Khalilah Camacho Ali, who was married to Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champ refused to go to Vietnam, talked Tuesday about being “the mouthpiece” for one of the most outspoken athletes of all time.
Camacho Ali, whose decade-long marriage to Ali began in 1967, the same year he resisted the draft, talked about being the woman behind the champion at a Television Critics Association panel for PBS’s “Trials of Muhammad Ali.” The marriage ended when she divorced him, she said.
She joked that she helped him create his vocal persona: “You’ve seen him after I divorced him. He ain’t said nothing since,” she said.
Camacho Ali helped her husband through the most trying period of his professional life. Ali went to the Supreme Court to fight the U.S.’s efforts to imprison him for refusing to go to Vietnam.
Camacho Ali said the champ, now a 72-year-old battling Parkinson’s disease, “was a good husband most of the time.”
She said they were both alike, “strong in our beliefs and our devotion and our dedication to life and what we wanted to do in life. And by him marrying me, I knew I would be the chosen one to help him, guide him that way. Even though he was eight years older than me, I was a little smarter than him and a little bit more educated, too. And helping and guiding him was the best time of my entire life.
“See, you guys don’t realize Ali wasn’t the great Muhammad Ali as he is now,” she added. “He was going in that direction. He was struggling in that direction. He was struggling with people taking everything from him and everything, and I was the only thing that hold everything together. … I was using my own college money to support us for three years, and I never let him know about it because I didn’t want him to feel bad as a man.
“So, you know, I kind of guided him along the way, and it was it was a wonderful struggle, and it was tough for him. He was depressed most of the time. He was unhappy, didn’t know what the hell was going to happen to him. So I had to give him that positiveness, that positive ‘Hey, you can have a family. We can do this together. I could write the speeches, and you could speak the speeches, and we’ll become a people’s champ.’ I’m a campaign manager here.”
She and Ali were affiliated with the Nation of Islam at the time they married.
“They called the white people the devil. Yes, they did. But I knew and understand it a different way than he did because it was the people anybody who did wrong to you are the devil,” she said.
She said she only realized later how much she had been her husband’s “mouthpiece,” helping him craft his message of resistance.
“A lot of people don’t realize most of that stuff was my mouth running off,” she said. “It wasn’t him.”
She sat during the panel alongside sports reporter Robert Lipsyte, who covered the champion for years.
“She was my favorite of Ali’s wives,” Lipsyte joked.