When Muhammad Ali preached Islam in a remote Quebec mining town

In 1983 Ali visited Rouyn-Noranda, a small town with a population of less than 30,000 people. For $50 per ticket, the experience was bittersweet for audience members.

They came to hear stories of his boxing career, but got a lecture about Islam instead

Ali was in Rouyn-Noranda, Qc, June 13 and 14, 1983. (Voir Ali/Documentary)

In 1983 Muhammad Ali climbed the stage of a packed sports complex in Rouyn-Noranda, a small Quebec town that is a seven-hour drive northwest of Montreal.

Few could believe the champ had chosen this remote mining town, of all places, to visit. They gathered eagerly, expecting to hear Ali talk of his storied boxing career.

But they got something else entirely. 

Earlier that year, two representatives from the Championnats sportifs québécois, now known as the Quebec Games, travelled all the way to Beverly Hills to convince Ali to visit Rouyn-Noranda. 

It was a long shot, but then so was Ali when he first faced Sonny Liston.

Martin Guérin — the director of a 2010 documentary, Voir Ali, that chronicles the visit — said the two Quebecers approached Ali at his home in California.

"There were people from Playboy, athletes, tons of people," Guérin told Radio-Canada. "Against all odds the triple champion accepted their proposal."

He added that Ali agreed to spend 48 hours in Rouyn-Noranda for far less than the "$300,000, $400,000 or even $1 million" that was his standard appearance fee at the time.

The Greatest in Rouyn-Noranda

When Ali arrived in the town of about 28,000 people in mid-June he took the time to tour their hydroelectric project and meet with local figures. 

On June 14, the local sports complex was jammed with people who had paid $50 per ticket to hear Ali speak.

But they didn't hear anecdotes or stories of Ali's journey to becoming one of the world's greatest athletes. This overwhelmingly francophone and Roman Catholic town heard about Islam instead.

"We wanted him to talk about his boxing career, of his great moments as a boxer," said Jean-Paul Charlebois, one of the organizers who travelled to Ali's California home and convinced him to make the trip. 

It was a speech focused on religion and there were a lot of references to racism, but nothing about boxing. There was absolutely nothing about boxing- Organizer Jean-Paul Charlebois

That was the deal they made with Ali's agent: a talk about boxing. The stage at the Rouyn-Noranda arena was even made to look like a boxing ring. 

"But he decided that night, with his entourage, to be the black preacher," Charlebois said. "It was a speech focused on religion and there were a lot of references to racism, but nothing about boxing. There was absolutely nothing about boxing." 

To make matters worse, the charity event ended up losing money. 

"The whole thing wasn't linear," Guérin said. "The way it happened was surreal."

Ali on Islam and tolerance

But despite what organizers and ticket holders may have wanted, speaking about Islam was perfectly in character for the heavyweight icon.

After his boxing career ended Ali often lectured on Islam. He even did so during his career.

It's widely believed that Ali's conversion to Islam in the early 1960s followed the same reasoning as Malcolm X's — that Islam was a religion free of the white bigotry which many associated with American Christianity at the time.

During his suspension from professional boxing for refusing the U.S. military draft, Ali lectured on the subject of Islam for about three years starting in 1967.

In his retirement he took up the practice again. Ali often made speeches about peace and tolerance around the world.

He also spoke for Islam in the face of mainstream ire following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"People say a Muslim caused this destruction," Ali told Reader's Digest at the time.

"I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims, permitting this murder of thousands." 

More recently, when Donald Trump announced that the U.S. should ban Muslims from entering the country, Ali issued an official response, though without mentioning the Republican candidate directly.

"I am Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people," Ali said in the statement. 

with files from Radio-Canada