In 1990, boxing icon Muhammad Ali was not the formidable fighter he once was but he was still a powerful figure. Using his legendary status and his own goodwill, Ali helped secure the release of 15 U.S. hostages taken by late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.
The August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq had the world’s attention, and it was inevitable that the United States would ultimately intervene. The United Nations passed a resolution that Iraqi forces leave Kuwait and demanded a release of hostages.
Sensing this, Hussein took several hostages. He kept 15 of them in various buildings that would have been prime targets for American air strikes. The harrowing ordeal played out in major media of the time, as Hussein was staunchly against negotiation.
Muhammad Ali, perhaps the world’s most recognizable Muslim, traveled to Baghdad on November 23, 1990. Ali was 48 at the time and had begun suffering the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Ali’s peace mission was criticized by President George H.W. Bush and the media where columnists taking cheap shots at the Hall of Fame fighter’s weakened physical state.
After nearly a week in Iraq, Ali fell ill after he ran out of medicine. Despite barely being able to walk, Ali was granted an audience with Hussein on November 29. At the meeting, the Iraqi president promised to free some of the hostages. But Ali was ultimately able to secure the freedom of all 15 hostages and they returned home on December 2.
While American media continued to slam his diplomatic efforts, the freed hostages were more than gracious in thanking Ali. In later conversations, Ali said he didn’t travel to Iraq for glory and did not want much more made out of what he accomplished.
Despite his humility, the incident was transformed into an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary in 2013.