Inside a one-room apartment at a rehabbed North Beach motel once called the Paradise Inn, the namesake son of the Greatest leans back in an overstuffed recliner. The blinds are closed, the walls are off-white and water-stained, and the wood floor is worn. The air is heavy with cigarette smoke. Paper roses spill out of a vase sitting atop a dresser, and a baseball cap with "Ali" embroidered across the front rests on one of the two bicycles parked beside a twin bed.
A tiny cockroach wanders across the chair, but Muhammad Ali Jr. doesn't seem to notice. In a soft voice marked by a slight lisp, the tall, thin 44-year-old with gray-flecked hair spits out a rhyme: "Come from the bottom, straight to the top/I can't, I can't, I can't never quit, I can't never stop," he riffs, his head nodding and a smile softening his sharp features.
The verse had sprung right into his head and out of his mouth. Back in the '60s, a similar way with words had helped his father transcend boxing to become one of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century. Everyone knows Ali's heroic tale of dominating in the ring, defying the government over an unjust war, and bravely battling for racial justice.
But away from the limelight, life hasn't been easy for his only biological son. As a child, Ali Jr. was bullied by kids who bragged about beating up the Champ's kid; as an adult, he had mostly languished in poverty on Chicago's bullet-scarred South Side — until his pain over his father's death brought him to South Florida. Now, suddenly, Ali Jr. has found himself at the center of his own national firestorm.
When immigration officials detained him in February and questioned him about his faith just days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries, Ali Jr. faced a rush of interviews and television appearances. A few weeks later, he even flew to Washington to speak before Congress. And when he was stopped yet again on his way back to Florida, another crashing wave of publicity followed.
As upsetting as the whole affair has been for Ali Jr., who has spent his life shying away from the public eye, it has given him something he's long sought: a purpose, a chance to reinvent himself. The son of a man admired for standing up to the government in defense of his religious convictions now believes he has an opportunity to continue that tradition.
"I think it's something he would do," Ali Jr. says of his father.
But Ali Jr.'s rarely told story also casts his legendary dad's life in a new, less saintly light. As the boxer made his name on the world stage, he rarely had time for his son. More recently, Ali Jr. claims, he was shut out of his father's life almost entirely. And after Ali died last year, Ali Jr. felt more lost than ever, devastated to have never reconciled with the man he still calls Daddy.
Taking on Trump has forced Ali Jr. to confront yet again how difficult it's been living in the shadow of one of the most celebrated athletes of all time — but it may just help him reclaim some of his dad's legacy.
"My father, he didn't hate nobody. He loved the world," Ali Jr. says. "And with that same love of my father's, I feel that I should do the same thing."
The doctor kept saying it would be another girl. Muhammad Ali and his wife of five years, Belinda, had welcomed three daughters into a young family that was among the world's most famous. Ali had long prayed for a son, but he and Belinda struggled: Their first son was premature and didn't make it past a half-hour.
Now Belinda was going into labor once more. In a Philadelphia hospital room, the handsome boxer slipped on an apron and mask and stood beside the bed. "Here's the girl," the doctor told the 30-year-old father as the baby arrived. "Here comes the little girl."
But watching the child's tiny body emerge that day, May 14, 1972, Ali realized it wasn't a girl. It was a boy.
"He just fainted straight back like somebody knocked him out in the ring," remembers Belinda, now known as Khalilah Camacho-Ali. "His son gave his father the knockout punch. Knocked him out. Knocked him straight out like a light."
By the time of his death last June, Ali had achieved saint-like status, beloved by the public not only for his artistry in the ring but also for his willingness to stand up for his convictions — even at great personal cost. Yet he was not without flaws, and in his prime, a weakness for women tested and then destroyed his marriage to Camacho-Ali, leaving the four kids without their dad. The breakdown was hard on each of his children, but perhaps none suffered more than the son Ali had wanted so badly.
