“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.