Marino de Medici: Muhammad Ali, the champion

Marino de Medici

I had met him once before in Rome when I covered the 1960 Olympic Games. At that time, when he won the gold medal, his name was Cassius Clay. Now he was Muhammad Ali.

I tracked him down in the lobby of the Roberts Motel with his brother Rudolph Valentino and seven other men, two of whom were detectives probably hired to protect him from possible reprisals by the followers of the slain Malcolm X. Muhammad Ali greeted me with the remark: “So they come from Rome to see the champ, the beautiful.”

It was one of the strangest interviews that I ever conducted. He went right into a description of his faith as a Black Muslim.

“Since I became a Muslim, I have gained respect. When you get sticks behind your ears and a bunch of dogs sicked on you, you know you don’t have respect. The Muslims welcome you. Being a Muslim got me a dinner with Nkrumah, with the king of Arabia, with Nasser. ‘We shall be glad when the American Negro people wake up to reality’, they all told me.”

His voice rose to a shout and he beat his chest and slapped the shoulders of his followers as he spoke.

How did he explain that only a small percentage from America’s 24 million Negro Americans had joined the Muslims, I asked.

“You will see,” he said with a smirk. “Within 24 four months, all Negroes will become Muslims. Muhammad is never wrong. He is the Messenger to 24 million Negroes, blind and dead Negroes.”

He continued, as his second wife Sonji made a brief appearance and left: “Who brought us here? Who worked as a slave to build this country? Now they don’t give us nothing. Africa is our country.”

Raising my voice, I asked him: “Would you really go back to Africa?”

“Yessir!” he shouted. “Twenty-two million of us will leave this country and leave you alone. The white man is doomed!”

I asked him whether he considered me, too, a “white devil.”

He shot back: “Yes, you, too, are a devil.”

But, I told him, Elijah Muhammad does not consider Italians devils, perhaps because the majority of them do not have blue eyes. He appeared doubtful for a moment and then clapped a big hand on my shoulder and beamed his angelic smile. Then, laughing, he went on: “The Italians cannot be devils. Hannibal and the Moors were in your country a long time. You have got some African in your blood and in your skin. The black man is the original man.”

Which did he consider more important, his boxing crown or the Muslims?

“I prefer to continue to be a fighter and to convert the Negroes who know me. Of course, religion is more important than fighting. If all American Negroes are not Muslims within two years, I’ll get out of the Muslims.”

When his trainer Drew Brown, a black man with a serene face, came into the conversation, Muhammad Ali said he was not a Muslim and Brown, in a quick response, said that he was not going to be “in the wonderful space ship.”

Muhammed Ali did not appreciate Brown’s irony and rushed him, laughing and shouting and pretending to knock him down with right and left punches. Everybody laughed and the champion delivered a dressing down to the trainer who remained unperturbed, although his smile now appeared somewhat forced.

I tried to break the tension by asking Muhammad Ali to tell me more about the space ship.

“It comes from Mars. If Muhammad said it, it is certainly true.”

He took up a pen and sketched wavy lines around a circle that he designated as the Earth and said: “The space ship is here, it rotates the Earth, it stops, gets closer, and then it moves out again.”

To illustrate the idea of movement, he waggled a hand and then drew two more lines departing from the Earth.

“The space ship has the power of 1,500 bombers. Muhammad does not want me to tell you about it.”

I asked him how the destruction of the world would occur.

“America will be the first continent to be destroyed. But we are like Moses, we are getting out when chaos comes. When we get out, it will be too late for those Negroes who let themselves be integrated with the white man. We must separate. This is not our country. We were here as a test in slavery….”

His brother interrupted with a resounding “That’s right!”

The interview had become an oppressive experience. Luckily for me, the champion’s entourage was about to leave for Florida. I said good bye to Muhammad Ali but Rudolph Valentino detained me to tell me that all whites are “devils —  the Masons, the Catholics, the Pope, they are all devils.”

All I could think of was to tell him that he had a nice Italian name.

“My name is Rahman Ali,” he said. “The other is my slave’s name.”

But had it not been given to him freely by his parents?

“My parents are sick in their minds,” he said with a scornful smile. “They are victims of the white masters.”

As I left the motel, I felt as relieved as if I had just stepped from the madness of an asylum where one is compelled to humor the inmates; to joke, laugh, exchange backslaps with them to avert any possible unpredictable behavior. I also was convinced that Muhammad Ali, and the Muslims, were serious in what they said, although I would have liked to believe that the champion was having some fun at the expense of the Italian journalist who had wandered into their midst.

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States. This interview, conducted in March 6, 1965. in Chicago, is from his  book, “Scribe, Thirty Years of Correspondence from America,” which is available on Amazon Books.