In 1967, Muhammad Ali and Ernie Terrell almost came to blows during a pre-fight interview, forcing journalist Howard Cosell to take cover in a corner. It had been three years since the heavyweight boxer became a Muslim, yet many, Terrell included, still referred to him as Cassius Clay.
“Why don’t you call me by my name, man?” Ali questioned.
Terrell added more salt to his insult by then referring to Ali, not as Cassius, but instead as “him.” The blatant defiance would merit Terrell a pummelling in the ring, with Ali throwing jab after jab yelling, “What’s my name? What’s my name?”
During a ringside interview after the fight, Terrell—with his swollen eye and deflated ego—would later say he respected all boxers.
An apology, indeed.
Ali’s bout with Terrell, his victory over Sonny Liston and his heart-aching initial defeat against Joe Frazier are all documented in Antoine Fuqua’s cinematic love-letter to the champion. Appropriately titled What’s My Name| Muhammad Ali, Fuqua said it took him four years to piece together all the archival footage, but he did so willingly for his hero.
“I think he was anointed,” Fuqua says.
It was about half-past noon on an unseasonably chilly Saturday in April when the Academy-Award winning director took up residence inside Tribeca’s Roxy Hotel. Fuqua, clad in black slacks and a pinstripe button-down, would later premiere his film at the 18th Annual Tribeca Film Festival and earn rousing applause from the packed theater. But for now, Fuqua is chill. His rusty baritone is soft, yet measured, and his responses are intentional. When Fuqua’s thinking he places both elbows on his knees and when he disagrees with you, he sits up straight sometimes tilting to the left with a raised eyebrow of suspicion.
Fuqua and I wince when discussing Ali’s losses. I confess that after seeing Ken Norton break his jaw, I screamed. Loudly. And we verbally spar with whether or not Ali was able to savor the greatness he fought so hard for or did Parkinson’s disease rob him of that glory.
For 20 minutes or so Fuqua mused over Ali and surmised despite how heroic he was, he understood the boxer was a bullet away from suffering the same fate as so many other black leaders gifted with the ability to unite the masses.
VIBE: Why did you decide to honor Ali?
Antoine Fuqua: There are very few people who I can say are my hero. He truly was a great person and an inspirational person. Muhammad Ali was probably one of three people that I can say that about.
Who are the other two?
Denzel Washington and my mother, and of course my father.
I’ve been tweeting about the film, not going into detail, obviously, but I’ve been tweeting about how fine Ali was.
Ali was gorgeous, physically, he was a beautiful man. What do you think Ali’s appearance did for the advancement of black men?
I think he did a lot. That’s a good question. He put a different face on black men on the big stage. There was a time when there was a particular look at how they saw us. We were scary, always mean-mugging, lack of education and Ali came along with charm, wit, humor, looks, highly intelligent. He was sharp and he made his point without being angry.
Even when he was justified in his anger.
Absolutely. He always took the high road. He always had beautiful poetry. I think he was anointed.
I think Ali also showed the world that black men can be fun.
Absolutely. Black men can be fun, charming, sexy. Black men could be all that.
After Ali’s win against Sonny Liston, he wouldn’t shut up. He called himself the “King of the World” and said, “I’m pretty.” If you’re looking at Ali from today’s lens, Ali was a troll in a certain sense. But do you think it was revolutionary for Ali to call himself pretty?
Well, first of all, he was in a sport of brutality and especially during that time, no one knew what a fighter looked like except for what fighters looked like during that time. Television and all that stuff were new and just coming around. When you saw most fighters, their face was smashed in, they looked brutal. Ali came along and was like, “I’m the baddest man in the world and I’m pretty.” After each fight, he still looked pretty. I think it was revolutionary and I think he understood it.
Do you think that was intentional? Do you think Ali mentally knew what he was doing for future generations?
He absolutely knew what he was doing. I don’t think he was thinking generations down the line, I don’t think he was thinking box office. I think he was thinking about marketing himself. He was always branding himself long before the idea came along.
