ORAL HISTORY: ‘You couldn’t lose being around a guy like Ali’
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad reflects on his mentor and friend, Muhammad Ali.
As told to Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud
I was first introduced to Muhammad Ali by some friends of mine in Newark, New Jersey. They knew I was in line to fight for the world light heavyweight title in 1980, and asked me if I wanted to train at the Muhammad Ali training camp in Pennsylvania. I said, “Sure, why not?”
I knew that I would have to be away from my family and friends for three months — but that was cool with me, because winning the title was my goal. So I went to the training camp, and met Ali in 1979. We became very good friends and sparring partners. He helped me prepare for the title shot, and we boxed a tremendous number of rounds in preparation for the title fight. We had a great time.
I could have never won the world title without the help of Muhammad Ali. He took me under his wing, and let me train in his camp for free. He wanted me to win that title, because in some way he felt like a win for me would be a win for him. At the time he was still actively boxing — and I enjoyed being around him, because he knew how determined I was to win.
When you are around a guy like Ali, it’s different. Just being around him will boost your spirits. You couldn’t lose being around Ali, because he projected positive energy.
His greatness is far beyond the boxing ring. He believed in himself so much — and one of his greatest sayings was, “If God is with me, nobody can be against me.” He believed that. We worked hard every day, and that rubbed off on me.
His self-determination, without a doubt, was one of his greatest attributes. Hanging out with him, going to the movies or shopping, was a wonderful time. He would say, “Here’s my man, Mustafa.” I loved how he greeted me with embracing words.
People often ask me, “What was Ali’s greatest skill in the boxing ring?” I would say that he could box, but wasn’t known for hitting his opponent with the hardest punch. But he would throw enough punches that would make you want to quit.
Ali loved everybody. He was a worldly person, and this is how he taught his fighters, and everyone around him, to live. He didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body — and he emphasized to all of us that we had to respect everybody and their religion.
As you look around today, Muslims are taking a public perception beating. But if you look up the word “Islam,” it means “peace.”
Muhammad Ali’s memorial service was a special occasion — and first and foremost, I had to be there. He was my friend, and really more than a friend. He was my family.
When I arrived at the funeral service in Louisville, there was a tremendous amount of security — and I initially had trouble making it through the crowd. Ali’s daughter, Maryum, saw me and said, “That’s my uncle, let him through” — and the security immediately escorted me to a seat.
I was one of the first people to go to Ali’s burial site before others gathered. I knew all of his wives, and it was a very solemn affair. I just couldn’t believe that Ali would never be seen on earth again.
He left such an indelible impression on my life, and I will never forget all the things Muhammad Ali did for me. I will be forever grateful. Things which helped make me the man I am today.
Everyone, in some way, has been touched by Muhammad Ali — even if they have never been in his physical presence. It’s because of what he stood for. He wanted to right all wrongs in life. He was the type of guy that wasn’t prejudiced and wanted human rights for all people.
Ali didn’t believe in the Vietnam War — and like he said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” He was 100% right. So, when he said things like that, it made the United States government hate him more. But he was bigger than the U.S. Government — and he won.
My most memorable moment with Ali would be the big dinners we would have at the training camp, and then we would go horseback riding. He would say to me, “Man, you going to be the champion.” We would ride horses and just talk — and on March 30, 1980, I became the world light heavyweight champion.
I remember returning to the Ali training camp after winning the world title — and he was at the door to greet me with a big hug. He said, “I told you that you would be the champion.” Ali’s values and characteristics rubs off on you when you are around him.
Currently, as a boxing trainer and manager, I am passing the boxing torch to other young fighters — like Ali did for me. I teach them how they too can become champions, and at the same time remain humble and never think they are better than another person.
I train a lot of Floyd Mayweather’s fighters, and I brought Floyd his first two world champions. There are a lot of guys waiting in line to be trained by me — and I am proud to be turning out new champions each day.