Hana solo

In 2002, Hana Ali penned Soul of a Butterfly with her legendary father Muhammad Ali. Now, two years after The Greatest’s passing, she has published her memoir of growing up with an icon

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How can you expect to have a normal childhood when your dad is Muhammad Ali? It’s one thing to be possibly the greatest boxer of all time, it’s quite another to be Ali – a figure who, to use a near-unavoidable cliché, transcended his sport. Everybody knows who Ali was.

He won Olympic heavyweight gold at 18, and the world title at 22. The man risked everything in converting to Islam and refusing to serve in Vietnam, missing out on three peak years before the Supreme Court freed him to fight again.

Then came the classic fights – the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman, the Thriller in Manila with Joe Frazier. Bruising encounters with Ken Norton and Larry Holmes.

Four times married, eight (later nine) kids, much of his twenties and thirties spent on the road, isolated in training camps – you might say no one person could have a full picture of Ali before he was forced into a more sedentary lifestyle in his forties. His daughter Hana is as well placed as anyone.

“It’s about a man who’s trying to figure out what to do in the world, and the stresses around that.”

Hana and her younger sister Laila came from Ali’s third marriage, to Veronica Porche. Their older siblings – Maryum, twins Rasheeda and Jamillah, and Muhammad Junior – are from his second marriage, to Belinda Boyd. Two further daughters, Miya and Khalia, came from women Ali never married around the same time, while in 1989 he and his fourth wife Lonnie adopted a son, Asaad.

The book’s main hook is a series of audio tapes Ali made in the late 1970s and early 1980s – he obsessively recorded everyday life so his girls could listen back when grown up – but it has an additional angle of letters written by Ali to Veronica as they drifted apart, but never sent.

The pain of the couple’s divorce was traumatic for Hana, who for a couple of years suffered behaviourally. She blamed her mother, despite it being Ali’s philandering that caused the rift (the two women get on fine now).

This is categorically not a book about boxing, but does throw a bit of light on Ali’s ill-fated final comeback. Everyone assumes it’s for money – it usually is in boxing – and Ali is hardly alone in the boxing pantheon in having a huge amount of mouths to feed. But although this is to some extent true, Ali was embarking on a scheme to build a new centre for boxers from poor backgrounds.

The responsibility Ali felt to put something back – this is a man who genuinely lived the life of a man who belonged to the people – was enormous.

“It’s about a man who’s trying to figure out what to do in the world, and the concerns and stresses around that,” says Hana. “So many people are faced with the question of what to do at the end of a career, and the grand scale of who my father was, and his health situation and marriage situation, make it all the more obvious that there was so much on him.

“It’s such a gift that he recorded everything, and that both my father and mother never threw anything away. Going through the letters, listening to the tapes, it really felt like I was time-travelling.”

The idea for the book came to Hana in the late 1990s, when Ali gave her the cassettes he made. He had a habit of flicking on a tape as he made phone calls from his office at the mansion in Fremont Place, and he made a lot of calls – to close friends like the first black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, to former rivals like Foreman and Frazier, to random people selected from the phone book.

The book was sold to a publisher a month after Ali died, but the publisher gave Hana a year in which to go through the grieving process and become comfortable with the task. From then, it was an 18-month slog for a woman who has also changed career, from working with autistic children to becoming a realtor.

She had complete creative control, including cover, font and audio. If that sounds indulgent of the publisher, it’s not a perk that has been abused – the audio in particular has a back story.

“I feel he knows the book is in existence. The woman I chose to read the audio is Kim Staunton, someone who my dad and I listened to reading Kindred by Octavia Butler. He loved her beautiful reading voice – I wanted to do the story justice and she’s perfect for it.”

Truth be told, the book could have done with a harsher edit – Hana says it was slated at 90,000 words, but came in around 130,000 and hasn’t really been slimmed down from that. There’s a bit of jumping around chronologically too.

Stick with it though and what builds up is a broad picture of Ali’s life when he could give time to his family and had a relatively stable home life. But they were also worrying years, searching for a purpose, while Parkinson’s started to have an effect. Some writers had spotted early signs of it towards the end of his fighting days, and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984 and full blown Parkinson’s disease in 1986.

