Muhammad Ali Was Her First, and Greatest, Love


Over the years, she recalled each of Ali’s wives joining him at the table. He married Sonji Roi in 1964; Belinda Boyd, with whom he had four children, in 1967; and Veronica Porche, with whom he had two children, in 1977. He also had two children by different women outside his marriages.

As Lonnie navigated adolescence, Ali was like another big brother to her, dispensing advice that included never getting romantically involved with athletes because they wouldn’t treat her well.

“We were all enchanted with Muhammad,” Richardson said, “but as we got older, that enchantment turned into something deeper for Lonnie. I think Muhammad is probably the only man that Lonnie has ever loved.”

At 17, Lonnie had an epiphany. “I knew I was going to marry Muhammad,” she said in the 2012 New York Times Magazine article. “I was just a kid in school, and I had things I needed to do, but I knew. I was young but it was intuitive. The thought was like an umbrella, always over my head.”

Lonnie earned an undergraduate degree in psychology at Vanderbilt in 1978. She served briefly as an employment counselor for the State of Kentucky before taking a job in account sales with Kraft Foods. In 1982, she was invited to lunch by Ali during one of his visits to Louisville.

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Lonnie and Muhammad Ali in 2004.

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Scott Gries/Getty Images

Two years had passed since his 10th-round defeat to Larry Holmes in a bout that the actor Sylvester Stallone later described as “like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.”

The meal left a bad taste with Lonnie, who was alarmed by Ali’s condition. He appeared to be depressed and was in poor physical condition. In his 2009 book, “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon,” Michael Ezra wrote that Lonnie agreed to move to Los Angeles to become Ali’s primary caregiver in return for Ali paying for her to attend graduate school at U.C.L.A., an arrangement that he said had the approval of Ali’s wife at the time, Porche.

Her intervention revived Ali and his fortunes, said David Kindred, who covered Ali for The Louisville Courier-Journal, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post and wrote a book, “Sound and Fury,” about the unlikely friendship between Ali and the sportscaster Howard Cosell. “I think Ali would have been gone and forgotten 30 years ago, if not for Lonnie,” he said.

Ali had holed himself up in his Los Angeles mansion and was a recluse in dire need of medical and financial attention, Kindred explained. “She took care of him and created a financial empire for him that made it possible for him to have a comfortable life,” he said.

In November 1986, Lonnie accompanied Ali to Louisville. She had completed her master’s in business administration, with an emphasis in marketing, at U.C.L.A, and Ali had obtained his divorce from Porche. Lonnie, raised a Catholic, had also converted to Islam. At a get-together with Richardson, Lonnie casually dropped a bombshell. As Richardson recalled, “She said, ‘I think Muhammad and I are going to get married when we get back to L.A.’ ”

The shock wasn’t that they were getting married. “Everyone could see they were two peas in a pod,” Richardson said. And, she said, there was the conversation with Ali in which he acknowledged Lonnie “being the right one.” But holding the ceremony in Los Angeles?

“I told her: ‘No way! Absolutely not! You’re going to get married here,’” said Richardson, who helped Lonnie organize a civil ceremony.

On Nov. 19, 1986, in front of a small gathering, Lonnie, 29, and Ali, 44, were married in the private home of a former mayor of Louisville, Harvey Sloane, then the Jefferson County judge-executive, who officiated.

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Lonnie and Muhammad Ali accepted the President’s Award at the N.A.A.C.P.’s 2009 Image Awards in Los Angeles.

Credit
Vince Bucci/Getty Images for NAACP

“Muhammad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s right around the time they were married,” Richardson said, “and the No. 1 priority in Lonnie’s life over the years has been taking care of him.”

In 1992, Lonnie incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc) to consolidate and license Ali’s intellectual properties for commercial purposes and served as the vice president and treasurer until the sale of the company in 2006. In 2005, she and her husband founded the multicultural Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.

It was Lonnie who leaned on Ali to become the face of Parkinson’s. The idea came from Dr. Abraham Lieberman, who said he started treating Ali for the disease in the 1980s. He traveled to the couple’s summer home in Michigan and delivered his pitch. Lieberman said Ali’s initial response was, “I don’t want to be the poster boy for Parkinson’s.” He added, “Muhammad was afraid he was getting old because he saw Parkinson’s as an old-person’s disease.”

Upon his return to Phoenix, Lieberman received a call from Ali, who had reconsidered. He told Lieberman to write him a pitch, and Lieberman crafted it as a poem, which he said won Ali over. But before the poem, there was Lonnie’s gentle persuasion.

“If she wasn’t there he probably would have said no, and that would have been the end of it,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said that in recent years he visited Ali at his home every other week to check on him. “There were always people in the house,” Lieberman said, painting a picture that calls to mind the warm and welcoming environment that Lonnie’s mother had nurtured on Verona Way.

Ramsey, who will serve as a pallbearer at Friday’s funeral, spent time in the hospital with Asaad, Marilyn, Lonnie and her stepchildren last week as Ali’s condition worsened. Four days after Ali’s death, Ramsey, 55, said, “Lonnie balanced Ali because he loved the spotlight and she never looked for it.” He added: “She used to say, ‘He belongs to the world.’ She embraced that.”

It has been hard to let go. Ramsey said Lonnie told her this week, “John, when I get sad and think I’m going to cry, I hear Muhammad’s voice saying: ‘Stand up. Hold your head up high. Don’t cry.’ And it helps me.”

Ramsey added: “It’s the end of a great love story. Who does recover from that? But she does have that Muhammad DNA. She gets off the mat. She’s strong to the core.”

Correction: June 9, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated Muhammad Ali’s age at the time of his marriage to the former Lonnie Williams. He was 44, not 54.

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