Ali on the inside
Maryum, or May May to her close friends and family, is known primarily for one reason – she’s the eldest daughter of ‘The Greatest,’ Muhammad Ali. However, her recent appearance in a reality television show, where she was immersed into the world of incarceration at Clark County Jail, Jeffersonville, Indiana, is where she’s currently gaining an incredible amount of attention. The reality television show is called, The Jail: 60 Days In and she goes under the name of Yasmin, trying to dodge her celebrity or pugilistic connections.
Similar to her father, who was known for his acts of kindness and humanitarianism, Maryum has followed in his footsteps, having been involved in the last decade and a half in trying to reduce gang crime and delinquency.
Although, this interview was more focused on Maryum’s involvement with the television series, Boxing Monthly couldn’t help but sneak in a few questions about her famous father, before establishing what she’s currently up to.
Maryum’s strongest boxing memory was of her father taking part in the second Ken Norton contest. "I didn’t get to go to all of his fights, but I went to that one. I was very aware that he broke my dad’s jaw the first time around, because I was a nervous wreck and crying all the time when my dad came home with his mouth wired up. The second one was memorable from the moment we headed to the stadium altogether. I remember my dad putting his hand out the window and said, ‘I’m Muhammad Ali. I’m The Greatest!’ People came running over and wanted to see him. The car was so beat up from people pounding, it looked like a truck hit it. It was crazy and as a little kid I was crying a little bit as I thought they were going to punch a hole through the car.
"I remember I was allowed to sit in the front row at the arena, because I was a little kid and there were some shady characters sitting in the front row (Maryum laughs)! In terms of the fight – he won and beat the guy who busted his jaw the first time and that was exciting for me. By the way – Ken Norton’s daughter is best friends with my sister. The Nortons are very close to our family."
And in terms of why she believes her father is ‘The Greatest’? Maryum explained, "People respect him for the man he is. And, in terms of who he is outside of the ring, who would give up a career for their beliefs? Most people would put their head down and take it. He saw himself as part of everyone else’s struggle, despite knowing he had a certain privilege. He knew that black men and women in the US at that time were having to deal with a lot of oppression and he just wanted to speak up for them. That made him 'The Greatest'. 'The Greatest' went way beyond boxing. But on the boxing side of things, he proved everyone wrong. Everyone said, ‘You’re going to lose to Sonny Liston. You’re going to lose to Joe Frazier. You’re going to lose to George Foreman. You’ll never come back.’ To have that confidence to comeback and keep telling people he was pretty, and be that self-promoter was unheard of. No athlete had ever really done that. My father showed his heart. I don’t think he was ever not himself. He never apologised for who he was. A lot of people hated him for that – but a lot of people loved him for that."
Moving onto her role in the reality TV show, The Jail:60 Days In, it was interesting to hear how Maryum initially became involved. As a social worker with a specialism of gang prevention, there was a natural correlation as to why she would have wanted to have been involved in this programme. Maryum explained to BM. ‘I got a call about the show from someone who said they’d heard about my work and they wanted people who wanted a reason for doing this – not just going in. They wanted the reasons to be logical and noble. Something that people who watching could say, ‘We see why she did that’. I had a lot of questions before I said ‘yes,’ in terms of my safety and also wanted to check out if the programming company had a track record in terms of what they did. I looked at all their other shows and I liked what I saw. I thought this was do-able and I would learn from it. I wanted to go, both personally and professionally. I wanted to look at the justice system from the inside and this would help me understand it. I’ve been around it. I’ve tried to prevent kids going to jail, I’ve dealt with kids with parents in jail. Having a view from the inside would help me understand a little better what that feels like. And it did help me a lot. I’m glad I did it."
Maryum reflected on her first day. "I had 10 scenarios of how I thought it would be. Some of the scenarios in my mind were good – some were bad. I would say they leant more towards the good. I won’t give too much away, but I think I made a pretty easy transition inside, despite being very nervous before going in, simply because I didn’t know what to expect."
And was daughter of the former heavyweight champion of the world intimidated behind bars? "I don’t want to give anything away! I would say ‘yes’ to that, but you’ll have to see what form that takes."
There’s a scene where Maryum was sitting with all the inmates eating dinner and a news story came on the TV, almost blowing her cover story. Maryum explained how she reacted to the situation. "We were watching the news and they started flashing pictures of my dad and his wife, then my dad’s sister. I’ve seen stories like that before, and on occasions, they’ll show me and my dad. I started thinking – ‘Oh boy! I hope they don’t flash a picture of me and him.’ I couldn’t change the channel because everyone was watching the news, so [Maryum laughs] I kind of sat there. Oh lordy! I kept thinking, ‘What will I say if they flash a picture?’ The best I could think of was, ‘Everyone thinks I look like that girl!’…and then try and hang in there. Thankfully it never happened."
The hardest thing about prison, turned out literally, to be the hardest. Maryum explained. "Not getting out (Maryum laughs)! At 47, I need to sleep right and that bed had my hip hurting. I had a hip problem and needed physical therapy when I left that jail. I was in pain. That was hard – literally. Also the noise and vulgarity elements never ended. It wasn’t like you could escape to the beach to get away from it. I’m the kind of person who likes nature hikes and bike rides and live on a quiet street. I had to deal with it, but after a while it gets to you. Your brain feels like it’s going to explode.
"What I also found hard was the hierarchy system in there. Seeing a couple of girls run all the other girls. I genuinely felt sorry for some of the women who were suffering because they were supressed by other women – and I couldn’t do anything about it. That bothered me. That really, really bothered me. I even wondered, if I was a real inmate, would I have tolerated this. If I’d had suggested that each cell had their time for the TV, I’m sure everyone would have voted ‘yes,’ and we could have overthrown the power there. Those two girls ran the TV and abused the other girls in a way. In a psychological way. I hated that. I couldn’t get involved in that because I wasn’t a real inmate. I wasn’t in there to change the codes or bring justice, I was there to observe. I just had to deal with that."
And what does the future hold for Maryum Ali? ‘Well – I want to perfect what I do. I’m working on my own youth development gang prevention programme. It’s a pilot three-year programme which I’m raising money for. I want to perfect that. I want to publish the results and train other programmes in the US in terms of best practice. Trying to prevent kids from going astray and establishing best practice in that field. With 15 years of experience I feel I know something about this and would like to be able to train and empower others with that knowledge."
The Jail: 60 Days In continues Wednesday at 10pm on Crime + Investigation on Sky, Virgin, BT and Talk Talk. For more check out #TheJail and @CI
Photo: ©A+E Networks