The impression driven home repeatedly of Ali is a man who wanted to give, but a man not necessarily happy in his own company. The tales of letting people in who just turn up at the house, or striking up conversations as he drove or walked the streets, are numerous, as is his habit of performing magic tricks. There’s always a childlike innocence and need for approval. He’d do magic tricks but feel the need to explain them, solemnly telling his mark that Islam forbids trickery. The Magic Association threw him out for revealing secrets, Hana reckons.

She continues: “I felt like I was stuck in 1979, 1980 for a long time. It felt quite unhealthy, putting me in the place of being a little girl again. My dad really was the first reality star. I felt like I was back there and I listened to all the tapes – even women calling who he’d given his number to. He didn’t erase or hide anything, he was so innocent like that – even the recordings of him and my mom discussing his philandering. I felt it all had to be shared.”

The years covered here involve Ali trying desperately to bring all his kids together. In many ways, she says, it was tougher for the older kids, who were raised by grandparents as Belinda moved to LA to pursue a film career. Only in the last few years at Fremont did he get them together, sharing summers, but they became firm friends and remain close.

There’s no great love for Belinda here, with a hint dropped that there are things to be revealed – although 40-odd years on, what’s the point? “My father never gave up. He always wanted to bring his kids together and it’s a testimony to him we’re all friends,” says Hana.

“He had a dream and a vision but Parkinson’s got in the way of that. The love letters were a shocking discovery for me. For three years he was writing these letters, apologising, but he never handed them to my mother. I don’t know if there was an ‘at least she’ll know at some point’ thing in his mind. I learned a lot about my father.”

Leaving the Fremont house was a huge wrench for Hana. Despite her run-ins with governesses – there was an army of staff in the house – it must have felt like a castle and was where she shared moments with her dad. It’s very touching to read of those early mornings when he’d pick her up out of bed, get a coffee on the go, and light the fire in his office by a protracted method. “Everything was theatrical with my dad,” she recounts.

Of all Ali’s children she is the keeper of the flame, the teller of the story, and unlike Laila – who herself won world titles in an undefeated eight-year pro career – was always a daddy’s girl. She moved to Michigan for six years in her twenties to be close to him and re-strengthen their bond, during which time they wrote Soul of a Butterfly together.

These years gave Hana some closure, bringing back the feelings of security in her childhood. Even though Ali was constantly travelling, trying to find a role, to foster peace, Fremont was his home.

When the divorce was finalised and the Fremont house departed, Veronica and the two girls moved out. But for the first night after, Ali and his eldest daughter Maryum stayed in his Winnebago outside Fremont.

Hana says: “I guess he hadn’t thought ahead and was still figuring things out. It was a unique childhood but I think everybody can relate to the ‘what am I going to do in the world as a man’ aspect.”

When Ali converted to Islam in the 1960s he renounced his “slave name” Cassius Clay. In the book, Hana talks of a moment her father, always terrified of flying in small planes, yelled “Allahu Akhbar” on a flight, asking: “Can you imagine the reaction to somebody doing that today?”

What would he make of the polarised views of today?

“My father would say he was a boxer, not a fighter, and he never looked to hurt anybody, and in his later years it broke his heart to see the misconceptions and misrepresentations of Islam. He saw people acting against the interests of peace and always hated to see that misrepresentation.”

The book shows how Ali’s religion was broadly relaxed, taking an “if we’re all trying to do good, that’s fine” line.

“My dad always said there are people taking stands all over the world, we just don’t know about them. He also said that with fame comes responsibility – you should respect that you influence people and keep that in mind. The majority don’t step up and are not role models. He did, always, and I think that’s why he continues to be so loved and admired.”

The book is out there now and it has been, she says, a cathartic experience. “It was very emotional, very stressful, very difficult to write, but it was a positive experience, for sure. I’d do it again, but not any time soon. It was very therapeutic – there were lots of tears every day.”

At Home with Muhammad Ali by Hana Ali is published by Bantam Press (£20)

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