Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 8) Final.

The greatest.

“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

Surprise, surprise. Ali didn’t retire. Three months later he defended his title against a little known Belgium fighter called Jean – Pierre Coopman. Ali knocked him out in the fifth round. He had four fights in 1976 and two in 1977. He won them all and of course, me and dad were there at the cinema to watch him do it.

Ali had transcended boxing. He was the most recognised man on the planet. I’m sure if you found a long lost tribe somewhere in the remote Amazon rainforest and showed them his photo, they would have smiled and said “Ali.”

In those two years, I had my first holiday abroad, passed not only my driving test but also my Butchery exams and became a “Master Butcher”. I was no longer working for my boss Roy. He had gone off to pastures new and I was renting the shop from him. At nineteen, I was running my own business. And I was still drinking Lager….

Dad continued with the fish stall and was working hard. Mum helped out by boiling live crabs in the kitchen and working on the stall at weekends.

Dad was driving a Ford Corsair and I was driving an Austin Cambridge. Ali could have had any car he wanted.

On 15th February 1978 we went to see Ali fight a little known boxer called Leon Spinks. Me and Dad had never heard of him and thought Ali would despatch him in just a few rounds.

We sat there in disbelief as we watched this young kid take on an out of shape Ali and beat him. When the fight ended after fifteen rounds we were both convinced that Spinks had done enough to win. We were right. Ali had lost his title.

The question now was, not just WOULD he come back, but COULD he?

The answer was obvious really. The world wanted the rematch and would pay good money to see it. Leon Spinks knew that no other fighter in the world could give him the payday that he wanted. So the rematch was arranged for 15th September 1978. It took place in New Orleans and broke all box office and attendance records.

In the space of the two fights I got engaged to a girl from East Ham. We set the wedding day for March 1979.

Ali got himself in shape but the fight was disappointing. At the end of fifteen rounds Ali was easily the winner. He won by a unanimous decision. He was the first man ever to win the Heavyweight title three times. That was it. He’d once again done the impossible. Now surely he would retire.

Ali took his time deciding, but in July 1979 came the announcement we’d expected. Muhammad Ali had retired from boxing.

Me and dad gave a sigh of relief. It was time. He’d done everything, beat everyone and won every title there was. His body had suffered enough. They were great fights to watch but they were life threatening bouts for those involved. Yep it was most definitely time.

The world turned and me and dad got on with our lives even though someone was missing. We still loved boxing and went to all the big fights but it wasn’t the same. Ali wasn’t there.

By the time mid 1980 came along, I was married, had bought a house, had a large mortgage, had an Old English Sheepdog, came out of the Butchery trade and was working for the Post office.

Dad had given up the fish stall and was working as a driver for Harvey’s Curtains, where mum just happened to be the tea lady.

Life had changed dramatically for me and dad since Cassius Clay fought Henry Cooper all those years ago in 1963.

The Heavyweight division was being dominated by Larry Holmes. He was beating everyone and looked like the perfect heir to Ali’s throne.

So it came as a bit of a shock when I was at work having a tea break and heard the news on the radio.

“Muhammad Ali is coming out of retirement to face Larry Holmes in October.”

I couldn’t wait for the day to end. I didn’t go straight home to my wife that night. I went back to mum and dads.  He looked at me as I walked in.

“I knew you’d be here. I told mum earlier. He’ll be here.”

Mum pushed a cup of tea in front of me, then left me and dad to talk boxing. I started.

“Why dad? Why does he want to come back? It’s nonsense. Holmes is in his prime, he’s almost ten years younger, he’s quick and strong. He’ll kill him.”

Dad agreed.

“I don’t think he can give it up son. He believes he’s invincible.”

We went to Gants Hill Cinema in Ilford on October 2nd 1980 to see Larry Holmes take on Muhammad Ali. Hoping for the impossible to happen, but deep down expecting the worse.

We watched in absolute horror as Holmes hit Ali with everything he had and a hardly received a punch in return. It was the most one sided fight I have ever seen. At first we thought he was doing his usual Rope a Dope, where he leaned back on the ropes and encouraged his opponent to hit him hoping to tire him out. But this was different. He just took more and more punishment. It was a miracle that he lasted as long as he did. His trainer Angelo Dundee finally called a halt to the fiasco in the eleventh round.

The actor Sylvester Stallone who was at ringside said “It was like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive.”

At the age of twenty-two, I sat in the cinema with my head in my hands and tears in my eyes. I couldn’t look at dad in fear of breaking down.

It was most definitely the end of something really, really special.

Despite the battering, and the world praying him not to, Ali boxed on. He had one more fight fourteen months later against Trevor Berbick.  It was the only fight me and dad didn’t want to see, so we stayed away. Ali was beat in ten rounds. He never fought again.

