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Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, joined Winfrey, Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith prior to the film’s release in the fall of 2001. As the global icon was welcomed to the stage and approached Smith, the two jokingly positioned their arms and legs into boxing form, and the actor pretended to be hit by the boxing legend before embracing him with a hug.
Following an “Ali” chant from the audience, Winfrey asked the sports star about Smith’s portrayal of him in the film: “How do you think Will did in this movie?”
“He scared me,” the three-time world heavyweight champion replied.
“Did he get your moves right?” Winfrey wondered, to which Ali jokingly jabbed back, “What moves?” and added, “He’s not as dumb as he looks.”
“It’s a humble feeling,” Ali said of having a movie made about his life.
Smith, who scored a leading actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali, remarked of portraying the sports star, “the greatest of all times. The champ looked at me and gave me the nod that I did a good job. I worked as hard as I could possibly have worked.”
Fourteen years later, Smith presented the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award to Jack Nicklaus at Sports Illustrated‘s annual Sportsperson of the Year dinner. The actor said of the boxing great, “Some of you might know, I have a very unique connection with The Champ. We all know the stats and we know the records inside the ring; there’s no doubt he was a great boxer. He was the greatest of all time.
“But when we think about the legacy of Muhammad Ali, what he did in the ring is not what we think about,” Smith continued. “For nearly two years, I worked to transform myself into the man who changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and shook up the world. That’s really what makes my job so beautiful as an actor. For four or five months at a time, I get to wear people’s lives, so I got to wear Muhammad Ali’s greatness. I got to study and feel and embody the soul of the man … from the foundations of Islam and the strength of his Muslim faith and his life to the beautiful wake that he always leaves in his magnificent path.”
Smith referred to Ali as a “champion” for numerous causes and regarded him as “the true definition of greatness.”
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