Mohammed and Lonnie Ali

February 27, 2012

The Greatest (Endeavor) of All Time

Lonnie Ali (’86) supports social causes as wife and manager of Muhammad Ali

By David Davis

(Photo courtesy Celebrity Fight Night)

Editor's Note: With the 2012 London Olympics fast approaching, this is the first in a series of articles about UCLA Anderson alumni with Olympian connections.

As an undergrad at Vanderbilt University, Yolanda "Lonnie" Ali, (nee Williams) set her sights on becoming a clinical psychologist. But needing money for graduate school, she took a job as a sales rep with Kraft Foods.

Three-and-a-half years later, her experience at Kraft persuaded her to switch her career course. She decided to pursue an MBA with an emphasis in marketing, and then climb the corporate ladder as a brand manager. She enrolled at UCLA Anderson because, she says, "I figured an MBA from UCLA would give me an edge. I could go back to Kraft and have a jump on everyone else." Ali graduated from Anderson in 1986.

At UCLA, Ali found a vibrant atmosphere, whether she was hanging out with fellow MBA candidates or taking Dr. Richard Stern's standing-room-only statistic courses. "The process of things that we did at UCLA was so useful," she says. "They made us work in groups, and I was like, 'Why are we doing this?' I didn't realize how important working in groups, and managing groups, was until I came to UCLA."

While Williams was earning her MBA, she was re-connecting with a childhood friend, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was living in Los Angeles at the time. They first met as neighbors in Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after Cassius Clay, as he was known then, powered his way to the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He was, Lonnie remembers, "this beautiful, very charismatic athlete - a Greek god almost - in the way he was built and the way he moved."

Four years later, after the "Louisville Lip" captured the heavyweight title with an upset victory over Sonny Liston, he shocked the sports world by embracing Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. When he refused to fight in the Vietnam War on religious grounds, he was ostracized and stripped of the championship belt, only to regain it with an upset victory over George Foreman in 1974.

Ali's efforts in the ring took an enormous physical toll. By the time he retired in 1981, he was displaying the hand tremors and slurred speech associated with Parkinson's disease. Lonnie began to care for him while studying at UCLA. Her pursuit of an MBA became their shared dream.

"Muhammad was the one who pushed me to go through school," Lonnie says. "From the time I left high school, he was behind me."

The two married in 1986. By then, Lonnie had decided not to return to Kraft or corporate America. Instead, she became the brand manager for the business of Muhammad Ali - an entity she refers to as "Corporate Ali."

Bringing order to her husband's chaotic, far-flung business affairs was her first accomplishment. Lonnie created a corporation called G.O.A.T., a reference to her husband's oft-repeated boast about being the "Greatest of All-Time," and began to clear up copyright, contractual and other legal entanglements. She acquainted herself with the boxing realm, she says, but soon realized that her husband "represented much more than boxing. He was a global brand."

Figuring out how to market her husband - and what kind of products to associate him with - was her next challenge. As a Muslim, Ali could not endorse alcohol or tobacco products or be associated with gambling or casinos. With his speech beginning to falter, he could not appear in many commercials or cash in on the speaking circuit.

"I was limited in what I could do, so it was about trying to find that niche in the market where Muhammad fit," she says. "I always viewed Muhammad as a blue chip company. He was tried and true. He stood for something. He had values and integrity. And, sometimes, that's more important than the tangible."

In 1996, a global television audience numbering in the billions watched transfixed as Ali, arms trembling, lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics. His dramatic return to the Olympic family, Lonnie says, "re-awoke the world to Muhammad Ali. It created a firestorm of goodwill. Here you had this aging man with the affliction of Parkinson's: You saw his tremor and the courage he showed in revealing his struggle with Parkinson's. That made him come alive among people who had never seen him fight - younger people - who decided they wanted to find out more about him."

Indeed, despite his health issues, Ali remained culturally relevant. A film about his knockout over Foreman, entitled "When We Were Kings," won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1996. A bio-pic about Ali in 2001 earned actor Will Smith an Academy Award nomination. In 2004, Taschen Books published an oversized photography book about his career, also entitled "G.O.A.T."

Lonnie's most inspired creation was the planning and building of the Muhammad Ali Center. The museum and education complex, which opened in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, on November 20, 2005, revolves around six core values of the boxer's life: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality.

The Center is "his legacy to pass on to generations to come," Lonnie says. "It's about the preservation of the values of Muhammad Ali: Here was a man who walked the earth and who knew the big lessons in life that God put us here to learn. It was important for us to put this Center in its physical form before he passed away, so that Muhammad could be part of the fabric of the institution."

Lonnie continued to manage G.O.A.T. until 2006, when the company was sold to CKX (which also owns the rights to Elvis Presley and Graceland). Since then, the couple have devoted themselves to social philanthropy, through programming at the non-profit Ali Center and through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The latter effort supports research to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.

Their forays into the non-profit realm, Lonnie says, stir memories of her experience at UCLA. "I used to wonder, why are these people going to business school to study the non-profit world?" she says. "What I learned since being out of Anderson and being associated with non-profits is that you need to run a non-profit like it is a for-profit business. You're using the same skills and tools."

At 70, Muhammad Ali remains an Olympic legend. He has also achieved financial stability - in no small part because of his powerhouse wife. "I'm most proud of the fact that I built the business from the ground up," she says, "based on the value of giving back and integrity. What I learned at UCLA was so important for what I wanted to do, and what I ended up doing."

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