"Sometimes people would come up and ask me: 'How is it being Muhammad Ali's son?'" Ali Jr. told the Chicago Tribune in 1992, when he was 19. "You know what I say? I say, 'How is it being yourself?' You're like everybody else, except that you have a famous father. I'm no different."
The man the world would one day know as Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, and began boxing at 12 years old after crying to a police officer that he was going to "whup" the thief who had snatched his new bicycle. The officer, who ran a boxing gym, suggested he learn to fight first and began training him. Six years later, in 1960, the then-18-year-old won gold at the Olympics in Rome.
The brashly confident young fighter catapulted onto the world stage in 1964 after taking the world heavyweight championship in a major upset over Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Soon after, he announced he had converted to Islam, accepted the separatist teachings of the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He then refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, citing his religious beliefs. The consequences were steep: Ali was stripped of his title in 1967 and banned from boxing for three years. Convicted of draft evasion, he was sentenced to five years in prison but released on bail pending his appeal.
Ali wasn't sure he'd ever return to the ring when he married 17-year-old Belinda Boyd in 1967, after ending a brief, childless marriage to cocktail waitress Sonji Roi. The story was that Ali and Boyd had met at the Muslim bakery where she worked in Chicago, but she says they'd actually crossed paths years earlier, when he visited her Islamic school to hand out autographed photos.
"I kind of knew I was going to end up with him," she says. "When I first saw him, I thought I was going to see this man for the rest of my life for some reason."
The couple lived in a house on the South Side of Chicago and had their first child, Maryum, in 1968. Ali gave lectures at colleges to make ends meet, until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1970. That year also saw the birth of twins Rasheda and Jamillah.
"For the first three years of our marriage, there were no trips across the world to fight, no buildups for fights, no training for fights," Ali said in his ghostwritten memoir, The Greatest. "It was the worst time for my career but the best time for my family."
By the time Muhammad Jr. came along, his father had resumed boxing and, as America turned against the Vietnam War, begun to look less like a traitor and more like a hero. For a few glamorous years, the family of six lived together in lavish mansions in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and then Chicago. Ebony and Jet sent reporters to document Ali's quiet life as a "devoted family man." Their pages featured photos of him doting on his brood as his smiling wife looked on.
Ali was fabled for his love of children, whom he called "exiles from Heaven." He especially adored them when they were little, with big, squishy cheeks, Camacho-Ali remembers. But his attention span was short. "For 20 minutes, he'll pick you up and play with you; then he'll put you down," his ex-wife says. "He liked kids — for a few minutes."
When Muhammad Jr. was 2 years old, his father reclaimed the heavyweight title by knocking out the younger, stronger George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle." The fight sealed Ali's comeback and also introduced him to the woman who would ultimately be the downfall of his marriage.
Ali preached respect for women, yet he was also a superstar who lavished in fame. "I used to chase women all the time," he told biographer Thomas Hauser in the 1991 biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. "And I won't say it was right, but... I was young, handsome, heavyweight champion of the world. Women were always offering themselves to me."
As he carried out affair after affair, his marriage held — until he took Veronica Porché, an 18-year-old beauty queen who'd posed in promotional posters for one of his fights, to the Philippines' presidential palace before the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975. The Philippine president mistook Porché for Ali's wife, and Ali didn't correct him. He told reporters he didn't answer to anyone except Belinda Ali, "and I don't worry about her." Humiliated, she swiftly flew in from Chicago, hauled her husband into a hotel room, and laid into him. Soon after, she divorced him.
For the children, the affair didn't just take away their father: Their heartbroken mother, then 26, packed up and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her Hollywood dreams. She left the kids behind in Chicago, where they were raised by her parents — a decision she now calls her only regret. "I was going through some hell," she says. Muhammad Jr., only 5 years old at the time, later called the split his saddest memory.
Ali started a new family with Porché, who gave him daughters Hana and Laila. He returned sporadically to Chicago to see his first four children, and they visited his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, and his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
When he was around, Ali the father could be magical. He'd perform levitation tricks for his kids, sneak up and flick their ears, and take them horseback riding. He'd treat them to ice cream, which he ate "like it was going out of style," his son remembers, and tell them ghost stories at night.
