Muhammad Ali, the greatest, the champion, the legend.
I shed a tear today because a part of my childhood has died.
“I shook up the world!” cried Ali. He shook up mine. I had never seen or heard anyone like him.
Should I chronicle his career and pay tribute to his boxing skills?
Better men than me will do that over the next few days and beyond.
I can only tell you what Ali meant to me growing up in deepest Lanarkshire. A man I have never met, a man I did not truly know but, a man I almost certainly admired and loved. A hero.
It’s 1974, I am nine years old and the baby of a large catholic family of ten.
There was only three channels on the telly and you were lucky if it was a colour one, almost certainly rented.
Kinshasa, Zaire, the place where the most fearsome champion, since ironically Sonny Liston, George Foreman would fight Ali for the Heavyweight championship of the world.
Had I heard of Zaire? Yes, Scotland had just defeated them 2-0 in a World cup match in Germany in 1974, but apart from that, I knew it was somewhere in Africa!
I loved football, boxing and tennis.
My heroes, Pelé, Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Jimmy Connors and top of the tree, Muhammad Ali.
When Ali came on the television, I watched on in awe and amazement at this boxer from America who seemingly could beat everyone and back it up with the most jaw dropping personality.
He was funny, good looking and when you listened beyond the hype, a man of principal for black people in the early ’60’s of a troubled America.
I never thought about black or white, protestant, catholic, nation of islam, racism or bigotry at that age but, guys like Ali made you sit up and think about the treatment of black people and the injustices of many others.
I don’t believe for one minute he was a saint, like every human being, he had his failings, in and out of the ring.
However, his legacy will be a supreme sportsman, who preached about inequality, made you think about white propaganda and injustice and a man who questioned his nation’s right to force him to fight against a country he had no quarrel with.
Had he not been this majestic athlete and champion, all his principals would have counted for nothing. He would have become another statistic in a long line of black people abused and jailed for daring to question the establishment.
The fact that he stood up and said no to being drafted and voiced his displeasure at black people’s oppression made me love and admire him even more.
I wanted Ali to regain the heavyweight title more than anything.
However, on the 30th October 1974 in a three bedroom council house in Scotland, I prayed to God not to let George Foreman kill my hero.
Even my Mum was worried this was a fight Ali should never have taken on. We sat in front of the television and, as the grainy coloured pictures came through, I was scared of what was about to happen to the contender.
George Foreman was an awesome, fearsome fighter who, quite simply, knocked out anything that stood in his way. There was no way Ali could survive the punches that were about to come his way. At 32, surely not?
Foreman hadn’t gone beyond two rounds in the previous four years. He was a destroyer who dropped bombs that had wiped out all before him.
Amazingly, in round one, Ali came out as if he had been transported back to 1964, he threw combinations and started taking the fight to Foreman. Suddenly, I started to believe a miracle was about to happen, until round two brought me back down to earth.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Foreman is coming forward menacingly. I can’t watch. Get away Ali, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, shuffle, anything.
As George pounds away at the body, Ali breaks it up with flurry of jabs and speed that still worries the champion.
Watch this fight again on youtube, it is not a one-sided affair. This is Ali, the supreme boxer, waiting, waiting, ready to pounce.
Round three, four, five, six and seven, the bombs kept coming, very few had the desired effect.
The heat is almost unbearable and the fight was getting slower with Ali on the ropes but, still scoring.
And then, round eight, boom! Foreman caught with a right and heading down.
“ Oh my God, he’s won the title back at 32!” screamed Harry Carpenter of the BBC, almost in disbelief. No, wait a minute, in total disbelief.
I am jumping about in the living room, cuddling my Mum. Incredible! Ali bomaye.
Muhammad Ali is the heavyweight champion of the world, again.
I went to bed that night the happiest boy in the world, still believing that miracles do indeed happen.
Today, Muhammad Ali has been taken away from us but the memories of the greatest fighter I have ever seen will always stay with me, as will the words of wisdom and the actions of a principled man.
That is his true legacy.