Muhammad Ali left a profound mark on those who enjoyed his friendship, according to a man who was his neighbor in the early 1960s and today is in charge of maintenance at the Masjid Al-Ansar mosque where the late boxing great prayed in Miami during his first days as a Muslim.
Abdul R. Khalid told that the boxer, who arrived in that South Florida city as a teenager as Cassius Clay, helped with the renovation work after the building was purchased and that he liked to play and joke around with children when he came to the mosque.
Speaking in a low voice, he also recalled that Ali bought two school buses for the Islamic center and a car for the use of the imam.
Ali, who battled Parkinson’s disease for decades and died last Friday in Scottsdale, Arizona, of septic shock at the age of 74, began forging his legend in Miami as an ambitious 18-year-old fresh off winning the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, having been sent by the businessmen of the Louisville Sponsoring Group to receive tutoring in the sweet science from respected trainer Angelo Dundee.
“From the beginning, he was very charismatic and had a great sense of humor. He would tell the neighbors in the (black district of Overtown) that he was going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world, and we were all fond of him,” said the 64-year-old Khalid, who was a neighborhood friend and also worshiped with Ali.
It was also in that same city – at the Miami Beach Convention Center – that he first became heavyweight champion with a victory in February 1964 over Sonny Liston, one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Everything changed dramatically for the fighter after that bout, Khalid said, recalling that he became a more serious and less boastful person.
From that point forward, the boxer, who announced after the first Liston fight that he had joined the Nation of Islam and assumed the name Muhammad Ali, showed his commitment to social causes and the fight against racial prejudice.
“That was an admirable quality of his,” Khalid said.
Khalid said Ali was an “inspiration” and his “biggest influence” in converting to Islam, as well as someone who transcended his sport to become a source of pride for African-Americans and the entire world.