In this extract of Brian Reade’s new book, Diamonds in the Mud, which celebrates working class heroes, he recalls meeting heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali
Image: Daily Mirror)
The chills down my spine told my brain what it was refusing to believe.
That I was staring at the most iconic sporting image of all time: Muhammad Ali in a boxing ring, in his Michigan ranch, dancing and jabbing, making the heavy bag sing, just as he did half-a-lifetime ago when he was king of the world.
That morning, in 2001, I got close enough to see the one tiny scar on the right eyebrow that 21 years of boxing left on his face, back in the day when he made the world’s top fighters look like clumsy, punch-drunk punks.
The then bloated 59-year-old mountain of a man was imprisoned by Parkinson’s Disease that made his bones shake, his voice slur and his brain so tired he occasionally nodded off.
In between snoozes I asked if the cruel condition ever made him angry.
It stung him like a bee. “Why should I be angry? Everything that happened to me was for a purpose and made me more popular. I became the most popular, most famous man on Earth even if I got criticised for changing my name to Muhammad and not going
to fight the Viet Cong.
“But in the end I was proved right. God was right to make me do those things, so how can I get angry with Him for the way I am now?
“People ask if I regret being a boxer as they say it may have given me Parkinson’s and I say ‘no’.
“If I hadn’t been a boxer I wouldn’t have gotten famous. If I hadn’t gotten famous I wouldn’t be able to help my people, the black people of this world, and spread the word of God.”
I ask if he misses boxing: “No. Boxing misses me. I was the resurrection of the fight game. I got people to watch it.
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“When I was fighting more people watched than ever. Not today.
“People used to wake up and ask, ‘How did the Ali fight go last night?’ Now they just say, ‘Was there some fight last night?’”
Ali feels the need to entertain so he cracks a joke to lighten the mood: “There’s a Mexican, a black man and a Puerto Rican in a car. Who’s driving?”
I shrug. “The police,” he answers before giving me his famous wide-eyed “scared by a ghost” look.
Everything about Ali in his peak left onlookers awestruck. His face, his body, his wit, his strength, his athleticism, his will, his poetry, his personality.
I attended his funeral in 2016 when his hometown of Louisville came to a standstill to applaud its greatest son. It felt like watching a lap of honour for a life we were honoured to have been blessed with.
On the lawn four doors down from Ali’s childhood home, retired teacher James Patterson explained what he meant to him: “Ali gave every black kid in America meaning.
“He told us we weren’t a second class citizen just because of our skin colour. He freed us from the prison of our own inferiority.”
In 1999 global polls made Ali the Man of the Century, singling out his quote, when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, as one of the most powerful of all time: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me a nr.”
That wasn’t just the greatest-ever pacifist slogan but the greatest anti-racist one, summing up as it did the futility of a colonial war and centuries-old oppression of an entire race.
Ali wasn’t simply the author of the greatest sporting story ever told but a genuinely heroic figure whose words and deeds gave those who suffered bigotry, hope.
Screenwriter Maurice Bessman, who faced daily racial abuse as a boy in England in the 1960s, told me Ali inspired him to fight back.
“He was saying, ‘I’m black and I don’t need to be anything else’. He helped make us all feel comfortable in our own skin and taught us how to speak truth to power.”
Not a bad epitaph for a simple boxer from Kentucky.