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Looking back on Muhammad Ali as a dad: 'We had to share him with the world'

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Muhammad Ali was, arguably, the most famous man on the planet in the 1970s. When he wasn’t fighting or training to fight, he was often working on the set of a movie, filming TV interviews, or hobnobbing with celebrities. That didn’t leave much time for his family. In 1986, Ali married for the fourth and final time. He had no children with his first wife, four with his second, two with his third, and one with his fourth. He also fathered at least two children out of wedlock. For the children, it wasn’t always easy having Ali for a father. But it could be great fun at times.

In this excerpt from my new book, ALI: A LIFE, I describe a little bit of the Ali family dynamic:

Even with his extensive travels, Ali spent more time at home now than ever, but he did not adjust easily to domesticity. The manly entourage had been his family most of his adult life. Now, he seemed unprepared for and perhaps uninterested in the life and work of parenthood. Rather than settling down with Veronica and their two girls — Hana, age 8, and Laila, age 6 — Ali entertained an endless stream of guests at his Los Angeles home and took every invitation to travel as an opportunity to escape boredom. Laila said she hated entering her father’s study because there were always so many people — “advisers, friends, fans, hangers-on.”

75f134a648004c5383e602c65af32e7f6d08e571.jpgPhoto caption: After divorcing Belinda Boyd, Ali married Veronica Porche. With their daughter Hana, the couple is seen here on a bus headed to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. Photo credit: © Michael Gaffney Photo

After years of watching him on TV, Laila longed for her father’s company, and she did not wish to share him with the strangers surrounding him. Ali was like a big kid, and his girls loved that. He took them to Bob’s Big Boy and let them order “a whole dinner of desserts.” He hid behind doors when they entered rooms and chased them around the house wearing scary masks. He swallowed all the kids’ vitamins so they wouldn’t have to. He tape-recorded conversations with his children, telling them they would be happy one day to have a record of their time together. He was enormous fun, but, as Laila told it, he did not provide the kind of warm, safe, and loving environment she craved.

“I never heard my parents fight,” Laila wrote in her memoir, “but their separate bedrooms said it all.”

In the memoir, she refers to her childhood home in Los Angeles as “the mansion” and “my father’s mansion.” With the exception of Thanksgiving, there were no family dinners. Maids and cooks kept the children clothed and fed. Laila was not impressed when celebrities such as Michael Jackson and John Travolta appeared in the living room. “I was drawn instead to another black family who lived down the street,” she wrote. “They ate together every night... The parents gave the kids rules and made sure they were obeyed. All this made me envious. I longed for such a family.”

ee217b2a27756a1e307cd028c02aa5e5f99e58fa.jpgPhoto caption: Drew Bundini Brown, Ali’s friend and chief motivator, tapes the fighter’s hands at their training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: © Kwame Brathwaite

Ali’s children from his previous marriage saw their father two or three times a year. His daughter Jamillah, in a recent interview, said that she and her siblings, got along nicely with their stepsisters, Hana and Laila. Ali did a good job of making sure Khalilah’s children got to know Veronica’s children. When Veronica and Muhammad were married, the children often spent summers together at the house in Los Angeles. Sharing her father with her stepsisters was not difficult, Jamillah said. “We had to share him, anyway,” she said. “We had to share him with the world.”

Ali’s illegitimate children enjoyed even less time with their father. Miya, Ali’s daughter with Patricia Harvell, said her father phoned her regularly and invited her to Los Angeles from time to time. Once, Miya said, when children at school were teasing her because they didn’t believe Ali was her father, Ali flew in, took her to school, and addressed an assembly of students, introducing himself as Miya’s father and speaking individually with some of those who had doubted his daughter’s claim. “That meant more to me than words can explain,” Miya said.

Excerpted from "ALI: A Life" by Jonathan Eig. Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Eig. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


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