In 1990, Muhammad Ali embarked on a goodwill tour to the Middle East. This garnered criticism from the U.S. government, a reaction Ali was certainly used to.

by Madilyn Zeegers 

Muhammad Ali has always represented more than an athlete. He’s likely the greatest boxer ever — depending on who you ask, he’s either the best all-time or at the very least, in the top three. But what made Ali so iconic wasn’t just his in-ring performance and legendary battles, as great as those were. He was also an activist and inspirational figure for millions. 

Ali’s history of activism has been well-documented. There was one case where he used his considerable clout to step in and diffuse an international incident. Here’s how Ali once paved the way for the freeing of 15 U.S. hostages in the early ’90s.

Muhammad Ali’s History With Activism

Muhammad Ali during a visit to help secure the release of hostages | Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

While Ali hasn’t been the only athlete in history to take a courageous stance regarding his personal beliefs, he was one of the most prominent to do it. Ali served as something of a template for future generations of athletes speaking out on where they saw injustice. 

The most famous stand Ali took was his 1967. He refused induction into the U.S. Army due to his anti-Vietnam War stance as well as his religious beliefs as a devout Muslim.

What made Ali’s stand even more remarkable was his status as a black Muslim man in America. As pointed out in an NPR story on Ali’s activism, black athletes such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson who paved the way for Ali were supposed to “turn the other cheek” in the face of oppression and vile racism.

Ali was the first prominent black Muslim athlete to defiantly hold to his beliefs, no matter what treatment he faced as a result of that. That’s certainly no knock on the revolutionary figures of Owens and Robinson — if anything, their sacrifices paved the way for Ali to act as he did, just like Ali paved the way for others in the future. 

For Ali, his name and his legacy were about more than his in-ring accomplishments. According to the man himself.

“I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer…More than just the three-time heavyweight champion. I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.”

Some of Ali’s charitable and humanitarian efforts included: 

  • Working with the Special Olympics as well as the Make-A-Wish Foundation
  • Serving with the United Nations as one of their “Messengers of Peace”
  • Bringing humanitarian aid to nations such as Cuba and the Ivory Coast
  • Making goodwill trips to both Afghanistan and North Korea

Clearly, Ali was never one to shy away from the spotlight for a just cause. 

Helping Free 15 U.S. Hostages From Iraq

In 1990, Muhammad Ali embarked on a goodwill tour to the Middle East. This garnered criticism from the U.S. government, a reaction Ali was certainly used to.

Ali arrived in Baghdad and waited almost a week to meet with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. This was six years’ after Ali’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, so he was not in the best of health. This was also only six weeks prior to the Gulf War, so to call U.S.-Iraqi relations icy at the moment would be a severe understatement. 

Hussein had already invaded Kuwait and had also captured 15 U.S. citizens, using them as human shields. Ali finally met with Hussein and returned to the U.S. with all 15 hostages in tow.

The eruption of a U.S.-Iraq skirmish mere weeks later makes it unclear whether the hostages would have survived, so Ali’s timing was fortuitous. It’s no surprise he was able to make this happen — Ali was legendary for his charm and way with people.

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