Muhammad Ali is usually remembered for his stellar boxing career, winning the World Heavyweight Title three times and being a staunch civil rights activist, as well as, a philanthropist.
What many might not always remember about him is his role in bringing back 15 Americans who were being held hostage in Iraq by Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Gulf War.
Ali achieved this in 1990 through his “goodwill tour” to Baghdad, a tour that was heavily criticized by the American government.
“I basically believe these people are playing into the propaganda game that Iraq is holding here,” said Joseph Wilson, then the top American diplomat in Baghdad.
“These people travelling to Iraq are making a serious mistake.”
The New York Times newspaper also questioned Ali’s ability to communicate as he was then fighting with Parkinson’s disease.
“Surely the strangest hostage-release campaign of recent days has been the ‘goodwill’ tour of Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion . . . he has attended meeting after meeting in Baghdad despite his frequent inability to speak clearly.”
Ali, then 48, had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for six years, according to the New York Post.
Years before, Muhammad Ali had begun training at the age of 12 and proceeded to win the World Heavyweight Championship at the age of 22.
Originally known as Cassius Clay, Ali changed his name on February 25, 1964, after joining the Nation of Islam.
Throughout his boxing career, Ali won a total of 56 fights and lost only 5. An interesting thing to note is that of the total 56 wins, 37 of them were knock-outs.
However, in 1967, the legendary boxer found himself on the wrong side of the law after he refused to be conscripted into the US military, which was involved in the Vietnam War. He was then arrested and found guilty of draft evasion.
After the ruling, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and did not participate in any boxing competition for close to four years. His conviction was later overturned in 1971 by the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1984, three years after retiring, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. While fighting the disease, he became an outspoken humanitarian, bridging divides between the West and the Muslim world, The New York Post report said.
“When he got Parkinson’s, and his voice wasn’t as strong as it used to be, he said, ‘Well, maybe God is punishing me for some of the things I didn’t do right,’” Gene Kilroy, Ali’s business manager, said.
Ali would later use his worldwide fame to negotiate for the release of 15 American hostages. Sadam Hussein had, in August 1990, taken thousands of foreigners’ hostage, shortly after his country, Iraq, had invaded Kuwait.
The United Nations passed a resolution demanding that Iraq pull out of Kuwait, however, Saddam still had 15 African men. According to reports, he used the men as shields as he held them in buildings America was likely to bomb.
Then on November 23, 1990, Ali landed in Baghdad, Iraq, as part of efforts to meet Saddam and convince him to release the American hostages.
“It was well-announced to the Iraqis that Muhammad Ali, world champion, world-renowned hero, is now in Baghdad,” said Vernon Nored, who was Ali’s liaison from the US Embassy.
He said during Ali’ stay, the Iraqis “would ask him for autographs, want to stand and talk to him . . . Ali never, ever turned anybody down.”
While waiting for Saddam to agree to meet with him, Ali paid visits to children in schools and prayed in mosques, with hopes that there would be no war.
For a week, Ali had not been able to meet Saddam and what perhaps made his stay worse was that he ran out of his Parkinson’s medication. Even though he couldn’t talk properly because of that, he still managed to appear at a press conference, where it was explained that he wouldn’t be speaking.
Meanwhile, Nored managed to obtain some Parkinson’s medication from the Irish Hospital in Baghdad. Then the good news arrived. Ali was told that Saddam would meet with him.
The meeting took place on November 29, 1990. Saddam, during the meeting, showered praises on himself, saying that the hostages were being treated well.
Ali, in the course of the meeting, promised that he would bring America “an honest account” of Iraq. In response, Saddam said: “I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.”
In the end, Ali had all 15 released. They would later take turns to thank the greatest boxer in his hotel room in Baghdad.
On December 2, 1990, Ali returned to America with all the 15 former American hostages, where critics still maintained that his mission was for publicity.
Ali replied: “I do need publicity, but not for what I do for good! I need publicity for my book, I need publicity for my fights, I need publicity for my movie — but not for helping people.”