“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.