Our hero died on the 3rd June 2016. He wasn’t a saint as some would have us believe, but he was a great man. He stood up for his beliefs and proved to the world that if you try hard enough you can be anything you want to be. One thing is for sure he was “The Greatest” boxer the world has ever seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 7)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

1975 was a year of change for me, dad and Ali.

Ali changed his religion from The Nation Of Islam to mainstream Sunni Muslim.

Dad became a self-employed man at 44. He opened up his first seafood stall outside a pub in Essex.

Me? I changed from drinking Light and Bitter to Lager…

It was also the year that The War in Vietnam ended. The North took the South and the Americans left. It seemed Ali was right all along.

As one war ended another one started. The UK was at war with Iceland. Over Cod!

The film Jaws was released and an American gangster called Jimmy Hoffa went missing.

Oh, and a certain lady called Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative party.

The one thing that remained the same was boxing. Ali kept fighting and me and dad kept watching.

He took five months off then had three fights in 1975. He won them all but didn’t look that impressive. I was beginning to think that the gruelling fights with Frazier and Foreman had taken their toll.

Then the news came that he was to fight Joe Frazier for the third time. In the Philippines!

A date was set for 1st October 1975.

During the build-up Ali came up with a poem to sum up the fight. “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that Gorilla in Manilla.”

The papers loved it and the fight became known as The Thrilla In Manilla.

Me and dad had a long discussion about the fight one night while mum was at bingo. I believed Ali would win easily.

“Frazier’s only had two fights since Ali beat him eighteen months ago. He won them both but they were weak opponents. He’s not the same fighter since Foreman destroyed him. I see Ali beating him in eight rounds.”

Dad wasn’t so optimistic.

“Yeh but look at Ali. He’s had more fights but hasn’t looked impressive since he beat Foreman. I think it goes the distance but Ali wins on points.”

So we were both sure Ali would win, but not convinced that it would be a great fight.

Boy…were we wrong.

Another sell out at the cinema in Ilford. Dad had coconut ice and I had the sherbet bon bons. It was just like old days. As the Master Of Ceremonies introduced them, they both looked in great shape. Ali was taller and heavier that Frazier with a big reach advantage. But everyone knew that Frazier could hit and hit hard.

When they met in the centre of the ring for the referee’s instructions you could hear Ali taunting Frazier.

“You aint got it no more Joe, I’m gonna put you away.”

Frazier took no notice. He just smiled and as he walked back to his corner he muttered.

“We’ll see.”

The bell rang and they came out quickly. Frazier was always a notoriously slow starter and Ali jabbed away with his left scoring good points. He then threw two or three right hands in quick succession and Frazier had no answer. Ali won the first two rounds easily. In the third he tried the tactic that had worked against Foreman, where he leaned against the ropes and encouraged his opponent to hit him, hoping he would tire. Now known as the Rope a dope, Frazier was ready for it and landed hard solid hurting punches to Ali’s body. This continued for the next three rounds.

In the sixth, Frazier caught Ali with a tremendous left hook, Ali slumped back on the ropes, he was quickly hit with another left and looked like he might go down. But he didn’t and the bell rang for the end of round. Seven and eight were hard, gruelling rounds for both fighters, each throwing and landing big accurate shots. At the end of the ninth Ali looked visibly tired as he walked back to his stool. He told his corner “Man this is the closest thing to dying!”

In the tenth and eleventh we watched as both men gave everything they had. Frazier’s eyes were swelling and it was obvious that he couldn’t see some of the punches that Ali was throwing. Ali was tiring, he’d thrown hundreds of punches but Frazier just wouldn’t go down. In the thirteenth and fourteenth Ali piled on the pressure, hitting Frazier with everything he had. Punch after punch landed cleanly into Frazier face, but he just kept coming back. Before the bell rang for the start of the fifteenth it was obvious that Frazier couldn’t continue. His trainer signalled to the referee to say his fighter wasn’t coming out for the final round. Frazier was begging him to continue. But the fight was over.

Once again me and dad had witnessed history being made. We’d just seen the greatest Heavyweight Boxing match the world had ever seen.

At home drinking tea at 6am before we both went to work having had no sleep, we were now sure that it was time for Ali to retire. He’d done it. He’d “Shook up the world.” Just like he said he would all those years ago. There was no one left to beat. He was without doubt “The Greatest.” and had nothing more to prove.

We just prayed that he agreed…

 

Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 6)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

Two months later and George Foreman was defending his World title against Ken Norton. This was the man that broke Ali’s jaw, took him the distance and beat him on points. Although Ali got his revenge in the rematch, it was a close fight and some thought Norton should have got the verdict.

