UNITED NATIONS: When Muhammad Ali was trying to win a fourth heavyweight championship in the late 1970s, he came to the United Nations to campaign against apartheid and injustice and presented then secretary-general Kurt Waldheim with one of his drawings entitled “Peace!”
Nearly 20 years later, Ali returned to U.N. headquarters to be named one of the first U.N. Messengers of Peace, an honor reserved for distinguished people from the arts, music, literature and sports who agree to focus world attention on the work of the United Nations.
Then secretary-general Kofi Annan, who started the program in 1997, said “I chose him because I knew his interest in peace and in the world.”
He said that Ali confirmed that interest with another gift to the United Nations — a drawing of the globe with the inscription: “Service to others is rent we pay here on this earth.”
“It was so powerful,” Annan said in a phone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press from Geneva. “Obviously, he had lost his speed, his vitality and energy, but the concern for others and the love for peace was very much visible.”
At the ceremony in Annan’s office on Sept. 15, 1998 where Ali officially became a Messenger of Peace, Annan pinned a small golden dove on his lapel and gave him a videotape of his 1979 speech to the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid. Ali gave Annan a pair of his red boxing gloves.
“He said, ‘I don’t need it any more, you take them,'” Annan recalled.
Ali’s wife, Lonnie, who acted as a spokeswoman for the once articulate boxer who had difficulty speaking because of his Parkinson’s disease, said the gloves were symbolic, on her husband’s part, because everything was a struggle.
Despite being slowed by the disease, Ali remained strongly committed to his new role.
“He would regularly go off on humanitarian trips, taking the title of U.N. Messenger of Peace with him, because that’s just something he loved to do,” said Yvonne Acosta, the manager of the messengers who at the time included Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, actor Michael Douglas, chimpanzee research pioneer Jane Goodall and opera star Luciano Pavaroti.
She said that the highlight for Ali was a three-day trip he made to Afghanistan in November 2002 — not long after the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban following al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“The choice of Afghanistan — it was his choice,” Acosta said. “He came to us and said this is something he would like to do, to raise the profile of a Muslim country. … This was the beginning of the war with Afghanistan and he wanted to show support for his Muslim brothers and sisters.”
The Taliban had banned girls from going to school and she said Ali wanted to highlight the revival of education for girls as well as employment for women, who had been barred from work.
He visited a girls’ school backed by the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF that was located in an area where demand for lessons was so high that additional classes were being held in tents. He went to a bakery supported by the U.N. World Food Program which employed widows as bakers and to a boxing club where his tattered photo hung on a wall and he sparred with young Afghans. And he met President Hamid Karzai.
When he was leaving, Ali sent an open letter to the children and young people of Afghanistan telling them to “have faith and be a good Muslim, … prepare your mind for the challenges of life” through education and studying hard, and “prepare your body by practicing physical activity and sports, because sports builds fellowship, character, and independence.”
Acosta, who traveled with Ali, said it could take an hour to get through airports because “he loved people” and he would stop to greet everyone who recognized him.
“He had a prank that he used very often if he was among a number of people,” she said. “He would sit down, put his head down and pretend that he was asleep. And if anyone approached him he would start to spar on the spur of the moment. So you’d be shocked. You’d jump back, because you’d think he was resting.”
From the late 1970s into the 21st century, Ali came to U.N. headquarters in New York to promote peace, sports and human rights.
In 1993, he attended a tribute organized by the Special Committee on Apartheid with other boxing greats including Terry Norris and Joe Frazier to honor the first world boxing champion from Africa, “Battling Siki,” a light heavyweight from Senegal born in 1897 with the name Baye Phal. Acosta said Ali came to the U.N. several times to celebrate the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21, and he made several public service announcements to publicize it.
Matt Sullivan, a U.N. security inspector, remembers being introduced to Ali during a visit to U.N. headquarters in the early 1990s by his boss as “the Irish heavyweight champ of the U.N.” He said Ali “got a big kick out of it,” came up to him, pulled him in tight and whispered “that his grandfather’s name was O’Grady.”
“I said, ‘come on champ.’ He goes, ‘Oh yes, I’m Irish and from Ireland.'” Sullivan recalled. “I saw my moment and started doing his whole skit which is ‘I want Sonny Liston, I want Joe Frazier. I’m ready to take on the champ. I think I’m pretty. I’m the greatest.’ And he just got in position and we started going at each other for one round, on the floor. The whole thing.”
“And then we embraced,” he said. “You feel like you’re hugging somebody God-like.”
Former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Gillian Sorensen, who was in charge of the Messengers of Peace, said “of the group, I think Muhammad Ali was probably the star.”
“The incredible courage he showed inside and outside the ring was quite extraordinary,” Annan said. “He lived his life as someone who genuinely believed in peace and was not going to get involved in warfare, and was prepared to pay the price — whatever price. And that really, I think, is what made him beloved to the rest of the world at a time when we’ve gone through lots of conflicts.”