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Not many people from Ali's entourage are alive to affirm or refute her claims. Those who are still around, such as Ali's former trainer, Angelo Dundee, say they stayed out of the couple's marital affairs. "I never got involved with Ali familywise," Dundee says. "Naturally, I would see her around. But one thing I have always done is never get involved in a fighter's personal life."
"I did all my vicious stuff behind closed doors," Khalilah explains. "I didn't show it in public. But Ali knew I was dead serious. He listened to me whenever I stood up for myself."
The couple discovered Deer Lake in 1970. "Ali and I liked log cabins," Khalilah says. "We were riding horses up in the Pennsylvania mountains when we saw this one mountain in particular. I was like, 'Why don't we build some log cabins here? It will be just like the John Wayne cowboy days.' " Two years later, months before the "Rumble in the Jungle" against Foreman, Ali built his training grounds on a secluded, five-acre site. Today the log cabin camp is still intact — from the gym to the dining hall to Ali's family home.
Her life on the compound revolved around meeting celebrities and keeping Ali motivated for his big bout. One time, Khalilah recalls, she came home from a carnival where she had bought a customized T-shirt she was sure would fire up her husband.
When Ali saw her, he read the front, which bore the message, "I love him because he is the greatest." Then Khalilah turned around. The back read, "George Foreman."
"What the hell is wrong with you, woman?" Khalilah says Ali told her. The ploy worked. He quickly reenergized his training effort. "Zaire was about being serious, about getting focused," she explains. "I called it a holy fight. I wanted to get Ali angry."
While her husband trained, Khalilah entertained guests such as Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, and Cosell, who became the champ's most prolific interviewer. One day, a dapper Italian fellow in a Bentley showed up at Deer Lake with an entourage, Khalilah remembers. "This handsome, well-dressed guy comes up to me," she says. "He introduces himself as John and asks me, 'Does Ali look good?' "
Her response: "Listen, John, it could go either way, but I told Ali if he loses, I am going to whup his butt on Wide World of Sports." After the man left, she learned she was speaking to John Gotti, the reputed New York mobster who went on to become the don of all dons. "Gotti put his money on Ali," Khalilah claims. "When he won, Gotti wanted to give me 40 grand. I had him donate it to my favorite charity."
The day of the fight, Khalilah sat ringside next to late sportswriter George Plimpton. When Ali was declared the winner, Khalilah rose from her seat and triumphantly held up a cane given to her by Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko. "I knew Muhammad was going to win," Khalilah says. "When he trained the way he was supposed to, there was no one who could beat him. Frazier got lucky in their first fight."
Cassius Clay, fresh from his gold-medal victory at the 1960 Olympics, strolled the halls of Muhammad University of Islam (MUI), a pre-K-through-12th-grade school founded by Elijah Muhammad, controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Khalilah, her brother, and two sisters were among the 200 students who attended the small private institution located on South Stony Island Avenue in Chi-Town. According to the website of the successor school, it was founded to "revive, reform, and redeem black people who had suffered from the mis-education and hostility toward blacks in the public school system." In other words, the school practiced Elijah Muhammad's firm belief that blacks must separate themselves from the white class.
Clay had learned about Elijah and the Nation of Islam from Malcolm X, the charismatic, controversial black activist who would be assassinated by Nation members five years later. The champ was clad in a crisp black suit, white dress shirt, and black necktie. He was handing out autographed photos to children.
He walked up to a 10-year-old girl dressed in a white blouse and an ankle-length gray jumper. She wore a braided ponytail down her back. It was Khalilah, whose father was a first lieutenant to Elijah. "I was a very serious girl," she says. "And you could talk about my mama and my daddy, but you better not talk about Elijah Muhammad."
Clay gave Khalilah an autographed photo. She remembers telling him: "Your name is Cassius Clay? Like mud? Like dirt?" She tore up the picture. "Brother, come back when you get a real name. Then we can talk."
The story sounds like a tale concocted by an imaginative child, but Khalilah insists it happened. Her childhood friends Wali and Halimah Muhammad, two of Elijah's grandchildren, cannot confirm or deny Khalilah's account, but they acknowledge Ali was among dozens of famous people who would meet with Elijah Muhammad whenever they came to Chicago. Others included Martin Luther King Jr., singer James Brown, jazz musician Miles Davis, and the Jackson Five. "When my grandparents had special events and dinners at the house, Khalilah would come help us," Halimah says. "She played host or would help serve the table. She would do whatever she could."