Me and Dad did our usual and listened to the fight on the radio. I was convinced that Norton would put up a good show and last into the latter rounds. He was a big strong man with a granite chin who wouldn’t go down easily. Dad wasn’t so sure.

I was wrong. Foreman hit him so hard early in round two that Norton buckled and wobbled and tried to stay on his feet. But Forman kept on relentlessly and Norton went down twice before the referee decided to step in and stop it.

If me and dad were concerned about Ali before, now we were terrified. Foreman might just kill him.

Shortly afterwards it was announced that Ali would face Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire on 25th September 1974. The papers were calling it “The Rumble In The Jungle.” We couldn’t wait, but we had to, it was three months away.

The summer came and in August I had my first holiday away without mum and dad. A mate of mine was seventeen and his parents had a caravan at Selsey on the Sussex coast. He was seventeen and had just passed his driving test. His dad got him an old MK1 Cortina and so five of us headed off on holiday. We broke down before we even got out of London. Luckily one of the lads was an apprentice at Fords and with the help of the belt from my jeans, some chewing gum and an elastic band managed to get us going again.

What my mate had failed to tell any of us was that his girlfriend had rented the caravan next door. Her and four of her mates! I paired up quickly with a girl called Lisa. She was a year older than me and from Lewisham. For a week we were like boyfriend and girlfriend. This was the summer of “Kung Fu Fighting and Rock Your Baby.”

We spent most of the day in bed and in the evening we’d go out and drink and dance.

It was the best holiday I’d ever had. But when I got back dad had some bad news.

“It’s off. The fights been put back a month. Foreman got a cut in sparring so they’ve set a new date for October 30th.”

I didn’t swear much at that time, especially not in front of mum and dad, but I just couldn’t help it.

“Fuck, another month to wait.”

It might have been a long wait for me and dad, but Ali used it to his advantage. He toured the whole of Zaire making himself popular with the people. Everywhere he went they chanted his name. Soon the whole of Zaire was rooting for him. He encouraged them to shout “Ali. Bomaye”, which literally meant “Ali. Kill him.”

Once again the fight would be shown live at selected cinemas and this time our nearest venue was in Ilford. I was working full time and was earning reasonable money, so I decided to surprise dad and came home one evening with two tickets. Not just any old tickets. I’d asked my boss for an advance and bought two tickets in the front row! Dad’s face was a picture when I put them on the kitchen table. I think he was quite proud of his “little boy.”

As usual we were at the cinema waiting for the doors to open. We took our seats and waited for the undercard to begin. Once again it was a sell out and the majority of the audience were Ali supporters, all wanting him to win, but not really expecting it to happen.

Reg Gutteridge, a journalist from the London News and, for me and dad, the BEST boxing commentator ever, was doing the talking. “Tonight Ali has promised to do something special. He says he has a secret weapon. Let’s see what happens.”

The bell rang and Ali came out jabbing with his right hand and not his left, something he’d never done before. This confused Foreman and Ali scored well in the first couple of minutes but by the end of the round Foreman had adapted well. So round one to Ali.

In round two Ali did something that had never been seen before in boxing, especially at Heavyweight. He leaned back against the ropes, put his head into his chest and covered up with his arms, then encouraged George to hit him! Was he mad? Okay so Foreman could only hit his body and his arms but the punches would surely break his ribs. Foreman hit him with everything he had for a full thirty seconds, then Ali came back with a flurry of punches and moved away. This went on for the next three rounds. Ali taking punch after punch from Foreman and then throwing three or four of his own. I looked at dad.

“What’s he doing? Why is he letting Foreman hit him like that?”

Dad smiled.

“They’re not really scoring punches and he’s obviously trying to wear Foreman out. It’s risky, but it might just work.”

But Foreman dominated the fifth round. Throwing good solid accurate shots. But just before the bell rang Ali threw a number of punches that all landed cleanly and visibly shook Foreman, he looked tired when he went back to his corner.

Rounds six and seven saw Foreman throw more and more wild and desperate punches at Ali, most of them landing on arms and torso. Very few of them scoring points. Now Ali was taunting Foreman. Every time they were in a clinch you could hear him clearly saying “That all you got George?”

At the end of the seventh round Foreman went back to his corner looking a very tired man. Dad was on his feet.

“I think he’s got him.”

The bell sounded for round eight and Foreman came forward like he had in every round before, but his punches no longer had the same venom. He was an exhausted man. Then the thing that couldn’t possibly happen, happened!

Foreman had Ali on the ropes once again and was throwing wild rugged punches. Ali moved away quickly and as he did so threw a five punch combination quickly followed by a left hook that lifted Foreman’s head up only to be met with a crushing right hand from Ali. Foreman was off balance and exhausted. He crashed to the canvas.

