Subscriber OnlyBoxingAmerica at Large

Rock Brynner led an extraordinary life, but Dublin was the site of one of his proudest moments

Yul Brynner’s son had an unlikely CV, including an entry reading ‘Bodyguard to the Greatest’

When Rock Brynner published his first novel, Liza Minnelli, a friend since childhood, threw the launch party at her Manhattan apartment. His Broadway debut was a one-man show based upon his own translation of Jean Cocteau’s ‘Opium’, the addiction diary of the French artist and auteur who happened to be his godfather.

He met Samuel Beckett, regarded Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso as close family friends and was the man who introduced Martin Scorsese to The Band. Yet, one of his proudest moments came ambling down Exchequer Street during a bizarre turn as bodyguard to Muhammad Ali in the summer of 1972.

“I had one real wish beforehand,” said Brynner. “I wanted to walk in my old college pub, The Old Stand, with Muhammad. I’d spent many of my undergraduate years at Trinity in that pub and would always drop in when visiting Dublin, so I knew the barmen and they knew me. Muhammad being Muhammad, he was only too happy to do it. The barmen remembered me but still acted very nonchalant when they saw us. They looked at us as if all along they expected Muhammad Ali, the most famous man in the world, to walk into their bar.”

Following his death at 76 after a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma last month, every obituary mentioned early and often that Rock, nicknamed for Rocky Graziano, was the only son of Yul Brynner, Hollywood icon. A long shadow is the curse of every scion of famous lineage, but a random list of previous occupations demonstrates this character chose a meandering life path uniquely his own. Actor. Chef. Playwright. Pilot. Novelist. Farmer. History professor. Itinerant mime. Tour manager. Co-founder of the Hard Rock Café. None of those are quite as unlikely as the CV entry reading, “Bodyguard to the Greatest”, a job he stumbled into when in Houston for Ali’s 1971 fight with Jimmy Ellis.


“Muhammad and I ended up going off together for a walk,” said Brynner. “We were walking along when suddenly this very large Texan redneck came up and started shouting all kinds of racist insults at him. It had only been a couple of months since the Supreme Court ruled that all charges against him for refusing induction in the army would be dropped and this thug was shouting and roaring and Muhammad just danced away from him.

“But this guy kept coming at him and then started throwing some punches. Now, Muhammad couldn’t lift a finger, or he’d lose his licence to box again so he kept dancing away from him, telling me: ‘Just keep moving, don’t pay him no mind.’ But the guy kept coming. Finally, I surprised myself. Remembering a trick my father had taught me once, I grabbed the guy’s hand and bent it back, breaking two of his fingers. He dropped to the ground in agony and Muhammad and I waltzed away from the scene. After a minute or so, Muhammad turned to me and said, ‘Who’d ever thunk the son of the Pharaoh of all Egypt would be protecting a little black boy from Louisville?’”

Six inches smaller and eighty pounds lighter than his boss, Brynner then sported lengthy hennaed hair usually set off by a gold earring. His fingernails were grown deliberately long to pluck a twelve-string guitar on which he tried in vain to teach Ali rudimentary chords. Among his kaleidoscopic outfits for that week in still monochromatic Dublin for the fight with Al “Blue” Lewis at Croke Park was an ensemble consisting of garish pink floppy hat, long red crochet vest and white flared trousers. He often carried with him a small, Gladstone bag, replete with Indian scarf wrapped around the handle and enigmatically told inquiring journalists that it contained the answers to all the world’s problems.

An affectation hinting at the breadth of his own personal struggles. Brynner’s lengthy battle with alcoholism and drug addiction became fodder for his novel ‘The Ballad of Habit and Accident’ though it was telling that Robbie Robertson later described him as one of the sanest people around The Band. As tour manager and sometime bus driver for that hard-partying outfit, he is partially credited with coining “The Last Waltz” as the title for their farewell concert immortalised on film by Scorsese. Mere footnotes in a life lived on his own terms. Enrolled in Yale at 16, he later spent three years anonymously touring Europe and India as Redhat the Clown. Forever the road less travelled kind of guy.

His literary output was as diverse as his career choices. A memoir about his father, who disinherited him and his four sisters in his will, was followed by a deep dive into family history, tracing the Brynner line back to Vladivostok, where he unveiled a statue of Yul that still stands. He co-authored an investigation into Thalidomide, produced a history of the New York state power authority, and wrote a prescient 1990s doomsday novel about climate change. His last professional gig was teaching college students. Not where anybody expected him to end up but that, of course, was the recurring theme.

“I’m the luckiest person ever born,” he said once. “I had extraordinary opportunities for education and travel. I got to meet many of the most creative people of the century. But it wasn’t an easy life.”

Not easy. Definitely epic.