Muhammad Jr. was still young when his father's storied career came to a close. Ali won the heavyweight title for the last time in 1978 and left boxing three years later after an ill-advised final fight. By then, the consequences of thousands of blows to the head were beginning to show; soon he'd be diagnosed with Parkinson's. But even after he left the ring, Ali rarely cordoned off time just for his children.
"Muhammad loved them all, he really did, but he was the most famous man on Earth and he gave of himself very generously to the public," Hauser says. "And when you're a kid, you don't want that. When you're a kid, you want your father to be your father, and it's bad enough to have to share him with a sibling, let alone share him with the whole world."
By 1986, Ali's marriage to Porché had fallen apart, and he had married his fourth wife, Lonnie. Growing up across the street from the Louisville house Ali bought his parents, Lonnie Williams had seen the affable boxer as a big brother. When she was 17 and he was 32, she developed an "enormous crush" and, she told Hauser, became convinced she'd one day be his wife. Less than ten years later, she quit her sales job in Louisville and moved to Los Angeles to become a caretaker for the then-dejected Ali, who was struggling to speak and walk. She helped him restore his health and his fortune, which were both faltering, and together they adopted a son, Asaad.
Back in Chicago, Muhammad Ali Jr. was finding his name hard to live up to. "He was my father, and I was just me," he says.
He once dreamed of knocking people out in the ring like his dad, but Ali discouraged it, saying the sport could be dangerous. Still, pressure to be great fell squarely on Ali's son. Yet sports weren't his thing. Boys looking to prove their toughness found Ali Jr. an easy mark. "Everybody thought he should be boxing like his father," friend Midge McDaniel says. "The last thing on his mind is to hit somebody."
Like his dad, Ali Jr. struggled with reading; he says he had dyslexia and took special-needs classes. He thrived, however, in a program at Homewood Flossmoor High School that prepared students for work in florals. Using silk and paper, he made tiny, intricate roses his school mailed to troops overseas and sent aboard the Space Shuttle.
Larry Baran, the teacher who ran the program, says Ali Jr. was his best student. He was "so damn creative," and not just with florals. "He used to read these beautiful things he wrote," Baran remembers.
In a group of students that was a kind of "hurt teddy bear club," Ali Jr. stood out. He would phone Baran on Father's Day and sometimes call him Daddy. Baran believed Ali Jr. had potential — but he often worried what the his famous dad's absence would mean for the young man.
"I don't think his father was a father to him," the teacher says.
Muhammad Ali Jr. strode through the Detroit pawnshop, passing a mismatched collection of old couches and chairs. Over his shoulder was a white robe and a pair of worn boxing gloves.
"I'm here to sell this," Ali Jr. said, handing the priceless items across a glass countertop. Dollar signs all but flashed in shop proprietor Les Gold's eyes. To prove the memorabilia was authentic, Ali Jr. pulled out his birth certificate and a framed Sports Illustrated photograph of his father wearing the robe.
Later, Gold would price the garment at $10,000 and call it one of the most incredible pieces he'd ever seen in his shop. But as cameras from truTV's Hardcore Pawn filmed, the gold-chain-draped pawnbroker told Ali Jr. his asking price of $2,500 was too steep. Junior didn't say anything for a second. "Six hundred," he offered tepidly.
Gold countered with $400 and then $450. He went up by $10 increments to $500.
The heart-rending moment, later broadcast to thousands of reality-TV fans, marked a nadir in Ali Jr.'s turbulent relationship with his famed father. As Parkinson's took hold of the once-effervescent Ali, his fourth wife wielded more control over his life — and, by Ali Jr.'s telling, kept him from seeing his son. Meanwhile, Ali Jr. spiraled down, dogged by unemployment, living on food stamps, and eventually desperate enough to sell his father's robe.
"I wished before my dad got really sick I could have had that father-son relationship, but that's impossible now," Ali Jr. told the New York Post around that time. "I wish I could have made up for lost time. But it doesn't break my heart anymore. It's been broken so many times I'm used to it by now."
