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When the champ starred in the off-Broadway musical Big Time Buck White, he privately performed 25 minutes of dialogue for Hochman and a few guests one evening. "Khalilah stayed in the background," Hochman adds. "She tended to the kids while he took center stage."
In early 1971, the Alis moved to Cherry Hill, and Hochman sought out the champ. He wanted to know why Ali was not attending the appeal hearing to overturn his conviction for dodging the Vietnam draft. "Ali was very bitter and angry," Hochman says. "He started ranting that they were going to put his black ass in jail. Well, that's when [Khalilah] scolded him, telling him she didn't want that kind of language in their house. The fact she tried to keep him from cursing in their home impressed me."
Before Ali's second fight with Joe Frazier in 1974, Khalilah granted her first interview with a white reporter. During their on-the-record conversation, Hochman spoke with her about what it was like to be married to such a recognizable figure, what kind of husband and father Ali was, and her painting hobby. "She always had a hobby," Hochman says. "I got the impression she had a desire other than just being an ornament to the heavyweight champ of the world. She handled herself with great dignity."
March 8, 1971. The bell signaling the start of the 15th and final round of the first Ali-Frazier fight echoed inside Madison Square Garden. Up near the rafters, Khalilah sat in one of the $25 seats. She wore black from the top of her head to just above her ankles. Khalilah watched as her husband, wearing red trunks with white trim on the sides, struggled to keep his guard up against his charging opponent, a bull of a man in green shorts with yellow trim. A minute into the round, Joe Frazier landed a left hook to Ali's face. The Louisville Lip fell to the canvas. He got up, but the punch had sapped his energy.
As the crowd roared around her, Khalilah nodded as if to say, "I told you so." Frazier finished off Ali with a series of combos to the body and head. The loss was not unexpected, Khalilah says. "I saw how cocky he was acting before the fight," she says. "And he was fooling around with all these girls. One night, I caught him with one of his women. I predicted then he was going to lose to Frazier."
Khalilah says she purposely let her husband crash and burn. "For him to succeed, I had to bring him down in order to pick him back up," she reasons. "His attitude changed after the first Frazier fight. He started listening to what I had to tell him. That is why I pushed him so hard for his fight against Foreman, which a lot of folks expected Ali to lose."
Upon returning to the United States, Khalilah decided to accept that Ali would have a mistress. "He was threatening to leave his family," she says. "I agreed to it to see how far he would go with the affair. I wanted to show the world what he was putting me through." In those days, sports journalists often shied away from reporting on the personal lives of athletes, but Ali made it difficult for them to ignore his philandering. Wherever Ali went with his wife and lover, former Los Angeles beauty queen Veronica Porsche was introduced as a cousin, his wife's traveling companion, the babysitter, or a close family friend. The final insult came in the last days of September 1975 as the champ prepared for his third and final fight against Frazier. Khalilah had stayed behind in Chicago with the four kids, skipping out on the "Thrilla in Manila." But Ali made sure Porsche went along. News clips showed Ali and Porsche arm-in-arm in Manila, including footage of them at an official presidential banquet at Malacañang Palace.
President Marcos told Ali: "You have a beautiful wife." The champ replied, "No, Mr. President, your wife is more beautiful." When Khalilah saw footage of Ali and Porsche at the banquet, she was so livid that she — along with a "phalanx of Muslim bodyguards" — took the first available flight to Manila.
News accounts describe Khalilah flying into a rage after she stormed into the champ's hotel suite to confront him. She allegedly tore down drapes, smashed mirrors, and scratched Ali's face. She declined to describe in detail what happened behind those closed doors. "Oh, I'm saving that for my book," she says. "I just felt it was time to move on after that. I couldn't tolerate the foolishness I was going through. I had been utterly humiliated."
She filed for divorce on September 2, 1976, claiming desertion, adultery, and mental cruelty. A Chicago judge finalized the split 17 weeks later. Khalilah reportedly received $670,000 to be paid over five years, a home, and miscellaneous personal property. Ali also placed $1 million in a trust fund for their children. "The judge wanted to make him pay alimony for the rest of his life," Khalilah says. "I felt that was too much. I didn't want to depend on his alimony forever. I wanted us to move on. As long as the children were taken care of, that was more important."