On the Red Carpet, Ali Is Remembered in His Own Words

By Michael Gluckstadt

More than 50 years after he first shook up the world, Muhammad Ali's words still pack a punch. Gathering at the Regal L.A. Live theater for the red carpet premiere of the new HBO Sports documentary What's My Name | Muhammad Ali , Ali's family, friends and admirers shared their memories of the legendary fighter — along with which of his iconic quotes have stayed with them the most.

To boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, it was "I'm the greatest of all time. And I'm pretty." Baseball player Dave Winfield went with the classic, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." But there was one line that came up more than any other.

"My favorite Muhammad Ali quote is the one his kids heard him say every single day," said Ali's widow, Lonnie Ali. "It's the one inscribed on his headstone: 'Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.'" Ali's daughter Laila — a well-respected fighter in her own right — chose the same line. As did Antoine Fuqua, the director and executive producer of What's My Name.

Fuqua's film, which was produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, tells Ali's story almost entirely in his own words. The two-part film is narrated by Ali, using a vast array of archival footage and interviews. "You only hear his voice," said Peter Nelson, executive vice president of HBO Sports. "You see the evolution of his thinking, the evolution of his character, the evolution of his beliefs. It all transpires in his own words."

Maverick Carter echoed the sentiment in his introductory remarks, saying, "I believe he was the greatest human being to walk the earth. And he was definitely the greatest talker."

It wasn't just Ali's way with words that made a lasting impact; it was the content of what he said. "[Viewers] can expect to learn a great deal about Muhammad Ali, by hearing him expressed in his own words," said Fuqua. "They're going to see a man who fought for justice. As a black man during that time, he was one bullet away. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he was right there next to them. To have the courage to stand up for what you believe in and deal with the consequences of that — that's what real courage is."

"What stands out to me about Ali is his perseverance," said boxer and promoter Oscar De La Hoya. "He stood for a message, several of them, and he followed them through to the end. He never gave up. Just like inside the ring. When he got dropped by Joe Frazier — that famous left hook at the Garden — he stood right back up and fought to the end. That's exactly who he is outside the ring."

And while Ali's best known for what he did in front of the masses, his daughter Laila said his acts of service extended to his private life as well. "My first memory of my father is driving down Wilshire Boulevard with him in his brown Rolls Royce with the top down,” she recalled.”And all the kids sitting there with no seatbelts on, pulling over and giving money to homeless people on a regular basis."

Looking out at the assembled crowd, she added. "He loved people. He loved to see them smile."

What's My Name | Muhammad Ali airs May 14 at 8 PM on HBO.


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