He looked dazed and confused and rose to his feet at the count of nine. But too late, the referee had decided he’d had enough. It was over.

There was mayhem in the cinema. People were jumping up and down and shouting “Ali.Ali.Ali.”

I turned and hugged dad just as I has a little kid. A miracle had happened and we’d been there to witness it.

Even the commentator Reg Gutteridge couldn’t believe it. As the referee counted Foreman out he shouted “Oh my god. He’s won the title back at thirty-two!”

Me and dad were convinced that Ali would now retire as possibly the greatest Heavyweight the world had ever seen. There was no one left to beat. He’d dominated the Heavyweight division for a decade. We loved him and loved to see him fight but it was time to say goodbye.

But Ali had other plans….

 

 

 

Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 5)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

I heard him say the words but they didn’t really sink in.

He sat down at the kitchen table.

“Look, the fight’s in New York. Obviously we can’t go to New York and even if we could we’d never be able to afford the price of the tickets. But, there’s this new thing. Certain Cinemas around the country are going to show it live in the early hours of the morning. I’ve checked it out and East Ham Odeon is one of them. Tickets go on sale in a few days’ time. We’re going!”

To me, that was just as good as going to New York. I didn’t know what to say. It seemed unreal. We were going to see Ali fight LIVE. Not just any old fight, but THE fight. Ali v Frazier 2.

I don’t know how I got through the next few weeks but somehow I managed it. By the time my Birthday came I’d already left school and started full time in the Butchers shop learning the trade. My boss, Roy, enrolled me on a one day a week course at Butchery College in Smithfield.

Dad spent thirty-five pounds on two tickets for the fight. This was more than his weekly wage and I can only imagine what he and mum must have sacrificed to get them.

Fight day, and my birthday, was a Monday. That was my college day and I finished in London around 3pm. On the way home I stopped off at a record shop where my mate worked.  I always asked him to save me any new Soul albums that were released. That day there were three. Bobby Womack, Blue Magic and Love Unlimited Orchestra. I was indoors by 5pm. Dad was already home. For the next five hours we just sat and talked about the fight. My Birthday tea (and dad’s) was a massive piece of Rump steak and two eggs. Mum called it a dinner for Champions!

East Ham Odeon opened its doors at midnight and guess who were first in the queue.

Even though it was a non-title fight it was a sell-out. There was an undercard but to be honest no one was really watching it. Everyone just wanted to see the main event.

My boss from the Butchers shop, Roy, decided he wanted to come along and he bought a ticket from a tout outside. He was supposed to be seated a few rows behind us but he was the sort of bloke that you didn’t argue with and instead got someone to move and took a seat next to me. No booze was allowed in the Cinema but Roy came in with a 2 litre bottle of Coke under his coat. Half of it was Bacardi!

Dad was no drinker but I decided it would be good of me to help Roy out by drinking as much as I could. It all added to the excitement.

Finally, everyone took their seats and we waited for the fighters to appear. There were a few cheers for Frazier but the place erupted as Ali stepped into the ring.  He looked like a giant. He was four inches taller than Frazier and half a stone heavier. His reach was an impressive eighty-two inches, almost ten more than Frazier’s.  He was awesome.

And then it began.

Wow, Ali had completely changed his style of fighting. This was no quick jab and move around the ring. He threw a flurry of punches then grabbed Frazier around the head with one arm and held him tight in a clinch with the other. There was no way Frazier could punch him from close range. He won the first round. In round two he did the same and just before the bell caught Frazier with a great right hand. Everyone stood up thinking Frazier might just go down. But he didn’t and Ali won that round as well. His new style wasn’t pretty but it was working and Frazier was getting frustrated.

Me and dad were scoring every round on our programme. At the end of round six I asked dad what he thought.

“Four to Ali, one to Frazier and one even.”

I agreed. Exactly the same as me.

The second half of the fight saw Frazier win a few more rounds but when the final bell came we both had Ali in front. It was close but I had him winning it by two rounds while dad thought only one.

When the announcement came the referee held up Ali’s hand. He’d won it by a unanimous decision.

We left the stadium about 5am. I was exhausted and slightly drunk. But wow, what a night. Roy let me have the Tuesday morning off and I slept till midday. Dad didn’t, he had a few cups of tea then went to work.

It was all I could talk about for weeks after. When people asked me what I did for my birthday I would go on and on about the fight telling them every detail. I must have bored the pants off everyone. But it wasn’t just me. Dad was the same. We’d talk about it over tea most nights and discuss what Ali had to do to beat the “beast” George Foreman.

Both of us wanted Ali to get his title back, but we also realised that he would up against the meanest fighter on the planet who just happened to have the hardest punch in boxing. Ali had beaten Frazier on points, Foreman had literally destroyed him in two rounds.

