At home with Muhammad Ali: Hana Ali interview

Paul Zanon
13/09/2018 9:01pm

Paul Zanon speaks to Hana Ali about her memories of her father, her new book and much more besides. Essential reading for all admirers of 'The Greatest'...

As a boxing scribe and author of six books, when I’d heard that ‘another’ Muhammad Ali book of sorts was hitting the shelves, I took a deep sigh and thought, ‘Oh dear.’

Then again, I interviewed The Greatest’s eldest daughter Maryum Ali, a couple of years ago and was blown away by the dialogue she brought to the table.

Thankfully, the same occurred with younger sister Hana.

With the intent of shining a torch into the life of 'The Greatest', I made a phone call to the West Coast…

BM: Why did you decide to write a memoir of ‘Love, loss and forgiveness?

HA: If you want the full, true story, it started off being a transcription of my father’s audio recordings from years ago. I was transcribing them after he gave them to me and I thought, how artistic and wonderful would it be to share it with the world? Then I got some advice from the editor to say it would be great to have some background information and from then I thought, how nice would it be to have a chapter with all of my sisters? Then it felt top heavy with all my memories, so I thought, maybe I should do a memoir.

That’s when I discovered my dad’s love letters and I thought: I have to do a memoir and make it my story about how we were as a family. I was reluctant at first because there were a lot of good memories, but there was a lot of honesty and truth that needed to be addressed carefully about my parents' story, yet still told in a classy way. It was a huge dilemma. I had to read a lot of ‘how-to’ books and that’s how it became a memoir!

BM: Everyone will say – another Muhammad Ali book – tell the readers what’s different about this one.

HA: The difference is, that it’s really not a book about Muhammad Ali. It’s my memoir about my experience of growing up with my father, his career, my parents' relationship and my father and his struggle with Parkinson’s [disease]. What makes this unique is that nobody has ever heard the conversations that I’ve used in the book. Everything from when he was deciding to come back to the ring, through to his relationship with my mother. He wrote love letters, which I had no idea about, and I thought I knew everything about my dad! I’ve used them in the book so people can see the originals. Also, I’ve included my private experiences with my dad. I’ve done interviews over the years sharing little bits here and there, but nothing like I’ve shared in the book.

BM: Your memories of your father as a boxer? [N.B – Hana was born in 1976].

HA: My memories were dad training for the last two fights [against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick], but my memories I have are a little flashy. I do remember being at his training camp a lot and riding horses. He had a lot of ponies. I even had birthday parties there! I remember the big rocks [18 of them at Deer Lake, with former heavyweight world champions' names painted on them], I remember him training, putting on his big black army boots and him going out to train. I remember handing those boots to him on many occasions. He ran with those because he thought it would make his feet feel lighter in the ring. I used to ride in the car that would follow behind him when he was running, in case he got tired. I remember leaning out of the window and watching him jog in his grey jogging suit and sometimes they’d let me out of the car and he’d pick me up and carry me as he jogged. I never went to his fights, but I remember him training when the public would watch him spar in the ring. Those are my memories of him as a boxer.

BM: As you got older, did you watch any of your father’s former fights?

HA: I haven’t watched them all and certainly haven’t watched the last two and probably never will. That would make me sad, knowing what he was going through at that time. The only fight I’ve ever, ever, ever watched entirely through, is the [George] Foreman fight. It was my dad’s favourite fight. It meant the most to him. He had to show the world, that after everything he’d been through, he was still ‘The Greatest.’ Everything he did, including in his last fights, he did in self-belief. They always say boxers die two deaths and my father was one of those people that things had to be proven to him. There was no other way his career was going to end, unless he did so proving he had nothing left to offer in the ring. But even after his last fight, he still remained 'The Greatest', the most loved and one of the most respected athletes of all time.

Here’s a story for you. After one of his fights, he was at a retirement home somewhere and he walked in and everyone recognised him. There was a man who was in his 80s, in a wheelchair who could hardly see who said: ‘I know you!

Dad went up close to him and said, ‘Who am I?’

The old man replied, ‘You’re the greatest boxer of all time.’

My dad replied, ‘What’s my name?’

And the man said, ‘Joe Louis!’

One of the members of my dad’s entourage said, ‘You old fool. That’s no Joe Louis, that’s…’

Before he could say another word, my dad turned to him and said, ‘Be quiet. This man has lived a long hard life. If he wants me to be Joe Louis, then I’ll be Joe Louis.’

My dad never corrected him and [he] let the man think he was Joe Louis. That story showed what a wonderful person he was.

BM: Growing up you had the likes of Clint Eastwood, Michael Jackson and many other celebrities in the house. Was that just normal to you or were you starstruck every time you saw them?

HA: I was never starstruck, ever, even with Michael Jackson. I got excited. I didn’t want autographs, photos or anything like that, because that’s how my father raised me. If you didn’t know my dad, then you have to understand that he made everyone feel like celebrities. If the mail man came in to get his autograph [Hana puts on a great impression of her dad’s voice] he’d say, ‘This is the world’s famous mail man!’ We’d go to a restaurant, he’d meet the chef and then say, ‘This is the greatest chef in the world! Do you know how good this chef is?’ He loved making people feel good.

When these famous people came in the house, they were just people. I was too young to really know what they did. He’d introduce them as ‘The world’s greatest actor!’, or ‘The world’s greatest film maker of all time!’, as he would the mail man. He treated people equally. He used to say, ‘Never value fame, wealth and things like that. What you value with people is their heart.’ He’d teach us to value people who were kind to the poor or helped the sick, those were the values he instilled in us.

BM: You grew up at a time when your father’s Parkinson’s disease was starting to kick in. How tough was that to witness over the years as it progressed?

HA: You know, it progressed slowly over the years. It was like a subtle change, like ageing. The only time you only noticed the difference is when someone showed footage of him then and now and you’d see the difference. He didn’t have hardship in the sense that he was in pain or looked like he was in pain. His condition became part of our life. It’s hard to explain, but I think his outlook on Parkinson’s is what made it easier for us to deal with as a family. He was so spiritual with his approach. It was like he’d forgotten about it. He was never like, ‘Oh God, I have Parkinson’s’. People would write to him and he’d reply and give them strength to deal with the illness. That profound spirit within him, never left him.

BM: Muhammad Ali came across as an incredibly funny man. First hand – what was his sense of humour like as a person and a father?

HA: He was no different to how you’d see him on TV, apart from maybe the theatrics. At home he always had that, but it wasn’t so loud. He never lost that child-like quality, even in the height of his fame. In fact, he got energy from making people happy. As a father, he was always showing us magic tricks and kissing and hugging us, picking us up ice cream. The only difference is, he never sent us away when it was time to work. He always wanted us with him.

BM: Give me one reason why anybody should read the book?

HA: I think that regardless of whether you were a Muhammad Ali fan or not, if you love memoirs which have life lessons, are inspiring and will move your heart, I think you’ll enjoy reading the book.

At Home with Muhammad Ali: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Forgiveness
Read more at Penguin Books website
Available at all good book stores and via Amazon

N.B – This is not the official BM review. That, of course, will be dealt with by the guru, John Exshaw.