Khalilah Camacho-Ali Stood by Muhammad Ali Through Exile and Triumph
The door to the kitchen of Mount Sinai Medical Center's Founders Dining Room swings open. A tall, buxom, middle-aged woman with smooth, dark-cocoa skin saunters across the carpeted floor of the elegant cafeteria with a breathtaking view of Miami Beach's Biscayne Bay. She wears a white dress shirt, black bow tie, black vest, and black dress slacks. She carries a pot of fresh-brewed coffee to four hospital employees sitting at a table facing a window overlooking a white sailboat cutting the waves as it passes under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
"Here you go, sweetie," the waitress says softly as she pours a cup for one of her customers. A ninth-degree black belt, she walks with a subtle limp. A pair of eyeglasses, dangling from a turquoise-beaded necklace, rests on her chest. Her black hair is twisted into a high, tight knot, a style she has sported since working the counter at a bakery on Chicago's South Side in the late '60s, when she was a teenager.
She carefully weaves from table to table like a bee collecting pollen and greets a couple of regulars — a ginger-haired man and his blond lady friend — with pecks on the cheeks. Grinning disarmingly, she shares an inaudible joke that makes the pair burst into a chorus of chuckles. Then the waitress, once a member of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad's security detail, wraps her right arm around the man's neck and pulls him in for a hug.
She shuffles to another table, where a lone diner looks over the menu. "What would you like today?" she says. "Our special is the jerk chicken with rice and plantains. Or would you like a burger? A veggie burger?"
The Chicago native, who has graced the cover of Ebony magazine seven times, works the lunch shift Mondays through Fridays. She takes a public bus from her one-bedroom apartment in North Beach to Mount Sinai to get to her job. She arrived in South Florida in 2008, looking for a respite from the frigid Midwest. "I came down here in the middle of winter for a vacation," she recollects. She fell in love with it here. "I'm too old to be in the snow."
The routine allows her to focus on writing her memoir in a city that propelled the career of her first husband into the stratosphere. The name on her ID badge reads Khalilah Camacho-Ali. As in the ex-wife of Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer ever and one of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century.
She married him when she was 17-year-old Belinda Boyd, daughter of strict Muslim parents, and then spent a decade by the Champ's side during his most turbulent and triumphant moments. She stood with him when he lost his license to box for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. She was ringside for the "Rumble in the Jungle." when Ali knocked out George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title. She divorced him after he beat Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla in Manila." And then he humiliated her by introducing his mistress as his wife to Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos.
"Ali and I remain good friends," Khalilah insists during a conversation after her shift. "Always have been. It was a rough marriage and a rough divorce, but today we can talk on the phone forever."
On a balmy summer day in 1974, a black-and-white Oldsmobile bounced up a winding road in the mountains of Deer Lake, a rustic village about an hour's drive from Philadelphia. A handsome, chiseled, 30-year-old former heavyweight-title-holding boxer sat behind the wheel. "I'm gonna knock out that gorilla," he boasted. "I'm gonna work him over and under. He can't beat me."
Muhammad Ali was weeks away from fighting George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, to reclaim his championship belt. After losing to Joe Frazier and then Ken Norton, Ali had defeated both men in rematches to set up what was perhaps the most anticipated match in boxing history. The rural landscape was supposed to bring him a sense of peace as he prepared for his big comeback fight. But his 24-year-old bride, Khalilah, who was riding shotgun, shattered the tranquility. "You are just saying that to convince yourself," she retorted. "But the way you are training, you won't win anything."
Angrily gazing at the road, Ali threw a jab at his wife. She weaved to the right, his fist grazing her cheek. Is this boy crazy? Khalilah thought. With a closed fist, she popped him above the right eye. A small welt formed over his brow, and a drop of blood trickled down. The bickering continued until Ali pulled the Olds into the camp.
"Ali would get into this lazy mode sometimes," Khalilah recalls. "He did the same thing before the first Joe Frazier fight, which he lost. Plus we were already having marital problems. Women here, women there. Having babies out of wedlock."
Khalilah threatened to return home to Chicago with their four children. She had grown tired of Ali's wandering eye. "This has to stop now," she remembers telling him. "No more women. No more games. We are not going into black Africa to lose." Then she delivered an ultimatum: "I promise you, in the name of Allah, I will whup you on Wide World of Sports for everybody to see. I'll call [boxing announcer] Howard Cosell to set it up."
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."