After Ali Jr. finished high school in 1991, Baran encouraged him to work as a florist and helped him land a job at a Chicago flower shop. The teacher and his former student remained close. When Baran was diagnosed with cancer in 1995, Ali Jr. came over to help his wife around the house. "Best of all was his humor and just being Muhammad," says the teacher, who views him as a son.
Ali Jr. became a father himself in the mid-'90s and again in 2005. His relationships with the mothers of the two girls didn't work out. But the same year he had his second child, he met a pretty nurse technician named Shaakira at an Islamic convention. The two hit it off right away, she later recounted to the Daily Mail, and got engaged within six months. They wed at the Chateau Bu-Sché, a white-columned banquet hall in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, with Ali Sr. in attendance.
Shaakira, who desperately wanted children, gave birth to the couple's first daughter about three years into the marriage. Another girl followed a year later. But as the family grew, money was always tight. The Alis lived in a two-bedroom apartment Shaakira's father owned in West Englewood, a crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. She had the only steady income: The flower store had shuttered. He picked up odd jobs cutting grass and shoveling sidewalks, blaming both the economy and his childhood for his trouble getting on his feet.
"Not having that male figure really hindered my evolution," he says.
At some point, Ali himself wished things had gone differently. He told Hauser he didn't get as much time as he wanted with his children and admitted to People magazine it was his one regret. The son he adopted with Lonnie in 1992 was the only one of the nine Ali kids to spend his entire childhood under the same roof as his father.
As for the Greatest's namesake, Ali Jr. claims to have been frozen out completely beginning in 2013. He blames Lonnie, who he says kept tight control over her deteriorating husband. "I guess she wanted him all for herself," Ali Jr. says. Similar accusations have been leveled by Ali's younger brother, Rahman, who claimed he was cast out after a falling-out with Lonnie. He said he stopped phoning after his calls repeatedly went unanswered.
But Lonnie Ali blasts her stepson's allegations as false. "Muhammad Jr. has always had the opportunity to visit his father, just like all of the other children," she says in a statement forwarded by her spokesman. "I have never told him he couldn't see his father, although this has become a constant and familiar rant of his."
Whatever the reason for his estrangement from his dad, it clearly hurt Ali Jr. For decades, he stayed out of the limelight — until he revealed his financial hardships to the New York Post in 2014. (Some tabloids have suggested Ali Jr. also struggled with drug abuse. He denies those claims, and there's little evidence of addiction. Cook County records show he faced minor marijuana charges in 1996 and again in 2001; prosecutors dropped charges in both cases. In 1997, he faced a misdemeanor charge for possessing drug paraphernalia. Ali says the case was dismissed; court records are unclear on how the case was resolved.)
Ali Jr. says his desperate finances weren't the only reason he spoke to the Post; he also hoped to see Daddy once more. A year had passed since he'd last seen him at his 71st birthday in Las Vegas. Ali Jr. kept trying. In a long shot to reach his dad, Ali Jr. in January 2014 took to Twitter and fired off a flurry of messages asking for retweets from athletes and boxing companies. "Please help me out," he wrote.
Late last May, a respiratory issue sent Ali to a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he and Lonnie lived. He'd been hospitalized several times in the past couple of years, and his family initially expected a short stay. But this time, Ali's condition worsened. Lonnie says when it became clear the boxing legend was near death, she arranged a flight, hotel, and transportation for Ali Jr. to be there.
On June 3, Ali died of complications from septic shock. He was 74 and had battled Parkinson's for 30 years. Ali Jr. wrote a poem for the funeral and ended it with, "I love you, Daddy."
At the ceremony, though, he felt numb. He was upset to see some attendees make a scene flagging down celebrity guests, and hurt that neither he nor anyone else in the family was asked to serve as a pallbearer. He cried until his eyes were swollen. "I felt like it was all a dream," he says. "The times of him talking and laughing and jumping around doing magic tricks to now... I wonder if it all ever really happened."
