Muhammad Ali, one of history’s most famous and renowned athletes, was known for many things, including his boxing ability, civil rights activism, opposition to the Vietnam war and his sharp wit. As extroverted as the Louisville, Kentucky, native was, a relatively unknown story about Ali reemerged soon after his death in 2016.
In January 1981, reports emerged of a suicidal man threatening to jump from a building in Los Angeles. According to The New York Times, a photographer for The Los Angeles Times went to the scene to find a young Black man in jeans and a hoodie, perched on an office-building fire escape nine floors above.
The man, who was described as “Joe” in subsequent reports, was shouting “I’m no good” and “I’m going to jump!” According to police, he “seemed to think he was in Vietnam — with the Viet Cong coming at him.” A crowd gathered below, with many of them goading him to jump, while police officers, a psychiatrist, and a clergyman leaned out of a nearby window imploring him to come inside.
Ali’s friend happened to be at the scene and alerted Ali, who showed up a few minutes later. The photographer watched Ali run into the building, took photographs of him talking to Joe and coaxing him back inside. One such photograph was shared by the Los Angeles Times, decades later:
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) June 4, 2016
In a WBUR podcast, Bruce Hagerty, a Los Angeles police officer who was present at the scene, described how Ali stepped in:
It got pretty nasty down below, there was a crowd of , 300 people […] They were chanting, “Jump! Jump!” So that kinda got tense, it was awful […] The man was agitated and not being reasonable, and you can’t reason with unreasonable people, so we were concerned that he may in fact jump.
We saw a Rolls Royce drive up […] Muhammad Ali came out and shook my hand, and we talked a little bit, made kind of a game plan, and some kinda rules of engagement, we didn’t want him to grab the guy or do any of that kind of stuff. So he went up there, talked to the man, and kept him in conversation for some time […] He was kind of the last resort, I didn’t have any tools in my toolbox, he was kind of a gift.
[…] When they came down Ali said that he had promised the man a ride in his Rolls Royce. […] I said yeah, he can [ride with him] as long as we have a police officer in the car as well.
Ali reportedly said to the man, “You’re my brother! I love you, and I couldn’t lie to you.” He made his way to the fire escape, put an arm around Joe, and guided him inside. They got into Ali’s car and after a stop at the police station, drove to a psychiatric ward at the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital.
Hagerty said he had no idea what happened to the young man after that. “Nobody really knows what the guy’s name was,” he said, after a movie producer called him decades later wanting to cover the story.
According to a CBS News report from 1981, which showed video of the event, Joe appeared to recognize Ali, and opened the fire escape window for him. The whole conversation took 20 minutes.
However, according to The New York Times, it was later discovered that Joe was only 21 years old (too young to have served in Vietnam) and was “badly disturbed,” according to police reports. At a news conference later that day, Ali said he was going to buy Joe some clothes and drive the man to his home state of Michigan. It isn’t known if they actually made the trip.
Given that there is video and photographic evidence of the event, as well as news and police reports from the time, we rate this claim as “True.”
For anyone who is struggling, help is available 24 hours a day at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which you can reach at 1-800-273-8255.