Khalilah and her siblings were like part of Elijah Muhammad's family, according to Halimah, who was 4 years old when she met Ali's sweetheart. "Khalilah always had a great imagination and sense of humor," Halimah says. "She was always good at making things up. She always had some outlandish fable to tell us."
Halimah's brother Wali agrees. "She would make a great writer," he says. "She'd get us to believe she was telling the truth."
A tomboy who loved playing cowboys and Indians and going to rodeos, Khalilah once told Halimah that she could see giant invisible animals that would tell her things. Halimah attests: "They were quite believable stories."
It was the late spring of 1964 when a tomato-red Cadillac El Dorado pulled up to 3117 S. Wentworth Ave., a building that housed the Nation of Islam's grocery store, restaurant, and bakery, where Khalilah and four other counter girls served the organization's signature bean pies, among other health-conscious baked goods. The champ, who had already joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, slid out of the white leather driver's seat. He was accompanied by 17-year-old Wali Muhammad, who had developed a brotherly bond with the 23-year-old Ali.
On the way over, the champ wanted to know about one of the counter girls. "He was giving me the third degree," Wali says. "What was her name, where her daddy and her mama lived. He took a real liking to her." Wali instantly knew whom the champ was talking about. He led Ali into the bakery, where 14-year-old Khalilah was behind the counter. "I introduced him to her," Wali says. "He took over from there, going into his whole spiel. I remember she was almost as tall as him."
When Ali left the bakery, Khalilah imitated the champ. "She was talking and acting just like him," Wali says. "We were all like, 'Dang, girl, you sound just like Muhammad Ali.' After that, he would wait for her to get off from work so he could drive her home."
Wali's sister Halimah remembers Khalilah "had an eye" for him as well. "She would tell my grandmother that she wanted to marry Ali," Halimah says. "She would ask her to pray for that to happen." Of course, Halimah adds, she thought it was just a teenaged girl's wishful fantasy. After all, the champ was married, and Khalilah was a minor.
But in 1966, shortly after Ali divorced his first wife, the champ began his search for a good, obedient Muslim bride. Whenever he visited Chicago, he could not stop gushing about Khalilah, who had blossomed into a statuesque, 16-year-old 11th-grader. "She definitely caught his eye," Wali says. On a night Wali and Khalilah went out on a date, Ali waited for her at her parents' house. After Wali dropped Khalilah off at home, Ali made his move.
"He was sitting in my living room when I got home," Khalilah says. "I asked my daddy: 'Why is Cassius Clay here?' "
He was there to ask her parents for permission to marry her. At the time, Ali had lost his license to box and world title because of his refusal to enter the Vietnam War draft. "My dad asked him how he was going to take care of me," Khalilah says. "He told my dad that eventually he would get his job back."
The champ won over her parents, and in August 1967, he married Khalilah. The ceremony was held in the living room of a two-bedroom house Ali had received as a wedding gift from Elijah's son, Herbert Muhammad. The service was performed by a Baptist minister because the Nation of Islam did not have an official wedding ritual.
Khalilah soon assumed the role of her husband's publicist and planner. "I started the campaign to make him the people's champ so folks could get behind him getting his license back," she says. "I had buttons and stickers with his name and picture on it. I would hand them out to everybody." She booked speaking engagements at colleges around the country, which would pay him $1,500 to $2,000 a pop.
To sway reporters and sportscasters, she would send them birthday cards and postcards from places Ali visited. "Remember, we're talking about the 1960s," Khalilah says. "We had confrontations with people over Ali's beliefs. He was worried he was going to go to jail. But I had faith the boxing industry could not resist making money off him. I had confidence he would get his license back."
In 1969, the couple had their first daughter, Maryum, and relocated to a house in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Winwood, just three blocks from the home of Stanley Hochman, at the time a sports editor for the Philadelphia Daily News. The couple also have twin daughters, Jamillah and Rasheda, born in 1971, and son Muhammad Jr., born in 1973.
Hochman made sure to introduce himself to his new neighbors. "I would certainly go by and spend some time there," Hochman says by phone. "The most significant thing about Ali's home is that he had a black telephone with no dial. He picked it up and it rang the nearest police department if there was anyone menacing outside his home."
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."
One evening in 1982, 12-year-old Rasheda Ali settled into her seat beneath one of the massive, dazzling chandeliers inside Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre. Rasheda, her twin sister, and her other two siblings were in for a special treat. It was opening night of the four-week run of Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn, and the kids had front-row seats. An excited Rasheda squealed when she saw her mom strut onstage as Connie Dayton, the love interest of the play's main character, Buddy Baker, who was played by Demond Wilson (Lamont from TV's Sanford & Son). "It was such a magical experience," Rasheda, now 40, says of the performance. "To see my mom onstage was the most amazing thing. It was just so cool to see her succeed."
