Donald Trump Reflects on his Relationship With ‘the Greatest’

Donald J. Trump accepts an award from Muhammad Ali in 2007 at Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night XIII in Phoenix, Ariz. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)
Donald J. Trump accepts an award from Muhammad Ali in 2007 at Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night XIII in Phoenix, Ariz. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

As he reflected on Saturday on the death of Muhammad Ali, Donald J. Trump gushed, calling him a “terrific guy,” “so generous,” and an “amazing poet.”

“He was two people,” Mr. Trump said of Ali in an interview. “In the ring, he was fierce, and outside of the ring, he was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.”

The presumptive Republican nominee’s kind words were not just an obligatory salute to an iconic figure.

The two men had been friendly for many years, dating back at least to the 1980s. Ali attended Mr. Trump’s 2005 wedding to Melania Knauss in Palm Beach, Fla., and Mr. Trump appeared at Ali’s charity events.

Late last year, though, there appeared to be a chill in their mutual admiration after Ali issued a statement that seemed to criticize Mr. Trump’s call to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the United States.

It was Ali’s famous fight against Joe Frazier in March 1971 that Mr. Trump credits for spawning his interest in boxing as a young man, an event Mr. Trump recounted over the years and again on Saturday.

“It was the greatest sporting event that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Trump said, recalling that “people had a heart attack” while witnessing the 15-round bout won by Mr. Frazier at Madison Square Garden. (One fan did die of a heart attack.) “There was more energy in the room than I’ve ever seen.”

Mr. Trump was heavily involved in the boxing world for a number of years, often hosting fights at his casinos. In 1988, he threw a birthday party for Ali with 500 guests in Atlantic City. In 1991, Newsday reported at the time, he left a divorce negotiation with Ivana Trump to speak at an awards dinner for Ali in New Jersey, then returned.

Over the years, Ali presented Mr. Trump with at least two awards honoring his charitable work. At a 2007 auction to benefit the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, the winning bidder offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a meal with Mr. Trump.

“It was like a huge amount,” Mr. Trump said on Saturday. At first, he recalled it being “three-hundred-some-odd-thousand dollars,” then raised it to “a half-a-million dollars or something like that.” (According to one write-up of the event, it was $350,000.)

The presidential candidate said Ali had taught him about diversity and called him an “amazing example of strength and kindness and ability and athleticism.”

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