But do you think he knew it was going to be more influential as a black man than when wrestler Gorgeous George was doing it?
Yes, Gorgeous George was doing it. I don’t think he thought about it as a black man in that way. I think he was just doing it as a promotional tool. Remember, he was so young when he started doing it. He was going to retire at 38, which is crazy. I don’t think Ali thought about it that way. Maybe later when he started spending time with Malcolm, I believe then his importance started to hit him. I believe at that point he was being a smart businessman, a great fighter and he started to change and grow as a man and evolve in his consciousness and responsibility.
Why do you think Ali was able to unite black people from across the globe?
It’s hard to say what it is. I’ll put it to you this way: I think Ali represented a certain part of our manhood as black men. He was beating the white man at his own game and I think that he was doing it with such charm and grace and style that it gave us a sense of pride.
We wanted to be Ali and we all wanted to look like Ali. We all walked around thinking it was okay to be pretty. I think when he went to Africa they saw Ali as a warrior and a savior of some sort from his bravery as well, not just his athleticism, but for what he stood for. Ali didn’t bow down. Martin Luther King didn’t bow down. He did it his way. Malcolm X didn’t bow down. They died for it. And I think that Ali was right there with him. I think he was a bullet away.
Ooo! That’s the headline
He was a bullet away. He was vocal. He wasn’t hiding from anybody. He had a lot to say. He went against the military. He went against people who didn’t like that he changed his name. He became a Muslim and people had no real understanding of it yet.
They still don’t.
He was beating up white men in the ring; black men too, but he was beating them up in the ring. So I just think he was a bullet away.
Do you think Ali thought he was invincible when he returned to the ring to fight Joe Frazier, and do you think his loss centered him?
I don’t think he felt he was invincible because especially someone like Ali they’re too aware of how delicate the game is. One punch you can lose. He knew he wasn’t at his peak at that moment, but he also knew he needed to get back in that ring and fight Frazier. He believed he could beat him. I think he needed to get in there to figure out just how he could beat him because he was away for so long. The loss just reminded him of what he needed to go do to get back to being the Ali we remember.
Why do you think it’s so hard to see Ali lose?
We loved Ali, man. He was beautiful to watch.
Did we all love Ali because I was surprised….
You said why did we.
Yes, but at the time, I didn’t know Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis were against Ali for not enlisting in the service.
I think he represented a more rebellious side for black people. He was doing it on his own. He was a lot like Jack Johnson. He was going to live his life the way he wanted to live it. Jack Johnson said, “You can say whatever you want about me, just make sure you say I’m a man.” That was Ali and I think ultimately most of us felt that he was our voice. He represented black men in a way that we haven’t seen before.
When Jack Johnson was around, the TV wasn’t around. We hadn’t seen anything like Ali before, plus he was pretty to watch. It was pretty to see him beat people up. He was such a hero, like when you’re watching a film and you see the hero losing. To see him get beat down when he was fighting Leon Spinks, I could barely watch it while we were putting it together because today we know the results of it.
I was so pissed with Ail. I left your film pissed at him. He didn’t have to take those last fights.
Because we wanted him to stop.
He said, “I’m chasing immortality” and my question to you is: Do you think Ali had the chance to savor the greatness he achieved?
A hundred percent. You can’t know the scale of your greatness while you’re here on this earth. Greatness happens later. Ali lived a big beautiful life and I think he understood his impact.
I’ll give you the moment where I think Ali understood: At the end of the movie at the Olympics he comes out shaking and it was a surprise for everybody and he has the torch. He puts the torch up and the crowd goes crazy. But he does it twice, and I was like that’s my man. He’s letting you know that I’m still fighting, I’m still here. He understood what it means for people to see him do that. When he was shaking, Parkinson’s was winning. He could barely stand. He could barely hold his torch. He had no more voice and those are the two things that made him great, but he still made a point to make that crowd go crazy. He understood his importance.