After her parents divorced, Rasheda, her sisters, and her brother went to live with Khalilah's parents in a seven-bedroom mansion in a small Chicago suburb. Khalilah had purchased it after selling the home she owned with Ali in 1978. By then, the champ had relocated to Los Angeles and married Porsche. Khalilah left the kids behind and took off for L.A. to pursue an acting career. She says Ali's divorce payments covered her living expenses and allowed her to travel around the country for speaking engagements and leisure. Khalilah also had a side gig selling photographs and paintings of famous people she met, which she claims netted her $300,000 from 1978 to 1982, the time she spent trying to make it in Hollywood.
She didn't get far. Khalilah had a small role in The China Syndrome. She met and befriended the film's marquee actors, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, on the set of the Oscar-nominated film. She says she also made appearances on The Jacksons, a variety show featuring Michael Jackson and his siblings.
"Personally, I felt an emptiness," Rasheda says. "I wanted desperately to live with my parents, so it was frustrating for me. But whatever resentment, I didn't show it. She was going through some hardships too."
By the mid-'80s, Khalilah returned to Chicago, where she remarried and was divorced three times. Khalilah was also finding herself frequently in court. According to records in Chicago, she was a plaintiff or defendant in ten lawsuits between 1986 and 2007. Insurance companies, banks, and the Illinois Department of Revenue won judgments against her for more than $56,000, and she sold her mansion. She declined to speak in detail about her litigation. "I just leave that stuff alone," she says. "I just don't discuss it."
A warm breeze cuts through the parking lot of a white, two-story apartment building with faded aqua trim at 85th Street and Harding Avenue in Miami Beach. Khalilah sits on a tan leather recliner in the one-bedroom unit of her neighbor, Jose, a middle-aged Hispanic man with receding black hair. Every morning, Khalilah visits Jose for a cup of coffee before catching the bus for work. "Jose has become a dear friend," she says. "He loves to entertain me and my other neighbor, Geneva."
Dressed in her work uniform, she caresses the head of the cane that Mobutu Sese Seko gave her 27 years ago. Khalilah claims she has made millions of dollars since divorcing Ali. But she declines to get into specifics about her finances. After selling her mansion in 2001, Khalilah says, she bounced between California and Illinois trying to figure out what to do with herself. "I want to get back into acting," she says. "I'd like to do commercials."
Khalilah moved to Miami in late 2008, settling into an apartment off NW Seventh Avenue and 58th Street. She found a job at the University of Miami Hospital and lasted two and half years before she was laid off. Last November, after relocating to North Beach, she was hired at Mount Sinai. Khalilah trains two days a week at the South Florida Boxing gym and goes to South Beach nightclubs to pass the time.
She insists she is not destitute. "I have a hidden trust," Khalilah says. "I spend my money wisely. Whatever I can't cover with my paycheck, I can dip into my trust."
She says she is renting her drab apartment while she shops for property in Miami Beach. She's being picky too. "I went to see a two-bedroom condo with no view the other day, and the woman wanted $275,000 for it," Khalilah says. "I asked her if she was out of her damned mind."
Khalilah puts down the cane and grabs her laptop. She opens a folder containing dozens of photographs and clicks through the images. There is one of Ali, with boxing promoter Don King, in his younger days in Africa. There are several pictures of her and Ali when she began dating him, including a shot in which a beaming Khalilah sits on the champ's lap.
She shows off photos of herself and her four children inside their opulent Chicago mansion as well as pics of her with celebrities she has met over the years, from those who have died, such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Teena Marie, to those who are still here, like P. Diddy and Jon Secada. Khalilah clicks on a folder of pictures from her daughter (Rasheda's twin) Jamillah's wedding in Naples last year. One of the photos shows Khalilah, wearing a spring dress and large matching hat, cheek-to-cheek with Ali. They are both smiling. "No matter what, we will always be friends," she says. "He was my first boyfriend. I was a virgin when we got married. He showed me what it was to be a strong woman."
Khalilah shuts down her computer and places it in a black book bag that she slings over her shoulder. She shuffles out of the room, humming a familiar refrain. "Ali-boom-bye-yae," she purrs. "Ali-boom-bye-yae."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.