Muhammad Ali Once Had to Decline a Fight Against a Brutal Military Dictator: ‘This Guy’s Crazy, Let’s Get the Hell out of Here’

Muhammad Ail is the greatest boxer of all time but also a study in contradictions. He loved to box but hated to train. He stood up for Black people everywhere but ruined Joe Frazier by cruelly questioning his Blackness. Ali also proudly stood up against the U.S. government for its war in Vietnam and the draft, yet gladly took money and hobnobbed with brutal African dictators.

This penchant for hanging out with violent despots almost came back to bite Ali in the 1970s when one such tyrant wanted to get in the ring with The Louisville Lip. The boxer saw no upside to this type of fight and had his crew hightail it out of there before he ended up in a horrible situation.

Muhammad Ali rubbed elbows with some ruthless dictators

Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko (right) shows his elaborate walking stick to heavyweight challenger Muhammed Ali during a stroll around the gardens of the presidential palace here Oct. 28th. Ali seeks to regain the heavyweight title in bout against George Foreman here Oct. 30th.
Muhammad Ali, Mobutu Sese Seko | Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

Ali had such a problem with the U.S. government that he refused to go into military service. He famously stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” The principled stance cost him his boxing license for three-plus in the prime of his career. It also almost put him in prison for five years.

Four years after his return to the ring in 1970, Ali traveled to Africa to fight Heavyweight champ George Forman in Zaire. The country’s autocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, personally paid each fighter’s $5 million purse.

Even before the Rumble in the Jungle, Africans around the continent hailed Ali as a hero. Citizens of the continent met him with adoration everywhere he went. The boxer visited countries all around the continent throughout his career, from Ghana to Egypt to Uganda.

It was in Uganda where Ali spent time with another tyrannical leader, Idi Amin. The country’s President (1971-77), aka the “Butcher of Uganda,” was one of the most murderous dictators in world history. Experts estimate that his regime killed between 300,00 and 500,000 Ugandans, per The Guardian.

While Ali didn’t have a problem spending time with these leaders who oppressed and killed their own citizens, one request for Amin went too far and led Ali to run away from the situation.

Ugandan dictator Idi Amin wanted to fight the champ

On The Ryen Russillo Podcast, the titular host asked Ali biographer Jonathan Eig about a story he heard about the champ. He asked if Ali once turned down $500k to get in the ring with Mobutu. Eig cleared up the details of the famous story, telling Russillo it was, in fact, Amin that wanted to fight Ali, not Mobutu.

The writer then shared the story of Ali and Amin as he knows it:

While they were in Africa, Ali – or maybe it was after the fight – Ali and some of his guys flew Uganda to meet Idi Amin, who was possibly the only dictator who was more ruthless than Mobutu, and this time Ali actually got sacred. This time he said, ‘This guy’s crazy. Let’s get the hell out of here.’ And I guess Idi Amin wanted to get in the ring with him and Ali said, ‘No way. If I beat him, I’ll be killed. If I don’t beat him, I could be killed. Let’s run,’ basically, head for the door.

Jonathan Eig on Muhammad Ali

Ali was controversial and contradictory, but he wasn’t stupid by any means. He realized that putting on the gloves with a guy nicknamed “The Butcher” was a no-win situation. Running from this fight may be the best boxing decision Muhammad Ali ever made.

Ali didn’t run from many fights in his career

While Ali did run away from fighting Amin, he didn’t decline many other fights in his life. The Greatest took on all comers throughout his illustrious career. From Cassius Clay’s first professional fight in 1960 against Tunney Hunsacker to Muhammad Ali’s last in 1981 against Trevor Burbick, Ali fought 61 times.

Eig shares that Ali was a people-pleaser and could almost never say no in any aspect of his life. This is one reason he would fight (almost) anyone:

It’s tragic. He could never say no to anybody. He couldn’t say no to the women, he couldn’t say no to the fights, he couldn’t say no – and it was easy money and, also, he didn’t like training, so by scheduling a ton of fights, it forced him to at least do a little bit of training to stay in shape. The fights alone would keep him in shape.

Jonathan Eig on Muhammad Ali

Eig chalked this mentality up to two factors. One is that Ali (then Cassius Clay) was a “child star” who found success early in life and was used to getting whatever he wanted. He also said some of it was just “baked into who he was.” Ali just thought that “everything would be ok” and things would “just work out.” The writer also noted that usually, Ali was right.

The moment Ali might have been most right about in his life was to flee the scene when Idi Amin challenged him to a fight.

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