“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.
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.
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!”