Without really saying it, we were both worried that he could be seriously hurt. It was a fight that he couldn’t win. Or could he?

 

 

 

 

Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 4)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

Ali didn’t retire. Instead he had three more fights in 1971, winning them all. Including the man that held the title in his absence, Jimmy Ellis. Joe Frazier on the other hand didn’t fight again that year, some say because the Ali fight had taken so much out of him.

Along came 1972 and all our lives changed.

I was fourteen and started going out with girls. A date would usually consist of going to “The Pictures” or the local Wimpy Bar. I started drinking beer, (dad knew but mum didn’t) and I got my first job. A Saturday boy at a local Butchers shop. I did all day Saturday and helped them clear up three nights a week after school. I got paid £10 and took home a bag full of meat for the rest of the family. I was growing up fast.

Dad was made redundant from the local Gas works and got a job as a delivery driver for a local office furniture store. He loved it. No more shift work meant he left the house at seven thirty and was back sitting down to have tea with the rest of us at five o’clock.

Ali was on his second marriage and in 1972 his fourth child was born. Muhammad Ali Jnr. He also starred in his first film, Black Rodeo, where he rode a horse down 125th street in Harlem.

But the one thing that was constant was Boxing.

While Joe Frazier, the World Champion, only had two easy fights, Ali was fighting everyone they put in front of him. He fought in Canada, Japan, America and even came to Ireland to fight Alvin Lewis. He had seven fights in ten months and won them all. He had to beat one more contender then he would be ranked as the number one challenger. Everything looked set for a rematch with Frazier.

All Ali had to do was beat a guy called Ken Norton and all Frazier had to do was defend his title against George Foreman. Then the fight we’d all been waiting for could be set up for early 1973. Easy!

We had a New Year’s Eve Party to see out 1972 and welcome in 1973. Family, friends and neighbours were all invited. We must have had over forty people in our little council house and whilst the girls were dancing to Son Of My Father by Chicory Tip, the men were in the kitchen drinking beer and talking about boxing. Me included. I was just a few weeks away from my fifteenth birthday and dad let me have a few beers. There was cans of Party Seven scattered everywhere.

Everyone was convinced that Frazier would beat Foreman. Except dad.

“Frazier has been lazy for the past year. He’s only fought twice and that was against nobodies. Foreman is knocking everyone out. I know people are saying that he’s yet to meet anyone of Frazier’s standard, but he’s not just beating these guys, he’s destroying them. I think he’ll beat Frazier.”

For the first time EVER I couldn’t agree with dad.

“But Frazier beat Ali. He must beat Foreman!”

For the next hour, cheese and pineapple was eaten, beer was drunk, and the fight was discussed in depth. All through the haze of thick cigarette smoke.

At three o’clock in the morning I went to bed with the sound of Aunty Hilda singing Long Haired Lover from Liverpool at the top of her voice, accompanied by Uncle Vic on the spoons and Dad on the piano.

The Frazier V Foreman fight was just a few days before my fifteenth birthday. It was taking place in Kingston, Jamaica. Me and Dad did our usual and got ourselves comfortable in the front room. But times had changed. No more Cherryade and sweets, this time it was a few cans of Skol lager and crisps and peanuts. No more bets for Mars Bars, this time it was for a crisp five-pound note.

Dad won the fiver (though he never took it). Foremen destroyed Frazier in just two rounds. The referee stopped the fight after Frazier had been down for the SIXTH time.

Foreman was now being described as the most dangerous fighter on the planet. If Ali was to going to get his title back, he would have to fight the “beast” that was George Foreman.

Two months later and Ali is fighting Ken Norton in San Diego California. Me and Dad listen in disbelief as the fight goes the distance and Norton is declared the winner. When we read the headlines the next day we discover that in the early rounds Ali suffered an injury and fought most of the fight with a broken jaw. Once again people were talking about Ali retiring. One of the boxing journalists wrote “He’s thirty-one and the road back to the World title is going to be a long and hard one. He’ll have to fight Norton again, then probably Frazier before he can get to Foreman. And to be honest that’s a fight that he is unlikely to win.”

For the first time in my life I began to think that maybe, just maybe, it was the end of the road.

Dad on the other hand was adamant.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. He’ll come back. He always does.”

Thankfully dad’s crystal ball was working fine, because that’s exactly what he did. He rested up for six months but came back and beat Norton in the return match. Now for Frazier. We waited for the announcement.

I was sitting listening to Mum go on about how much she would miss Elsie Tanner in Coronation street when dad came home from work and walked into the kitchen. He just stood there looking at me with a massive grin on his face. I saw his grin and matched it with my own.

