The famous fighter had an extreme fear of flying — and now there's an airport named in his honor.

By Stacey Leasca
January 17, 2019
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Muhammad Ali arrives in England on May 9, 1966.
Wilson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

This week, the city of Louisville made the decision to rename its airport Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport in honor of the boxing great. Normally, nobody would bat an eye, (who wouldn’t want their airport named after the champ?), but this story comes with a bit of a twist as it turns out Ali was deathly afraid of stepping foot on airplanes.

The fear of flying is a well-documented phobia. For many, the act of stepping on a plane can bring on the jitters and perhaps cause sweaty palms or even an anxiety attack while on board. People with extreme cases might even avoid flying altogether. But for those who need to travel long distances for their jobs, not flying just isn’t an option. And one of those people happened to be Ali.

Ali’s intense fear of flying was rather understandable. According to Ali’s own 1975 biography, "The Greatest: My Own Story," which The Washington Post recently resurfaced, his fear developed after he experienced turbulence so bad it sent plane equipment flying.

“Many times I’ve searched my mind to find where the fear originated,” he wrote, explaining the death-defying one-hour flight from Louisville to Chicago. According to Ali, “some of the seats were torn from their bolts on the floor.”

And Ali wasn’t exaggerating. Joe Martin, his one-time coach, noted in Jonathan Eig’s "Ali: A Life," “I really thought it was our last ride... and I mean Cassius was praying and hollering! Oh, man, he was scared to death.”

That flight caused a life-long fear in Ali. According to The Washington Post, he even once told reporters, “I’m not afraid of the fight. I’m afraid of the flight.”

However, as a world-famous fighter, Ali had to fly. So, he did the only logical thing: He bought a parachute.

“He went to an army supply store and bought a parachute and actually wore it on the plane,” Joe Martin Jr., Martin’s son, noted. He reportedly took it on board every flight with him.

However, his greatest battle with his fear would come during the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Not only did Ali have to be convinced by his coaches to travel for the games, but he even had to be convinced by the U.S. Air Force.

“What I was afraid of most was the plane crashing, and nothing would satisfy me until I called the Air Force and asked them to give me a record of plane flights between Rome and America,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They said they couldn’t even remember the last time one had crashed. That calmed me down enough to take the flight to Rome.”

In the end he did get on the plane, and as you surely know, he won.

If you have a fear of flying, don’t worry, you don’t need to compete in the Olympics to get over it like Ali did. Just follow these 12 simple steps to getting rid of your fear of flying

Advertisement