The daughter of the 'The Greatest' talks to John McAuley about her father's faith, his pilgrimage to perform Hajj in Makkah in 1972, and how breaking new frontiers in boxing continues his legacy
Rasheda Ali interview: To be here in Saudi Arabia to present the Muhammad Ali Trophy means the world
For Rasheda Ali, this week’s World Boxing Super Series super-middleweight final carries extra significance.
Not only does the culmination of the inaugural event offer George Groves and Callum Smith the opportunity to lift the Muhammad Ali Trophy, the award named after her father. But the bout, the first of its kind, takes place this Friday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, close to Makkah, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and centre of the Islam faith that shaped much of her father's life.
One of the greatest sportsmen in history, a three-time world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali travelled to Makkah to perform Hajj in 1972. He championed Islam throughout his career and later life. Little wonder, then, that this week matters much to his family.
"It means the world,” Rasheda Ali tells The National at Jeddah's Radisson Blu Al Salam hotel, smiling at a huge poster bearing her father’s image. “Because without Islam my dad wouldn’t be who he is.
“He brought so much love and joy to all of us, but for his Muslim brothers and sisters, he made them feel proud of who they were and proud of their faith. My dad did that. And so when you come to a wonderful country, an hour away from Makkah, the city of Jeddah, where you have people who love and respect his life and legacy, and revere him as a man, an embodiment of peace and love, it just brings joy to my eyes.
“To come here to this Muslim country, celebrating the World Series with my dad’s trophy, at the centre of the boxing finals. It’s just a wonderful experience.”
Raseha Ali believes the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) sustains her father’s legacy of bringing boxing to new territories. The event marks the first time the Middle East has hosted a fight of this magnitude, as world champion Groves takes on undefeated WBC Diamond title-holder Smith at King Abdullah Sports City.
It reminds Rasheda Ali of her father’s two most-acclaimed fights: the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila", against George Foreman and Joe Frazier respectively, staged in DR Congo - then Zaire - and the Philippines during the 1970s. Comfortably considered the two most legendary bouts in boxing history, they opened Africa and Asia to the sport.
Much like the WBSS promoters, Rasheda Ali hopes this week's event can have a similar impact on the region.
“This definitely continues his legacy,” she says. “When you go all through all of Europe and the Middle East, of course soccer is the favourite sport. But I’m excited to see that maybe boxing can gain a little traction here and all across the globe. That’s what my dad did.
“When he started boxing in the Unites States he inspired people who had never watched boxing. He introduced them to the sport. And I’m hoping, with my dad bearing this trophy, that people from all walks of life will embrace boxing again and welcome it into their homes.”
Visiting Saudi for the first time, Rasheda Ali plans to return to perform Hajj, just as her father almost 50 years ago. On Friday, she will present the winner of Groves-Smith with the trophy, something she says she is extremely proud to do.
“My dad would be so humbled and honoured that this trophy bears his name, because he really loved boxing and he loved champions,” she says. “Because he was a young boxer wanting to be heavyweight champion.
“And to see these boxers, as middleweight champions, vying for a trophy, questing the Muhammad Ali Trophy, and considering it an honour, would just bring tears to my dad’s eyes. He would be so pleased to see his face, because he was his own favourite subject. And to see his face embodying this room and then the stadium on Friday would give him so much joy.”
Muhammad Ali, who remains the most widely recognisable boxer in history almost 40 years since his retirement and two years after his death, visited the UAE, then the Trucial States, in 1969 before more making at least three more trips before 1986. In 1982, he was involved in three exhibition fights during an eight-day stay.
Read: The ‘Greatest’ came and his age showed: When Muhammad Ali visited UAE in 1982
“My dad had so many bouts all over the globe,” Rasheda Ali says. “I’m not surprised that he was there boxing: he travelled most of his life because he was revered all over the world. He was always on the plane, but he always doing something with his status and with his position. He was there, able to touch so many people’s lives.
“It’s magnificent to be able see that, even 30 years after his career ended, he still has relevance. Because he wasn’t just a boxer, he was a humanitarian, a civil-rights activist, and an ambassador of peace.
“He worked so hard to bring world peace through the sport of boxing and I think he was able to accomplish that. And, being here, it’s very warm and gratifying to know that his message is still alive.”
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