“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.