They maintain that she has been his saviour and that his fortunes — financial and physical — would have declined far more rapidly had she not come to his rescue almost 30 years ago.
Why, then, must Muhammad Ali Junior, 40, his wife Shaakira and their daughters, aged five and four, languish in a charity-furnished garret owned by his in-laws, scraping by on food-stamps worth £135 a month, plus the few dollars he earns selling autographed photos and doing odd-jobs?
‘I’m guessing something real bad must have gone on between him and his father in the past for Ali to have left him here like this,’ whispers the manager of his local diner, Granny B’s, as I pay for our breakfast.
Ali Junior insists that the true architect of his misfortune is not his father but the boxer’s ‘controlling’ fourth wife, Lonnie, who, he claims, has not only stopped the regular hand-outs he once received, but almost completely ostracised him.
Muhammad Ali’s younger brother, Rahman, 69, who also lives on welfare hand-outs in the family’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, makes the same accusations, only in stronger terms, branding Lonnie ‘a gold-digger’ and ‘an evil bitch’ (and even alleging in a U. magazine interview this week that she is neglecting Ali’s care).
Brother and son, however, are united in the accusation that she has turned Ali into some garish waxwork exhibit, flying him around the world to be photographed, prodded and gawped at by well-meaning fans — and lining her own pockets with the proceeds of these events.
They recall with dismay his pitiful appearance during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, where Ali’s wife had to prop him up on the podium and could be seen repeatedly imploring him to wave to the rapturous crowd — to no avail.Ali’s brother, who was invited by Olympic organisers to a charity function — attended by sporting celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton and David Beckham — in the boxer’s honour before the Games, claims Ali was dehydrated because he didn’t have enough to drink at the party and ‘looked helpless and weak’.Others in Ali’s circle take a very different view of Lonnie, however.Since there were no names beneath the apartment buzzers, I pressed them all, then waited in the driving snow, reminded with every menacing stare that this was Chicago’s ‘murder central’ and the only white men who ventured here were bailiffs and cops.Just as I was about to beat a tactical retreat, a red-hatted head poked from the top-floor window.With his thick-rimmed glasses and hawkish nose, he certainly wasn’t ‘pretty’, as his father once liked to describe himself, yet somehow his looks were familiar.