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Hana Yasmeen Ali Biography

Devastated by Parents' Split, Book Began as Father's Day Project, Selected writings



Ali, Hana Yasmeen, photograph. Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Hana Yasmeen Ali, the daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali, helped her father write The Soul of a Butterfly, Reflections on Life's Journey. Published in 2004, the tome is less a recap of the three-time world heavyweight champion's dramatic career than a collection of inspirational anecdotes, spiritual reflections, and even poems that seem to illustrate why the elder Ali is one of the world's most admired and beloved athletes. "There are already so many books written about him," Ali told Vicky Allan of Glasgow's Sunday Herald. "And they're pretty much all the same …they're just recapping his life. Only, my father was more than just a boxer, you know? He has aspirations and many, many stories; he has virtues and morals that he lives by."

Ali was born when her father was one of the world's richest athletes, a major celebrity and boxing legend who was also one of the first African Americans to achieve such superstar status in the twentieth century. She was born in March of 1976 to the woman who would become her father's third wife, Veronica Porche. At the time, her famous father was 34 years old, a Kentucky native born Cassius Clay who first attained fame as a gold-medal finisher at the 1960 Rome Olympics. After turning professional, he converted to Islam and changed his name to reflect his newfound faith. He won boxing's world heavyweight title in 1965, but was stripped of it two years later when he refused to obey a military draft order that could have sent him to fight in the Vietnam War. He made a spectacular comeback in the early 1970s, and his legendary, hugely hyped fights—against Joe Frazier in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, with George Foreman in Zaire in October of 1974, and the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila," against Frazier again—entered the annals of sports history as some of the most notable events of the decade.

Devastated by Parents' Split

Ali never saw her father fight, but she does remember him training for his last two bouts in the early 1980s. Her parents divorced when she was nine years old, and Ali was told of the impending split by a child psychologist who "wasn't supposed to tell me," Ali recalled in an interview with Birmingham Post writer Hannah Stephenson. "She said to me, 'How do you feel about your parents getting divorced?' I just remember blacking out. I don't remember my mum picking me up or going home. I think I blocked it out. My next memory after that moment was living in our new house long after they were divorced."

Ali's father was by then showing signs of so-called Pugilistic Parkinson's disease, a debilitating condition that left him shaky and his speech slurred. Officially retired from the ring, he sought to spend as much time as possible with Ali and her younger sister Laila. The girls, raised in the Muslim faith, lived in Los Angeles with their mother, but spent a great deal of time with their famous father. Ali admitted to inheriting a bit of her father's legendary confidence, when he would trash-talk his opponent to the press in rhyming quatrains, but both parents discouraged such superior attitudes. "I remember bragging a lot about him. I'd say, 'I can do whatever I want; my dad is Muhammad Ali,'" she confessed to the Guardian's Emma Brockes. "That sort of thing. But at the same time, I was humble too, because it was instilled in me from a young age that I shouldn't flaunt things that other kids might not have."

Ali recalled that her father would often help out the homeless or destitute, even to the extent of paying for a place for them to live. He also provided well for his own children, who would number nine in all, including Ali: in addition to her sister Laila, there was a son, a daughter, and set of twins born to the boxer's second wife, Belinda, and several children born out of wedlock; two were nearly the same age as Ali and Laila. All of them spent summers at a western Michigan ranch where the retired champ lived with his fourth wife, Lonnie, and their son. Ali has noted that though marital infidelity was her father's weakness, he was determined to see that none of his children suffered because of it. "He made sure we all loved each other," she told Allan in the Sunday Herald. "It was good because it wasn't some secret to discover later in life."

Book Began as Father's Day Project

As a young woman, Ali spent two years at a Boston college and watched her sister Laila emerge as a talented boxer, despite their father's objections to seeing his own daughter in the ring. Ali taught school for a time in Los Angeles—where she and Kenisha Norton, daughter of heavyweight boxer Ken Norton, were roommates—and wrote poetry. She decided to write something for her father for Father's Day. "It's really hard to give him stuff because he doesn't need anything," she told Deborah Caldwell in an interview on the Beliefnet Web site. "The things that make him the happiest are books or things you make. So I tried to create a memoir. I was going to go to Kinko's and copy it, but my mom thought it was so good that she called a friend who is now my agent and had her look at it. And it got published."

That book, More Than a Hero: Muhammad Ali's Life Lessons Presented Through His Daughter's Eyes, was issued by Pocket Books in 2000. In it, she recalled her father's countless acts of generosity to others over the years, both large and small. "Yes, my father is a hero," she wrote in the introduction. "The world knows it, and I know it. However, I get the privilege of witnessing the little things, which in the end are really where true heroism lies. For example, I once asked my father how he finds the strength to do all that he does. He gracefully replied, 'Service to others is the rent we pay for our room here on earth.'"

That book spurred Ali to begin helping her father with his autobiography, which took over two years. "My dad has always wanted to write a book, but he never does anything about it," she explained to Caldwell. "He still likes to read his fan mail and a lot of people have a lot of questions and there's a lot of things he feels that he would want to share with the world." The Soul of a Butterfly's title was adapted from one of the boxer's most famous utterances about his prowess over his hapless opponents: "Float like a butterfly/Sting like a bee/Your hands can't hit/What your eyes can't see." Its chapters offered anecdotes from his life, reflections on fame and fortune, and the profound lessons he has learned from his Muslim faith. "I conquered the world and it didn't bring me true happiness," the champ writes. "The only true happiness comes from honoring God and treating people right."

At a Glance …

Born on March 27, 1976; daughter of Muhammad Ali (a boxer) and Veronica Porche Anderson (a model). Education: Two years of college.

Career: Taught school in Los Angeles, late 1990s; author and poet.

Addresses: Office—c/o The Muhammad Ali Center, One Riverfront Plaza, Suite 1702, Louisville, KY 40202. Home—Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Ali's father is still active in many charitable causes, including the Special Olympics, and even traveled to Afghanistan in 2002 as a United Nations "messenger of peace." Ali even moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, to be closer to her father, where she discovered an immense cache of tape recordings made over the years. "With all of the prizes, trophies, awards, and treasures that my father has received and given away," she wrote near the close of the book, "his greatness lay in the way he kept the recordings of his children's voices protected in a small safe."

Selected writings

More Than a Hero: Muhammad Ali's Life Lessons Presented Through His Daughter's Eyes, Pocket Books, 2000.

(With Muhammad Ali) The Soul of a Butterfly, Reflections on Life's Journey, Simon & Schuster, 2004.



(With Muhammad Ali) The Soul of a Butterfly, Reflections on Life's Journey, Simon & Schuster, 2004.


Birmingham Post, September 30, 2000, p. 52.

Booklist, October 15, 2004, p. 362.

Ebony, November 2004, p. 29.

Guardian (London, England), September 20, 2000, p. 16.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 9, 2004.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, p. 129.

Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 9, 2001, p. 42.

Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), December 12, 2004, p. 5.

Sunday Times (London, England), August 27, 2000, p. 4.

Times (London, England), November 13, 2004, p. 11.


"Muhammad Ali's New Spiritual Quest," Beliefnet, www.beliefnet.com/story/160/story_16045_1.html (March 28, 2005).

—Carol Brennan

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