It’s hard to think of a sporting star who has made more of an impact than Muhammad Ali. He’s an icon of the 20th century, a legend of rarely seen caliber. But interestingly, one of his biggest victories didn’t occur in the ring. And there’s a good chance that you’ve never even heard of it.
In November 1990, just before the start of the first Gulf War, Ali was part of a delegation that headed to Baghdad in Iraq. And rather than trading blows, he actually managed to pull off something truly astounding. This was, moreover, in spite of the disapproval of the U.S. government.
Six years into his battle with Parkinson’s disease, Ali travelled halfway across the world to negotiate the release of 15 hostages in Iraq. It’s a remarkable chapter in the story of a great man, and it’s one that’s filled with twists and turns that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Ali arrived in Baghdad on November 23, 1990. By this point, however, the hostage crisis had been rumbling along for 113 days. So, it’s worth looking back to get some perspective on the task that Ali had set himself. What’s more, it’s also important to get a grounding on why the backlash was directed towards the legend.
Earlier in 1990, just after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, a large number of foreigners residing in the country were taken captive. Fifteen of these were American civilians, and some of them were employed at the General Motors plant in Baghdad. But these U.S. hostages weren’t just held in prison. Instead, they were put to a far more sinister use.
Indeed, the hostages were actually placed in buildings of strategic importance. These, essentially, were the sorts of structure that would likely be the target of American bombing. The hostages were, then, effectively being used as human shields in waiting.
So, this was the tricky situation that the boxer was presented with. He was part of a delegation put together by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and which was partly made up of antiwar activists. Ali, for his part, acted as a kind of a figurehead. Indeed, one should bear in mind that at this point he was arguably the most well-known American Muslim, having converted back in the ’60s.
However, the delegation came under fierce criticism from a number of sources – not least from the American government. Into this maelstrom, meanwhile, walked Muhammad Ali. The boxing legend – who was by then suffering the effects of Parkinson’s – was, however, reportedly unable to speak clearly at times. His mission, though, was to try to win the freedom of 15 men from one of the world’s most infamous tyrants – Saddam Hussein.
Dogged by accusations that his part in the delegation was nothing more than a display of arrogance, Ali diligently sat through the press conferences. He met the people of Iraq and prayed with them in their mosques. What’s more, Ali also did something that some in U.S. government were not at all happy about – he spoke. And he tried to convince the world that words could hold off the war.
But Ali’s work was far from easy. For starters, Saddam kept delaying his meeting with the boxing champion. Indeed, after a week there was still no sign that the talks would ever take place. So, Ali and the rest of the delegation held in there. And then something happened that none of the team had planned for.
Yes, the medication that Ali was using to mollify the effects of his Parkinson’s ran out. This, for a time, left him all but bedridden. But Ali struggled on, pulling himself up to attend events even though he wasn’t able to speak. Indeed, at one press conference an aide had to explain that Ali would be unable to answer any questions.
Eventually, someone from the U.S. embassy managed to source new medication for Ali – and just in the nick of time. And the next day, in fact, Saddam got in touch; the meeting was on. So, on November 29, 1990, the former heavyweight champion of the world sat down with the man widely thought to be a true monster of the modern age. The stage was set for Ali’s greatest fight.
Journalists were consequently invited. And so, a week after Ali touched down in Iraq, he came face to face with the man stood between him and the success of his mission. But this wasn’t a time to be combative; Ali understood that. Indeed, while Saddam boasted of the clemency he’d shown to the U.S. hostages, Ali sat and tactfully waited.
Indeed, Saddam talked on about how well the hostages had been looked after. But Ali bided his time, waiting for the perfect moment and choosing his words carefully. When the time was right, he told Saddam that he was going to make sure the rest of the world was given a more accurate portrayal of Iraq.
And this seemed to do the trick. In fact, Saddam said there and then that he couldn’t let the boxer return to the U.S. without some of the hostages in tow. But actually, it turned out that Ali had helped to free all 15 of the American captives. On December 2, then, Ali and the captives left the country.
But there was no hero’s welcome for Ali. Indeed, the group landed in Amman in Jordan on their way home, where they were met by U.S. State Department officials. But rather than receiving congratulations, Ali and the team were greeted with stern faces. According Brian Becker – a member of the delegation – it seemed that the boxer had gone against the wishes of the government. And importantly, Ali had shown that negotiation could be just as useful as strength of arms in the Middle East.
So, instead of offering plaudits, the government officials apparently took the former hostages to one side. According to Becker, who detailed his experiences in Iraq in an article for Global Research, the officials were trying to convince them to leave Ali and the delegation and fly home in a State Department plane. Nine of them, reportedly, agreed. Six others, meanwhile, flew with Ali and the delegation all the way to J.F.K.
But despite all of this, Ali was defiant that he had made the right decision. He was, after all, fiercely anti-war, having even been prosecuted for his refusal to fight in Vietnam in the late ’60s. So, even with pressure from the highest offices in the land, Ali walked into so-called enemy territory in Iraq and walked out having completed his mission.
However, Ali never looked for praise for what he’d done. Indeed, while the freed hostages praised him for his efforts in Baghdad, he had one simple message, “They don’t owe me nothin.’” But Ali was slightly more bullish when criticism of himself and the mission continued in the wake of the rescue. The media, in fact, were continuing to call him out for seeking a publicity stunt.
“I do need publicity – but not for what I do for good!” Ali was quoted as saying by the New York Post. “I need publicity for my book, I need publicity for my fights, I need publicity for my movie – but not for helping people. Then it’s no longer sincere.” This, then, can be counted as one of many reasons why he’s rightly remembered as the greatest.