“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.”
“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.