“What?”

He couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

“It’s on. The Frazier v Ali fight is on. And guess what date?”

I couldn’t guess. I didn’t know where this was going. So I just shrugged my shoulders.

“When?”

Dad said the words slowly.

“The..Twenty Eighth… of… January!”

My jaw actually dropped.

“My sixteenth Birthday!”

He put his arm around me and said the words I’ll never forget.

“And we’re going son. I’m taking you to see it!”

 

Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 3)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

The night of October 26th 1970 would be a long one. Instead of going to bed early and getting up at 2am, me and dad decided to stay up and keep awake with lots of tea and biscuits. Dad managed it but I fell asleep around midnight. He woke me just after 2.30am. But, there was a problem. No matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t find the commentary anywhere on the radio. We thought we’d found it once but the reception was so bad that we couldn’t understand a word that was being said. I joked with dad that it was like listening to the Clangers. Disappointed but undeterred, we stayed up all night and waited for the result to come through. It came on the 5am news.

Ali beat Jerry Quarry in three rounds. The referee stopped the fight due to a bad cut around Quarry’s left eye. The report said that Ali dominated the fight with his left jab and moved well around the ring. But the report also added that Ali was slower and heavier than he had been almost four years earlier. Dad was outraged.

“Of course he’s slower. He nearly thirty now, he’s been out of the ring for four years, you’ve got to expect him to be different. But, I bet you he’s still got what it takes to get his title back.”

I of course agreed with every word.

Less than two months later and he was back in the ring again, this time against the rugged Argentinian fighter Oscar Bonavena. Me and dad had a bet. He said it wouldn’t last seven rounds. I said Ali would win in round 10. The prize would be a Mars Bar. We were both wrong. The referee stopped the fight in the fifteenth and final round after Bonavena had been knocked down three times. It hadn’t been an easy fight as a lot of people had predicted, but Ai had won and was now a real title contender. Dad bought a Mars Bar and we had half each…

The news we’d been waiting for came a few weeks later. Ali would face Joe Frazier at Madison Square Gardens on Monday 8th March for the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Mum had a calendar hanging on the wall in the kitchen. Dad put a big circle around the fight date and every day after school I would go straight to the calendar and mark off another day.

Dad did the football pools every week and each time he filled out his coupon he would say the same thing.

“If I win the pools son. We’re going to New York and we’ll get the best seats in the house!”

On Saturday afternoons we’d sit and watch the results come in at five o’clock on BBC Grandstand. Both with our fingers crossed hoping to win the Jackpot. While this was going on mum would be cooking our “Cowboy” tea. Egg, Bacon and beans.

Dad never did win the pools so we settled for listening to it on the radio instead. Didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Ali won the fight and got his title back.

Finally, the big day came, and this time we were prepared. The radiogram was tuned into the right station and just in case it broke down we had a transistor radio on standby. Mum went to bed around eleven and me and dad looked forward to the long night ahead. Just after midnight dad gave me a wink and went into the kitchen. He came back with a bottle of Cherryade and the biggest bowl of sweets I’d ever seen! Liquorice Allsorts, Merry Maid Toffees, Sherbet Bonbons and my absolute favourite. A whole bar of Coconut Ice!

The sugar rush should have killed us both instead it just made us even more excited than we were already. Shortly after, the coverage began.

The commentator said that there were celebrities everywhere. Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were all there and ringside tickets were going for two hundred dollars each. I had no idea how much that was in real money but dad said it was a small fortune!

The bell rang and the fight started.

Ali was quick in the first few rounds, jabbing and moving just like the old days. But we both knew he couldn’t keep it up for too long. At the end of round three the unthinkable happened. Frazier landed a massive left hook and Ali was visibly shaken but didn’t go down. Frazier won the next few rounds and was now ahead on points. Me and Dad were convinced that Ali was just taking it easy so that he could come on strong in the final rounds and might even knock out Frazier towards the end of the fight. But it didn’t happen. It was Frazier who finished the strongest. Despite Ali doing well in the thirteenth and fourteenth, Frazier was still standing and ahead on all three scorecards. The bell rang for the fifteenth and then the impossible really did happened. Smoking Joe caught Ali with a punch that would have floored a rhino and Ali went down. Just for three seconds but he was down. I had my head in my hands and when I looked up so did dad. And then it was over. The bell rang to signal the end of the fight. Ali had lost by a unanimous decision.

We sat there in silence. The commentator was saying that after this defeat Ali should retire.

Dad could see that I was close to tears. He put his arm around me.

“They’re talking nonsense. Retire? Ali? Are they mad? He’s been fighting all his life for what he believes in. He’s not going to let one defeat get in his way. He’ll be back. You mark my words. He’ll be back and he’ll be even better that he was before!”

