The publication date of this blog post is the 73rd birthday of Muhammad Ali. I met him once. It happened, quite unexpectedly, on a damp early-summer evening in the West end of London nearly a quarter of a century ago on Friday 5th June 1992. It’s a happy memory from a simpler time…
I had been working the night shift on BBC Breakfast News all that week. A typical Friday at this time would have involved off-air morning drinks with the rest of the graphics team followed by an early, boozy, brunch before losing the rest of the day to a mellow haze of tipsy tiredness. It was not unusual for night staff to fall asleep on the tube and end up miles from home, I myself once dozed off on the Hammersmith & City Line and ended up missing my stop several times. Shuttling backwards and forwards between east and west London for quite some time, I was unable to stay awake long enough to get off at Kings Cross.
On this particular Friday morning I took it easy and got home without too much drama. At the end of a week of nights the trick was to stay awake all day and not to go to bed until much later, thereby recalibrating your sleep pattern back to it’s normal setting. I had plans for the evening. I was to meet my wife and some friends for post-work drinks and maybe a film* and I wanted to be awake enough to enjoy it. So I had a bath and generally lazed around all day before heading off to town in the late afternoon.
Being early, I decided to kill some time by visiting Sportspages in Charing Cross Road. I discovered this wonderful establishment whilst still a student in the mid-eighties. It became a prime mover in the golden age of football fanzines and was the place to go if you were looking for a copy of Brian Moores Head, When Skies Are Grey or Through The Wind and The Rain. I spent many hours and pounds in there until the internet put it out of business in 2006.
Expecting it to be quiet at six o’clock on Friday, I was surprised to find a small queue outside the door. I asked a chap at the back what was going on. He informed me, to my astonishment, that the former three times heavyweight champion of the world and all round living legend Muhammad Ali was in there signing copies of his new biography. Naturally I couldn’t pass up this opportunity and joined the queue which, remarkably, had only about 20 people in it.
I purchased the book, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, and awaited my turn to be seen by the great man. I thought of how I’d grown up in the 1970s watching his classic fights on television. How he had always seemed like a larger than life hero. An entertainer, really, who was quite unlike any other boxer; eloquent, charming and witty. Here he was, only a few feet away.
A reverent awe-struck silence had descended upon the shop. It became apparent that The King of The Ring was not going to engage in conversation. The set-up was this: Ali was sitting at a small table. Standing to his right, a besuited aide would place the book in front of him and open it at the title page. Ali would then proceed to sign his name with a black pen, extremely slowly, almost painfully, head bowed, saying nothing. Here, seemingly, was heartbreaking evidence of the Parkinson’s syndrome which had been diagnosed some years earlier. The legacy perhaps of a career that many felt was too long.
Presently I arrived at the head of the queue and found myself standing in front of the most famous boxer in history. My first impression was that despite his problems, at fifty years of age Ali still looked good. Clear skinned and smart in white shirt and dark tie.
The silence, however, was unbearable and I felt compelled to say something to ease the awkwardness. Ali still had his head bowed as he signed my book so I said to his right hand man: “Have you all enjoyed your trip to The UK? Have you been anywhere interesting?” To which he replied in customary American drawl, “Yeah, well, er, we’ve had a great time. We, er, went up to Manchester…”
I can’t really explain why I replied the way I did, except that maybe it was out of some sort of deep rooted north-west jealousy. But I found myself saying “Manchester? Never mind that. You should go to Liverpool. That’s my home town. They’d love you there!”
It was at this point that things started to get surreal. Upon hearing my scouse reply Ali, previously uninterested, slowly raised his head. With a twinkle in those clear brown eyes and a cheeky smile on his face, he looked at me squarely and in that familiar and now softer voice spoke the words “You must be a foool from Liv-er-poool…!”.
In response I think I muttered something pathetic like “Thank you, you’ve made me very happy”. I picked up my signed book, quietly left the shop and floated to the pub.
As I sat waiting for my wife and friends I reflected quietly on the fact that Muhammad Ali – the icon responsible for so many headlines around the world, the warrior who went face to face with Foreman, Frazier and Liston, the champ who created ‘The Rumble in The Jungle’ and ‘The Thriller in Manila’ – had just made up a daft little rhyme specially for me.
Happy birthday Muhammad. With love from The Fool from Liverpool.
*We ended up seeing a long forgotten British film called Hear My Song. A mildly amusing comedy about the search for Irish tenor Josef Locke. Memorable only because I still have the cinema ticket which definitively confirms the date of my meeting with Ali.