,” a Cairene suggested, “would not say he is king of the world about himself. He’d leave it for others to say it about him.”

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali prays with his hands open at the Hussein Mosque in Cairo in 1964.

Express/Getty Images

Egyptians also wondered if Ali really understood how to perform traditional Muslim rituals. At the Al-Hussein Mosque, he and his brother prayed barefoot on a carpet among 1,500 worshippers. Afterward, Ali was so moved by his experience that he announced he would make the pilgrimage to Mecca before returning home, though he never reached the Holy City. He also claimed that he wanted to learn Arabic, train Egyptian boxers, marry an Egyptian woman, and live near the Great Pyramids. Watching him pray during what seemed like inappropriate moments, with his palms facing the sky, shouting, “Allahu akbar,” left some locals questioning his sincerity.

Near the end of his stay, he met Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. A passionate boxing fan, Nasser told Ali that he had watched his victory over Liston. Afterward, Ali said they talked for nearly 40 minutes “about life, boxing, different things,” seemingly harmless topics. But given Nasser’s friendly relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, State Department officials must have cringed when Ali told a reporter that everything he had read about Nasser in the United States was “nothing but lies. It is a shame how they tell lies about great people like Nasser.”

While the State Department considered whether Ali might make more provocative statements, it soon realized that it no longer had to worry. After five weeks of traveling, he abruptly canceled the final leg of his trip. “I’m tired,” he said to a group of reporters at Kennedy International Airport. “People have been mobbing me. They’ve been killing me. Women and children were jumping off roofs, and people were coming straight out of the mountains to see me.”

But Ali wasn’t embellishing when he said, “I was treated like a politician.” In Africa, he discovered a whole new world, one where people respected him as a black man and as a Muslim. His experience transformed him into a global icon, an international symbol of Black Power and anti-colonialism. Reflecting on his journey, he realized that his worldwide celebrity came with tremendous responsibility. “Sometimes it scares me, all this fame, the world watches me, little children know me, old ladies,” he said. “Gotta set an example of good living, everybody knows me.” He could easily close his eyes and imagine all the black faces smiling at him, chanting his name. “You should have seen them pour out of the hills, the villages of Africa, and they all knew me. Everybody knows me in the whole world.”

Copyright 2016 by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. From Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, published by Basic Books. Reprinted with permission.

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