Indianapolis man recalls friendship with Muhammad Ali

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Muhammad Siddeeq met Muhammad Ali in a temple, “now they call them mosques,” in Buffalo, New York, as the champ trained to defend his boxing crown against challenger George Chuvalo over the border in Toronto in March of 1966.

“I guess they wouldn’t let him fight inside the country,” said Siddeeq.

So began a 50 year long friendship between “The Greatest” and man who became an Indianapolis activist for peace and police accountability that was based on their shared Islamic beliefs and love of boxing.

“The change he made in my life was persistence and consistency and fearlessness and also dedication to God and keeping God out front. He was a big inspiration in my life,” said Siddeeq. “It seemed like despite the fact that the circumstances in his life tightened up on him, he continued on to be faithful.”

Siddeeq is in Louisville to meet privately with Ali’s family and attend the Champ’s funeral in his hometown.

During Ali’s career, Siddeeq maintained a relationship that saw his friend through his refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army, his comeback in the ring, his retirement and battle with Parkinson’s disease and visits to Indiana for the Indiana Black Expo Celebration and to welcome the release of boxer Mike Tyson from prison after serving three years for rape.

“I have pictures of him in the center page of Sports Illustrated where we took a group picture,” said Siddeeq. “My family was included in it and his wife and Mike’s wife and Muhammad Ali met with Tyson and, if you’ll remember, Mike left straight and went to the mosque for prayer and Muhammad met Mike for prayer.

“We had prayer together,” Siddeeq recalled of the journey to a mosque in Plainfield, just a few miles from the prison where Tyson served his term. “We had lunch together, had a very healthy religious discussion together, so he definitely met with Mike there and they shared a commonality there.”

Siddeeq said Ali came to regret his verbal battles with the boxer against whom he will always be measured.

“I think he had an evolving feeling for Joe Frazier. I think at first he threw down on Joe Frazier and as time moved on I think he realized his criticism of Joe Frazier, though I don’t think he meant for it to be harmful, he realized that Joe Frazier was hurt and pained by his commentary on him.

“Joe Frazier didn’t have the intellectual broadness that Muhammad Ali had,” Siddeeq observed, “and he couldn’t process that and it was too painful for him and he wasn’t taking it as promotion and hype.”

Siddeeq said Ali reached out to Frazier before the ex-champ’s death to make amends.

There were other regrets, said Siddeeq, as Ali realized that he hurt one of his previous wives with his infidelities, but also pride in his children.

Ali and Siddeeq shared a love of the music of Sam Cooke and card tricks.

“Every time he did a trick, and some of them were mind blowing, he would stop and show you how to do it,” remembered Siddeeq. “He would say, ‘I want to show you how I did this so that you don’t start worshipping me that I have some magical power.’”

Siddeeq said there many times, in the back of a limousine, when Ali would stick his head out the window or wave and chaos would ensue, yet the boxer never ruminated on his celebrity status or persona and when Parkinson’s began to tighten its grip on him, the champ would focus his energies on literally putting his best foot forward.

“He refused to allow this disease, which was just getting started on him, he refused to allow it to identify him and he walked out on that stage and the people went wild,” said Siddeeq of a long ago Chicago speaking engagement when Ali tossed aside a walker that had been provided for his use.

Siddeeq said he was proudest of Ali’s evolution as a Muslim from his angry defiance in the early days to an acceptance of his role as an ambassador of Islam to America and the rest of the world as a follower of the reforms of Wallace D. Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.

“When he destroyed that racial divide and let him know that we have to be citizens, we have to be international citizens, we have to be respectful of America and America has made changes, we have to make changes,” said Siddeeq, “and who was it that whispered in his ear and said we have to be more sophisticated, we have to be more tolerant, we have to be more in tune with the goals of this country in a positive way, not always criticizing, and it was Wallace D. Muhammad.”

Ali will be laid to rest following a star-studded funeral service that will include a procession past his boyhood home.