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January 14, 2024 by  
Filed under Cover Story, Feature

I try to show … the way to forgiveness’ 

Whenever someone says “The Greatest,” our minds turn immediately to Muhammad Ali. His impact on American history — inside the ring and out — has been well-documented in countless books, feature films and documentaries over the years. But those accounts aren’t normally given by those closest to the legendary boxer. 

Enter Dr. Khalilah Ali Camacho, whose new book, “Undefeated,” provides an insider’s view of life with the champ. And it reveals even more — she’s a karate master? — about a woman whose extraordinary influence on Ali’s life isn’t widely known. 

Tell us a little bit more about your book, “Undefeated,” and moving forward with forgiveness? 

I’m not just Muhammad Ali’s former wife. I said throughout his whole boxing career that we were a team. We were way before President Obama and Michelle. We were a Black couple that led the way for young people, civil rights, and all the rest of the stuff back in those days that were hard. 

Muhammad Ali and Dr. Khalilah Ali Camacho

I led the production for all of Muhammad’s media when we were married. A lot of people are unaware of all that we did together as a team before our divorce. The divorce changed the path. When you get married and work as a team, it’s hard when [someone in] the marriage drops you, and you don’t do the things you planned to do. You lose your legacy. You don’t talk about the legacy you both planned, because one of the members is on a different life plan. 

I was with Ali during his years of struggle. When people go through divorce, many might not be aware of it. But the whole world knew about my divorce — and it was difficult having the public watch my life and the destruction of my marriage. How does someone move on from a man who is known around the world? I helped him to become that well known. As a team, my whole plan was to make him bigger than ever in the beginning of his career. What I learned about being married, and letting someone go because of infidelity, was difficult. I helped build this legacy and I’m a part of the legacy everyone raves about. So, my best bet was to carry on the legacy that I helped to create. 

We all have dreams —and my dreams were his dreams, and his dreams were my dreams. That is why we worked together as a good team. It is what we had to do, and forgiveness is powerful. I never thought I would have to go through that phase of life, but I had to. It was like I was forced, because it helped me understand him. I understand why some men make mistakes and do some stupid things to their families that they shouldn’t do. But you cannot teach them. The role of the wife is to not be a mother to their husband. So I let Ali have his freedom — what he wanted. And that is why I say it was amazing and I learned a lot. I keep building that legacy and carrying on the legacy today by helping children — giving them moral support and teaching manners to focus on, and trying to show them the way to forgiveness. 

Dr. Khalilah Ali Camacho

My words of advice to women who have experienced what I did with my ex-husband are, “You must take a step back. Stay calm, be humble and forgiving.” I know it is a hard thing to do once you have been hurt — but once you forgive somebody, you can better understand the person who hurt you. 

If you are headed to the top in life, and the person who hurt you cannot grow with you to the top, you must cut them off. Most importantly, mothers and former wives must forgive and practice talking to the person who hurt you. Let them know that there is no need to fuss and fight — there might be children there. But please understand children don’t have to be there to be forgiving. You must forgive because that is what you are supposed to do. I became free after I forgave Ali. I am still able to keep him as my champion. That is what I saw in Ali: the great champion that he is. 

During our divorce proceedings, the judge tried to tell us what to do concerning our children — and that’s when we stood our ground. We never let any judge tell us about what to do with our children. I always knew my ex-husband would be part of our children’s lives, and no judge needed to speak about that. Children need two parents who brought them into the world. They need stability and balance — and Ali and I were on one page when it came to our children. 

What gave you the strength to make it through? 

I started to go down a path of darkness, but then drew strength from my religion and learned that is what really kept me going. My religion is also what attracted Ali to me. It was my faith. I grew closer to my faith and understanding that we are only here for a short period of time. We must respect our goals in life, respect the good and the bad things — that is what builds the strength in a woman. Ali wasn’t the best husband in the world, but he was a good champion. I understand his faults and he also understood mine. So, my book, “Undefeated,” was written with this in mind. The title of the book was not given because of Ali, the title was given because I am an undefeated karate master. I never lost my title because I stopped competing when I was ahead. So, I am the one that was undefeated. 

I wrote the book because boxing was a part of my life. It was forced upon me because I loved Muhammad Ali. I didn’t like boxing, but I tolerated it and I became a part of it. I had to love it because I loved my husband. A lot of people ask if my book is a tell all book. I tell them not at all. I published what I wanted the public to know. Some of the things that happened to me were horrific and I didn’t expose that to the world. I only exposed what the public saw and I explained why. 

Lessons from the hard experiences are something for us to learn as individuals, not to tell everyone our business. It’s not necessary to tell everything about your personal life. It’s not everyone’s business. Some things are just for us to learn from. 

You were the first to tell Muhammad Ali that you didn’t like his original name, Cassius Marcellus Clay? 

Yes. I was 10 years old when we met, he came to my Muslim school. We were taught Black history unlike other schools, and we learned our history. When Ali came to my school, he screamed for everyone to gather around if they wanted to get the autograph from the next heavyweight boxing champion of the world by age 21. He was 18 years old at the time. He wrote his autograph on a piece of paper and gave it to me. I told him he wouldn’t be a champ with a name like Cassius Marcellous Clay, that was a slave name. I told him he needed to be educated about who he is and where he came from. 

Muslims don’t name themselves Christian names. I told him that Cassius Marcellus is a Roman name and I asked him, ‘Do you know what the Romans did to people?’ He said, “No, no I don’t.” And I also told him that his last name. Clay, means dirt you mold. I asked him if he was proud of that? We were all militant at the time saying “Black power” and stuff, and Ali was really hurt by what I said, and I tore up his autograph he gave me. This intrigued Ali and he often asked about me. 

The name Ali is my family’s name. It’s my father’s name and our family’s name. We had the name before Muhammad. When I grew older it was the mosque that brought us together — and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave Muhammad his name: Muhammad Ali. 

What is your word of advice as we enter 2024? 

I know for a fact that you must keep up with prayer every day. Don’t take it lightly. Prayer is powerful. I don’t care what you believe in. When you pray, God opens the door, guides you, protects you, and has mercy on you. God forgives you—and we all need to be forgiven. We mess up all the time. Please keep praying and have a private connection with your creator. He will guide you and give you strength — and he will open those doors you never thought would open. 

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