Had he lived, Muhammad Ali would have been 75 today.
Alas, The Greatest is gone, having passed away seven months ago on June 3, 2016. It was surely the greatest loss suffered in sport last year.
In that time there has barely been a day when some personal memory of his magic has not been evoked for those of us lucky enough to have spent part of our lives in his company.
Not just the quotes, the quips, the monologues and the unforgettable moments of majesty and sublime artistry in the ring, but of the personalities with whom he was associated.
But for Ali, this humble scribbler would not have traversed the globe from Atlanta to Zaire, via Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, New York, New Orleans, California and so many other places, not always quite as exotic.
Meeting celebrities like Frank Sinatra, albeit briefly as we stood alongside each other in the gents at Madison Square Garden 46 years ago on March 8, 1971, before Ali’s first blistering encounter with Joe Frazier. “How ya doing fella?” asked Ole Blue Eyes. “Who d’ya fancy?”
“Well, Ali,” I stuttered.
“Nah,” scoffed the Stranger in the Night. “Frazier will destroy him.”
Sinatra was no Ali-phile, unlike the film star Burt Lancaster. A few of us British hacks, including my good friends Colin Hart and Reg Gutteridge, had been introduced to Lancaster at the fight weigh-in by the Garden’s wonderfully laconic PR man John X F Condon – the X F stood for Xavier Francis.
Lancaster was a color commentator for the fight. “Hey Burt I want you to meet some limey writers,” said Condon.
Lancaster turned from watching the fighters strip for the weigh-in. He was wearing rouge and fluttered eyelashes heavy with mascara towards us. “Hey guys,” he simpered. “Don’t ya just love their muscles!”
“F*** me!” exclaimed the late Cockney journo and TV commentator Gutteridge. “He’s a bleedin’ iron”. Iron hoof was rhyming slang for poof.
It was at that fight that Condon warned us to keep the garish Ali-Frazier baseball caps with which we had been issued planted firmly on our heads at ringside “so if there’s a riot the cops will know which heads to hit and which not to hit.”
Watching the fabulous West End hit Motown-the Musical in London last weekend brought back another Ali-Condon associated memory.
It was when Condon spotted Diana Ross perched in the front row of the crowded press conference after the fight at the Garden.
“Who ya with, little lady?” he queried.
“I’m Diana Ross,” she trilled.
“I know that, little lady,” Condon retorted. “I said, who ya with? What media d’ya represent?”
“Well, none,”” she said. “I’m just me, Diana Ross.”
“Sorry little lady,” said Condon. “Out. This is strictly media only.”
And out The Supremes superstar had to trot.
Can you imagine a similar scene today, a PR daring to remove such celebrity fans of the stature of Adele or Robbie Williams from a sports press conference?
How times have changed
But then like Ali himself, Condon was exceptional.
Forgive our personal indulgences. But thanks to Ali there are many.
Like the time a few of us traveled to Dublin where he was due to fight Al Blue Lewis, but our flight from London was delayed and we missed his press conference.
When we arrived at the hotel Ali had gone to bed with a heavy cold. “We expressed our dismay to Angelo Dundee, telling him: ‘We only needed to speak to him for ten minutes.'”
“No chance,” replied the esteemed trainer. “He never speaks to anyone for less than an hour.”
He phoned Ali’s room. “The champ says go on up,” he informed us.
So we did, emerging a couple of hours later, notebooks bulging.
I also recall once phoning Ali at his then home in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. I asked one question – and put the telephone down an hour-and-a-half later.
The bill was enormous. But so was the spread I got in my newspaper.
Then there was the Burt Bacharach encounter.
We had traveled to Los Angeles to see Ali preparing for the second of his trilogy with Ken Norton. Afterwards we decided to go and see Norton, who was in training at a camp called Massacre Canyon, close to the Californian town of San Jose, some distance from LA.
Those were pre-satnav days and we got lost en-route. Finally we decided to pull in to a luxury resort complex to ask the way.
Just ahead of us, walking towards the tennis court, racquet under his arm, was the renowned composer Bacharach, with a lady companion.
The opportunity was too good to miss. We wound down the car window. “Excuse me Mr Bacharach. You’ll never believe what we are going to ask, but do you know the way to San Jose?” The man who wrote those enduring lyrics paused and glowered. “You gotta be kiddin’ mister!”
As it turned out he then recognized a fellow passenger. It was Gutteridge, who he had met before. We all had a good laugh and he invited us to tea.
And of course, he did know the way to San Jose.
Ali rarely remembered names, but he always recognized faces, especially friendly ones from Britain, reminding us to give his warmest regards “to my good friend Henry Cooper.”
My last conversation with him was a truly poignant one. It was at ringside at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas some years back.
There was tap on my shoulder. I turned and it was Ali, by then retired and obviously in the grip of Parkinson’s. He beckoned, bent down and whispered in my ear “it ain’t the same any more is it?”
“No champ, it ain’t,” I replied.
And of course it can never be now that he has gone.
But life and the fight game goes on. As do our memories of Ali.
Such a shame we can’t be wishing him today: “Happy birthday, champ.”
By Alan Hubbard
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.