Instead of going to bed miserable and disappointed, dad’s words made sense and cheered me up. Ali would be back. I was sure of it.

Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 2)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

I came home from school and sat down to eat corn beef, chips and pickle. I started gulping it down as fast as I could because Animal Magic was about to start on the TV. Mum wanted to know what I’d done at school that day and I mumbled something about Maths and PE. Then she told me the news.

“You know that boxer that you and Dad like? Well he’s refused to go in the army and so he’s no longer the World Champion. He might even go to prison.”

She said it in a very matter of fact way while she was scrubbing one of dad’s shirts at the sink.

I stopped chewing a mouthful of chips and pickle and sat bolt upright. Animal Magic no longer seemed important. The News would be on in an hour and Dad would be home from work at six. He’d know for sure what was going on. I was hoping that somehow mum had got it all wrong.

Sixty minutes later and I’m watching the news in disbelief. Ali was refusing to fight for his country. People were calling him a coward.

I heard the front door shut and dad came rushing into the front room. He looked at me and then the TV.

“Is it true? He’s been stripped of his title for refusing to go to Vietnam?”

I just nodded. Even though I had no idea what or where Vietnam was.

“He can’t be a coward dad can he? He fought Sonny Liston twice and beat him easily, and he’s The Big Bear! He can’t be a coward, not Ali.”

Dad came and sat next to me on the floor.

“No he’s not a coward. But, when you’re asked to fight for your country you have to do it.”

I said what most nine year olds would say. “Why?”

Dad just shrugged his shoulders.

“Cos that’s the rules. It’s just the way things are.”

He stood up and walked into the kitchen.  He gave mum a kiss then went to the sink to wash his hands and face before having his tea. He took off his jumper and shirt and stood there in his old white vest. He took a bar of Lifebuoy soap and begun to scrub his hands. As he did so he turned his head and spoke to me over his shoulder.

“The yanks are in a war with the Vietnamese, they want everyone to do their bit to fight the communists.”

I had no idea what any of that meant, but we had a set of old Encyclopaedias piled up beside the piano. Mum had paid a shilling for them at a jumble sale a year before and almost gave herself a hernia carrying them home. She said they would come in handy. But after twelve months they were still exactly where she’d left them and no one had taken any notice of them. Until now.

I was desperate to find out why my hero wouldn’t fight for his country. I flicked through the pages and read everything I could on words I’d heard on the news and from Dad. I found out where Vietnam was, I read about the US Draft system, I even read about Communism. At just nine years old I became fascinated with the Vietnam war and why America had become involved.

Ali never went to prison. But his boxing licence was taken away as was his passport. No one knew how long it would be before he got them back.

With Ali no longer holding the World Boxing Association title, it was decided that there should be an eight-man tournament to decide who should be the next Champion Of The World. Dad thought this was a farce.

“It’s nonsense. Ali’s already beaten four of them and the other four wouldn’t last more than a couple of rounds with him.”

Jimmy Ellis beat Jerry Quarry in the final and became World Heavyweight Champion.

But me and dad had lost interest. No longer would we stay up till silly o’clock in the morning to listen to the fights. There was no excitement, no anticipation, no flair, no Ali.

The rest of 1967 came and went as did 1968 and 1969. I left junior school and at the age of eleven started at the local Comprehensive. Dad left Fords Motor Company and started with the local Gas works. We moved from a tiny two-bedroom council house to a much bigger three-bedroom council house on the other side of town.

Jimmy Ellis defended his title just once, against an aging Floyd Patterson. He won on points. Boring.

But there was a new kid on the block. Joe Frazier. He’d had ten fights since Ali was stripped of his title and won them all. He was recognised as the World Champion by another organisation, the NYSAC. It was announced that he would fight Jimmy Ellis at Madison Square gardens in February 1970. For the first time in almost three years me and dad wanted to see who would win and become the undisputed world champion. Although we knew very little about Joe Frazier we were convinced he would batter Ellis within a few rounds.

Dad woke me up at 2am and we went downstairs and turned on the radiogram. Dad made tea and toast and we sat down to listen to the commentary. Frazier knocked Ellis down twice in the fourth round and his trainer refused to let him come out for the fifth to save him further punishment. We looked at each other and agreed. At last we had a worthy Heavyweight Champion. He was good, but he still wasn’t Ali.

The world was changing and so were attitudes. Especially in America. The war in Vietnam had become extremely unpopular. People were beginning to wonder what the hell they were doing sending their sons and loved ones to fight a war thousands of miles away. The same people who had once branded Ali a coward now had sympathy and understanding for his stand. He spoke at rallies and colleges across the US telling anyone who would listen about civil rights.

