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Aretha Franklin

If you didn’t know, Aretha Franklin was a lifelong boxing fan

She watched Joe Louis growing up and was close friends with Muhammad Ali

As we mourn the loss of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, there is a relatively unknown chapter of her life that her fans of her music might not know about. She was one of the great boxing aficionados of her day.

The Queen’s favorite pastime was watching boxing matches. Her lifelong interest in boxing began when she was a child. She used to sit for hours with her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, in front of the television, eating ice cream and watching the fights. “I’ve loved boxers since I was a little girl. I kept up with Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Johnny Bratton, Kid Gavilan, Archie Moore, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and so many, many others. I met Sugar Ray Robinson at the Hollywood Bowl once. That was a real treat. When I was a child, I used to think he was so handsome.”

Her commitment to the sport and its stars played out throughout her life.

This love of boxing and commitment to the struggle of her people would bring together the Queen and The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. They were very close friends from early in his career. She supported him during his stance against the Vietnam War and his subsequent ban from boxing. And she was there when he was granted a license to return to the sport. Franklin was among the many star performers at Zaire ’74, a three-day music festival leading up to the heavyweight championship fight between George Foreman and Ali in Africa.

In 1975, she was a guest star on The Muhammad Ali Variety Special, a star-studded television show. On Sept. 26, 1976, she was a part of the NBC TV Big Event series along with Ali and top heavyweight challenger Ken Norton. They were the stars of one of three big parties televised from New York — in their case, Madison Square Garden, where Ali and Norton battled for the heavyweight championship two days later. The Queen was one of many luminaries at the premiere of Ali’s movie, The Greatest, in 1977.

During the 1980s, when boxing title fights began to shift from 15 rounds to 12, the longtime fan of the sport said, “Fifteen is better — gives you that little more excitement, and they have to be in really good shape to go 15. It’s over a little too soon at 12. But the, I also love one- and two-round knockouts. The element of surprise! I love it.”

In 1987, she was very impressed by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. “He’s awesome, totally awesome. When he knocks guys over they look like trees falling. Their knees don’t buckle or anything. They just go sideways.” She would continue to follow Tyson’s career until he retired in 2005.

The Queen had a special love for pugilism in her own city, Detroit, the Motor City. She loved the Kronk gym, legendary trainer Emanuel Steward and one of the greatest to ever lace up a pair of gloves, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns. On March 7, 1987, she sang the national anthem the night Hearns knocked out Dennis Andries to become only the 12th man in boxing history to win world championships in three weight classes. Twenty-five years later she would sing at her friend Steward’s memorial service.

On Nov. 9, 2005, Franklin shared the platform with Ali again as they both received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. During her 2015 concert in Los Angeles, she stopped and shared her love of boxing with her fans and invited former champion “Sugar” Shane Mosley, who was preparing for his Aug. 29 fight at The Forum versus Ricardo Mayorga, onto the stage. When Ali died in 2016, Franklin shared that they had a beautiful relationship. They collaborated through the years, at charities and at shows, and she said she went to almost all of his fights.

As we and the world mourn the loss of the physical life of the Queen of Soul, we know that her voice, her love, her support and her charity will never be forgotten. We close in saluting her with the honor of a well-deserved final 10 count. The Queen was also a champ.

Nasir Muhammad is an Atlanta historian, researcher, and lecturer. He operates Black Mecca of the South Tours. He is completing 100 Amazing Facts About Black Atlanta: A Requiem to J. A Rogers (2019) and a co-producing the documentary Fight & Pray: The Story of Tiger Flowers.