When he returned home, he says, his wife was quick to ask about the will. The 11-year marriage had already been faltering, by his account. That his wife was asking about money in the midst of his mourning made him decide to put the relationship "in the grave with my father," he says. (His wife could not be reached for comment.)
After his father's death, Ali Jr. sank into a depression as he struggled to cope with the loss and naysayers told him he'd never amount to anything. After a while, he says, "You start believing it."
His mother grew worried. About ten years earlier, she'd moved to Miami. She worked as a waitress at Mount Sinai Medical Center in South Beach before settling down in a retirement home in Deerfield Beach. Now she sent for her son.
Ali Jr. arrived alone and jobless in South Florida last August, leaving his wife and children a thousand miles away. His mother asked Arnold Ireland, a longtime friend, if her son could stay with him in his studio apartment in North Beach. It would be tight, but he agreed.
"I wasn't going to let the son of Muhammad Ali sleep on the street," Ireland says.
Fresh off a flight from Jamaica, Muhammad Ali Jr. and his mother handed their passports to the customs agent at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. They were dumbfounded when one agent pulled Ali Jr. aside. Khalilah Camacho-Ali asked where they were taking him. She didn't like the answer: "You'll meet him on the other side."
Both mother and son say they were questioned about their religion and country of origin while separated. Camacho-Ali was released after flashing a photograph of herself with her famous ex. But when she got to the baggage claim, Ali Jr. wasn't there. He was held for two hours, he says, detained in a small room and asked twice about his religion and how he got his name.
"My son was shaking when he came out," Camacho-Ali remembers.
Federal officials say privacy laws prevent them from explaining why Ali Jr. was stopped. But in the wake of nationwide protests over Trump's so-called Muslim ban, Ali Jr.'s February 7 detention struck a chord. His story ran in newspapers across the globe, and he and his mother were soon appearing on networks including CNN and CBS.
After a lifetime spent struggling with bullying, poverty, and a complicated relationship with his father, Ali Jr. suddenly found himself thrust forward as a potential hero, taking on the U.S. government in defense of religious freedom. "I know God has put me in place to do this," Ali Jr. says.
He's an unlikely advocate, and as he takes up the mantle of activism, some of his troubles remain. Shortly after he moved to South Florida, his wife tearfully told the Daily Mail he had walked out on his family after supposedly receiving millions from his father's estate. "I really don't know what's going on, and I do care for him," Shaakira Ali told the British tabloid. "He's the father of my kids, and right now he's just lost his dad and I'm sure he's still hurting over that. But the way it looks, it looks bad."
Some reports have suggested Ali left $6 million to each of his children. Those reports are unconfirmed. Lonnie Ali will only say that Ali Jr. "has a trust that is administered by trustees, of which I am not one."
But Ali Jr. says that to date, he's received only a few thousand dollars. If he has a stockpile of wealth, it's certainly not evident in his hardscrabble Miami life.
Either way, his wife and daughters have since moved in with her parents, and in December she filed a handwritten petition for bankruptcy. Ali Jr. says he has called to talk to his daughters, whose mention brings a smile to his face, but no one answers the phone. Forty years after his dad left him and his sisters, is the cycle repeating?
"I don't want to make the same mistakes over and over again," Ali Jr. says.
Even as his own family has disintegrated, though, he has found a new, very public role — often at his mother's side. In fact, when they were stopped on the way back from Jamaica, they had traveled there for a speech Camacho-Ali gave to commemorate Black History Month.
He was stunned how quickly his story went viral: Ali Jr. became a symbol for everything wrong with Trump's travel ban. "There Is No More American Name Than Muhammad Ali," Slate headlined one story. Ali Jr. says he didn't hesitate to speak out about the airport episode. "I felt it was wrong," he says, "and it shouldn't have happened."
To punch back, Ali Jr. and his mother started Step Into the Ring. Though the group is in its infancy, Camacho-Ali has big dreams for it: She envisions rallying for religious freedom by bringing together celebrities and politicians.