And then it happened.

In August 1970 we were on holiday in Dovercourt, a small seaside town in Kent. My Aunt Rose had a caravan there and said we could have it for a week. We had a routine. Mum and my sister would cook the breakfast while me and dad went to fill up the water bottles and get the morning paper. I stood outside the paper shop while dad went inside. When he came out he looked at me and raised his arms in the air in triumph.

“He’s got his licence back! He’s fighting Jerry Quarry in two months’ time!”

A thirty-nine-year-old man and a twelve-year-old boy began to dance in the street.

This was turning out to be the best holiday of all time.

 

 

Me, Dad and Ali. ( Part 1)

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“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”

I first became aware of the name Cassius Clay in 1963. I was five years old. Dad said that some cocky black kid was coming over to fight “Our Enry”.

Dad was a big fan of Henry Cooper. But knew his limitations. He’d watched him come up through the amateurs and then turn professional. He always said that Cooper was a good British champion but was never world class. He said many times “Those yanks are just too big and strong for Henry.”

But, he was convinced that the kid who’d won the Olympic Gold medal just a couple of years before would be no match for our man. Dad let me stay up that night and we listened to the fight on the radio. Cooper put Clay on the floor with a great left hook in round three but Clay survived and two rounds later the referee was stopping the fight to save poor Henry’s face from suffering further damage. I saw the photos in the paper the next day. I wondered how a man could lose so much blood yet still live.

A month after my sixth birthday dad tells me that the cocky black kid is going to fight Sonny Liston for the world title. He laughs. “He won’t last more than a couple of rounds with the Bear.” The Big Bear was Liston’s nickname. I didn’t know why at the time but anyone who was called a Bear MUST be big, strong and as hard as nails. The next morning, I wake up and go downstairs to find dad reading the paper. He looks at me and shakes his head. “He’s only gone and beaten the Bear! I can’t believe it! He’s beaten the Bear!” I stood there in my Batman Pyjamas and started shaking MY head as well. I couldn’t believe it either.

Me and Dad had to wait over a year before the black kid fought again. This time in a rematch with Sonny Liston. At seven years of age I sat glued to the radio to listen to the commentary in the early hours of the morning. Clay beat Liston in the first round. I remember Dad getting to his feet and saying “This can’t be right. It’s a fix, it must be. No one beats Liston in one round!”

A few days later and dad tells me that Cassius Clay now wants be called Muhammed Ali. I ask why. “It’s a religious thing” he says. Then he laughs. “Or some kinda gimmick to sell more tickets for his next fight. Makes no difference, he’ll always be known as Cassius Clay.”

Six months later and he beats another one of Dad’s favourite fighters. Floyd Patterson. Dad’s impressed. “Well, if he can beat Liston and Patterson, the kid must be something special.” He tells me this as he applies a giant handful of Brylcreem to his hair then carefully combs it through to get the perfect quiff.

In 1966 we’re all getting excited about the World Cup finals right here in London. But there was another reason to be excited. Cassius Clay was coming to London for two fights. First against Henry Cooper at Arsenal’s Football Ground and then against Brian London at Earls Court. Both fights would be shown live on TV. For the first time we’d get to see for ourselves just how good this kid was.

We were both convinced there could only be one outcome. Clay would beat them both. We were right.

Cooper lasted till round six before the referee stopped the fight because of another bad cut eye. Eleven weeks later and just one week after England beat West Germany to win the world cup, Clay steps into the ring to face Brian London. That night me and dad sat round the television at my Aunty Flo’s house in Stamford Hill in North London. Never have I seen a more one sided fight. London looked a beaten man even before he entered the ring. It was like watching the skinny kid in class being asked to scrap with the best fighter in the school. Somehow he knows he has to turn up to save face but he always knows he’s going to get hurt. In the third round Clay threw twelve punches in three seconds. ALL of them hit London hard. The ref counted him out.

Just five weeks later and we were watching him step into the ring again. This time in Germany against a big guy called Karl Mildenberger. Clay beat him in twelve rounds.

Dad had never seen anyone like him before and with my limited knowledge of the noble art neither had I. I’d watched old footage of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Max Baer and Jack Johnson. All great Heavyweights in their time but none of them were this quick. None of them danced around the ring with such elegance and style. None of them could bob, weave, sway and avoid being hit like Clay.

After these three wins in Europe Clay returned to American and defended his World title three times in just four months. We listen to all of them on the radio in the middle of the night. Of course, he won them all.

I notice something change in Dad. He no longer refers to the cocky black kid as Cassius Clay. He now calls him Ali. So from that time onwards, so do I.

At just nine years of age, I have two heroes. My dad and a big cocky black man who just happens to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

But, everything was about to change.