As Hollywood goes, few have the kind of insight into what it was like to be Muhammad Ali than Will Smith. Earning his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the boxer in 2001’s Ali, Smith for years turned down the role, even when Ali, who died Friday evening in Arizona, and his family urged him.
“Intellectually, I didn’t feel that I possessed what it took to become Muhammad Ali,” Smith told Tavis Smiley, a special correspondent for ABC News’ Primetime that year. “I absolutely, positively did not want to be the dude that messed up the Muhammad Ali story.”
Last December at Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsperson of the Year ceremony, where its Legacy Award was renamed the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, Smith spoke about why Ali exemplifies “the true definition of greatness” and recalled his time making that movie.
“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,” Smith said. “And that’s really what makes my job so beautiful as an actor — for four, five months at a time I get to wear peoples’ 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 in his life, to the beautiful wake that he always leaves in his magnificent path.”
“What I learned about the word legacy,” he continued, “is that it extends far beyond our professional accomplishments; it extends far beyond accolades. Muhammad Ali is a champion for civil rights. He is a champion in the fight against injustice. He is a champion for utilizing whatever tools he has to make the world a better place.”
See Smith’s full statement in the video, below.