A website is already live, and she and Ali Jr. say the project has the support of boxers Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes, among others. The nonprofit's goal is not yet clear. "Will you accept that this is your fight too?" the website asks. "Will you step into the ring and fight with us for religious freedom for all of us?"
On March 9, Ali Jr. sat in front of a microphone at the U.S. Capitol and repeated his story to House Democrats. His brow furrowing, he explained he didn't know what to think when he was first pulled aside at the airport.
"I didn't even think about the president or the ban or anything," he said. "Later on, I looked at it like, 'OK, this is what's going on.' But we need to step into the ring and join the fight for righteousness, for truth, and for peace."
And then, amazingly, he was stopped again, at Reagan National Airport the next day when he arrived for a flight back to Fort Lauderdale. After giving his Illinois identification card to a JetBlue agent to get his boarding pass, he was told there was a problem and the agent would need to call the Department of Homeland Security.
The agent asked Ali his date of birth, the place where he was born, and his social security number before telling him his identification card was invalid for flying. He was allowed through security and onto the domestic flight after showing his passport. Yet for all the trouble he's had, Ali Jr. says he's not afraid to fly.
"Let them bother me again," he says. "They're creating a hole for themselves."
Muhammad Ali Jr. is playing his father again. Wearing a baseball cap with "Ali" embroidered on it, he turns and raises his arms in a Fort Lauderdale parking lot. He leans forward until his feet appear to be off the pavement. The old levitation trick. When he spins back around, he's laughing.
"I got his head, his feet, his mind, and his heart," Ali Jr. says. "The best parts of my father I got."
More than 50 years ago, Cassius Clay's meteoric ascent began in Miami Beach. "I shook up the world!" he yelled over a television announcer, unable to contain himself. Now, just a few miles north, stands his son, at once trying to live up to his dad's name and to make one for himself.
But as Ali Jr. and his growing cadre of advisers try to turn his newfound media fame into meaningful action — and possibly a path to a less impoverished life — plenty of questions remain about whether the son of the Greatest has what it takes to tackle his new goal.
Ali Jr. says he has moved out of the cramped North Beach studio and into a Fort Lauderdale apartment close to the beach. He's training to become a pharmaceutical rep, but he still hasn't been able to talk to his daughters.
Larry Baran worries that the man he sees as a son will be taken advantage of thanks to his sudden fame, and wishes someone would give him a chance at a floral shop or working with special-needs students. Baran's daughter Heidi, who's like a sister to Muhammad, is hopeful: "This could be a whole new thing for him," she says.
Recently, he linked up with a publicist, who plans to print the book his mom has been writing for decades, which over the years has had a working title of Dreams That Never Were. Michele MA'KO' says she's been booking Ali Jr. for charity appearances that charge for photographs with him. She even gave him a title: "Ali legacy consultant."
MA'KO' rattles off a list of projects that are in the works, including a clothing line and a cologne. Ali Jr., she says, is finally reinventing himself after years of being lost in others' expectations. It helps that the public has become more familiar with him since the airport incidents.
"Before that, he was never in the limelight, so they didn't know he was Muhammad Ali Jr. and they didn't recognize him and they didn't believe him," MA'KO' says. "Now they know."
But Ali Jr. insists he's not just aiming to make a profit from his new notoriety. He says he'll continue pushing back against Trump's travel ban, which has since been stayed by two different court rulings. He calls Trump's order unconstitutional and a threat to all Americans. Ali Jr. isn't clear on exactly what role his advocacy will take, but his attorney, Chris Mancini, says at least 50 other travelers have contacted him to report similar faith-based detentions at U.S. airports; Ali Jr. says a class-action lawsuit might be possible.
In the meantime, he says that he's forgiven Lonnie and that the years he was away from his father are in the past. It's time for him to move forward, time to grow up and make a name for himself.
And one more thing: He's thinking of writing a book of poems. He says he might call it The Risen Son.
"I want to be the greatest I can be," he says. "That's all."