As the world began its mourning of Muhammad Ali soon after the news of his death on Saturday morning, virtually every aspect of the onetime heavyweight boxing great’s 74 years was being remembered.
But there was one side of the man known universally as "The Champ" or "The Greatest" that so far has received little press attention: How Ali, who startled Middle America with his conversion to the Muslim faith in 1964 and refusal to register for the draft during the Vietnam War, was an active supporter of conservative Republicans in his later years.
He startled many longtime fans in 1984 by endorsing President Ronald Reagan for re-election. Ali also backed friend and former New Mexico Gov. David Cargo in a losing race for Congress in 1986, proclaiming Republican Cargo was "the right white." He also stumped for South Carolina’s conservative former State GOP Chairman Van Hipp for Congress in 1994 and helped Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch win re-election in 1988.
"I like Orrin," Ali told reporters in 1988, "He's a nice fella. He's a capable man and he's an honest man. And he fights for what he believes in." Ali said he had been particularly moved the year before watching Hatch in the televised Iran-Contra hearings and in the hearings on Robert Bork’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
But it was "The Champ's" support of Reagan in '84 that made the most headlines. Having backed Rev. Jesse Jackson in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ali announced in October of that year that he was switching his support to Republican Reagan.
"He's keeping God in schools and that's enough," explained Ali, who was later joined by fellow past heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson in endorsing Reagan.
Ali's position was particularly surprising to those who remembered Reagan’s criticism years before of the boxer's refusal to register for the draft in 1967, which led to his being denied a boxing license in every state.
In his autobiography, Ali wrote of staying at a hotel in Southern California in 1967 and being approached by someone he recalled as "a handsome boy" in his early 20s. The young man voiced support for Ali’s position on the draft.
When Ali asked his name, the young man replied: "Michael Reagan."
"The only Reagan I know is Ronald Reagan," Ali told him, noting the then-California governor blasting him over the draft controversy.
"He's my father," said Michael Reagan, who promptly grinned and offered Ali a clenched fist salute to show solidarity with his position.
Reached by Newsmax shortly after Ali’s death, the oldest son of the 40th President confirmed the accuracy of the boxing great's account of their meeting and said he felt Ali's position on the draft "was consistent with his principles, and he paid a price by losing some of the best years of his career after the was stripped of his title."
(Ali’s conviction for refusal to register for the armed forces was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970 in an 8-to-0 ruling; he subsequently won back his former title by defeating heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1974).
Mike Reagan shared another story of his association with Ali. On Sundays following church services, Nelle Reagan, his grandmother, was a faithful visitor to the Olive View Hospital in Simi Valley, California to visit the tuberculosis patients she called "my boys." Years after her death, the hospital decided to give an annual "Nelle Reagan Award" to people who give of themselves to those who are ailing.
"And I had the distinct honor of presenting that award to Muhammad Ali," Mike Reagan recalled, "Like my grandmother, he did so much for so many in need and made their lives better."
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