Ali and me: struck dumb by the presence of genius
Muhammad Ali shook up the boxing world one night 50 years ago – and reduced me to awestruck silence during a chance meeting in New Jersey
Paul Howard meeting his hero in 1992
Muhammad Ali introduced himself to the planet by beating Sonny Liston 50 years ago today. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
I can’t remember a time when Muhammad Ali didn’t mean the world to me. The man, who introduced himself to the planet by beating Sonny Liston 50 years ago today, first entered my consciousness as an eight-inch action figure with a little button in the back, which, when pumped, caused the doll to swivel at the hips and throw, alternately, a right jab, then a left uppercut.
While my brothers and I played with it, my mother would sing to us Johnny Wakelin’s Black Superman , whose reggae- tempoed chorus went: “Sing, Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Muhammad, the black superman, he calls to the other guy, ‘I’m Aaaliii! Catch me if you can!’ ”
Ali turned 72 just over a month ago. But today is also a birthday of sorts: the anniversary of his emergence as the greatest athlete of the 20th century and one of its most compelling figures.
There was no sense that history was being made when, on a stormy night in Florida in February 1964, in front of a half-empty Miami Beach Convention Hall, a 22-year-old no-hoper from Kentucky, with the physique of a basketball player, whom the press suspected of being mentally unhinged, stared across an illuminated square of canvas at Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion, an ogre and an ex-con with wrecking balls for fists.
I was born too late to enjoy those 18 minutes of fighting that changed the face of sport, but I’ve watched the fight at least a dozen times since, drawn as much to the bizarre circumstances of what happened that night as to the beautiful comic-book morality of watching the class clown beat up the school bully.
For the first time, but certainly not the last, Ali – on his final night as Cassius Clay – seemed to gauge the moment better than anyone else. He showed the TV audience the enormous vacuum of his mouth, and shouted, “I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
However, he had only just begun to do that, and to become a hero to generations of people as yet unborn. The first Ali fight I have a memory of was his second fight with Leon Spinks in 1978. By then, his powers were in sharp decline. After losing the first fight, he took an oath of silence in the lead-up to the rematch, comically refusing to say even a single word at press conferences. It was considered newsworthy enough to be the lead on John Craven’s Newsround . The great Muhammad Ali struck dumb.
Kept quiet by Parkinson’s
And then, tragically, it happened for real. I have a clear memory of sitting at the kitchen table one day in 1984 and reading in the Daily Mirror that Ali was suffering from a degenerative condition called Parkinson’s
, which had robbed him of his greatest gift: his ability to articulate. To me, it was a twist worthy of Aesop – the man who talked so much, he used up all his words – and my 13-year-old heart broke.
The first money I earned after leaving school was as a postcard caption writer for John Hinde, and I spent it in on a video tape called The Muhammad Ali Story , which added colour to the lineaments of the story that I had only heard about. That’s when I learned about that extraordinary night in Miami 50 years ago.
You would have had to bet seven dollars on a Liston victory to win one dollar back. And the bookmakers seemed to have got it about right when, at the pre-fight weigh-in, which in those days were humdrum affairs, Clay began haranguing the champion: “You scared, chump! You ain’t no giant! You ugly!”
The pressmen were convinced that the challenger was acting out of fear. When his pulse was taken, it was found to be twice its normal rate, and the ringside doctor told reporters that Clay appeared to be “scared to death”.
But then he crossed the ring and, inside six rounds, dismantled Liston so expertly that the champion, humiliated, spat out his gumshield and told his seconds, “That’s it”. Even his corner’s efforts to blind the young upstart by rubbing a caustic agent on Liston’s gloves failed to affect the result, beyond forcing Clay to dance for one round.
So wide was the gulf between what was supposed to happen and what transpired that conspiracy theories rushed to fill the space. The idea of Liston, a brute of a man who was said to be impervious to pain, quitting on his stool with an injured shoulder barely seemed credible. The Nation of Islam, to which Clay pledged himself the following day, must have got to Liston, one theory went. Or the Mob, who controlled the champion, had decided to cash in on their investment. There’s some evidence – not least the dubious manner in which Liston was “knocked out” in the rematch – that the latter might have been true.
It barely matters in the context of Ali’s legend, which was born that night. In beating Liston, he made the world his audience and set in train the extraordinary events of the career that followed.
It’s often said that Ali’s struggle with illness later in life merely added to his aura, and that to spend a moment in his silent company was to know the greatness that he first claimed for himself 50 years ago.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy such a moment. A young sportswriter in stonewashed denims and Deirdre Barlow glasses, I was in New Jersey to cover the world middleweight title fight between Steve Collins and Reggie Johnson in April 1992. Horribly jetlagged, I was taking the air one night, talking to the bellman at the front of the Meadowlands Hilton, when a limousine pulled up and Ali climbed out of the back.
The bellman noticed the dumb look on my face. “You never met The Champ before?” he said.
I shook my head.
“You want to take his luggage up?”
He gave me his trolley, stacked with bags, and I pushed it in the direction of the lift, Ali and a minder following behind. The minder pressed the button for the floor but remembered something at the last second and jumped out, leaving me alone with Ali. After a few seconds, I noticed that he was staring at me, his top teeth hanging over his bottom in a display of mock aggression, then slowly, out of nowhere, he started throwing punches at me, jabs and uppercuts – just like that doll – calibrated to stop within an inch of my face.
Then he laughed, so I laughed too.
Demanding my attention
We reached the floor and I pushed the cart into his room. As I took the bags off it, I sensed him behind me, silently demanding my attention. When I turned around, he was performing a magic trick for me, pushing a handkerchief into his balled-up fist, then opening his hand to reveal it gone.
I applauded and he smiled and nodded appreciatively. Then he handed me a $20 bill, and 30 seconds later I was back in the lift, reflecting on the fact that, in five minutes in the company of a man I had worshipped from childhood, I didn’t manage to say anything.
But then, as one of the world’s greatest communicators knew, there are things that speak more volubly than words.