If you ask someone to name a boxer, there’s a good chance they’ll say Muhammad Ali. Ali is one of the most famous successful boxers of all time, and possibly the most famous, too. He accomplished nearly everything there was to achieve in the sport, so it’s not surprising that Ali didn’t have any regrets in the ring.
Outside of it, though, was a different story. Before his 2016 death, the legendary boxer discussed the regrets he had in his life, one involving a well-known former mentor.
Muhammad Ali’s boxing career
Born Cassius Clay, Ali started boxing at the age of 12 when he won his first amateur fight by split decision. Two years later, in 1956, he won the Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class, and he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions three years later.
Ali won the gold medal in the light heavyweight competition at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics. He made his pro debut in October, winning a six-round decision in his debut. He continued fighting professionally until 1981, when he retired at the age of 39. At that point, he had a record of 56-5, with 37 of his wins coming by knockout. Ali had two reigns as the world heavyweight champion.
No regrets in boxing
In the later years of his life, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which caused him to noticeably shake. In 1984, the disease developed due to all of the blows from in his fighting career. Ali believed he suffered serious damage to his brain in a 1980 fight with Larry Holmes, helping to bring about his Parkinson’s.
Ali once said in an interview if he knew “Holmes was going to whip me and damage my brain, I would not have fought him,” but that losing the fight and being sick “are not important in God’s world.” Dr. Abe Lieberman, who was among the physicians who diagnosed Ali in ’84, has said that Ali probably had Parkinson’s before he even got into the ring to battle Holmes.
Perhaps more importantly, Lieberman said that he never heard Ali blame boxing for the illness. “Muhammad had no regrets about boxing,” according to the doctor, who says Ali “didn’t really talk about it that way,” as he believed that “whatever happened was God’s will.”
Muhammad Ali’s regrets outside the ring
Ali did have some regrets in his life outside the ring, though. One regret was one of his most famous statements. He was proud he resisted the draft, but he regretted upsetting as many people as he did when he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” He didn’t like people disliking him. As Jonathan Eig wrote in his book about Ali, the boxer “loved being loved more than he loved being admired.”
Another regret involved snubbing a former mentor. Malcolm X was once a friend and guide to Ali. The boxer had a chance meeting with him in 1964 while in Ghana, but Ali turned his back on the civil rights leader. The two never reconciled before X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965. In his 2004 autobiography, Ali wrote, “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”
Also on that list was something Ali said about one of his biggest boxing rivals, Joe Frazier. During the height of their rivalry, Ali taunted Frazier, going so far as to call him an “Uncle Tom,” saying Frazier is “the other type Negro.” The comments deeply hurt Frazier.