This time capsule was crafted by a Shropshire Star photographer just before my 17th birthday in March 1966. I had just won a competition in the newspaper: the prize was two ringside seats for the Muhammad Ali versus Henry Cooper World Heavyweight Championship fight to be held in May at Highbury Stadium in London.
When the newspaper asked me who I would give the other ticket to I immediately said, “My Dad”. That’s him smiling from the car window. He insisted that we had to dress up for the photographer. As you can see, I scarcely had a hair out of place.
When the time came we took a train down to London (the car only seemed to work within a five mile radius of home). I can remember the mounting excitement of the tube journey to Highbury…the hard endeavour of the boxers on the undercard…the famous people sitting nearby (Sean Connery, Diana Dors, Frankie Vaughan, Eamon Andrews, Sophia Loren, Peter Sellers and Audrey Hepburn to name but a few).
The bout itself remains a deeply grooved memory. Three years earlier, Henry Cooper had caused a near-upset by flooring the then Cassius Clay with a clubbing left-hook. Clay had recovered and had defeated Cooper in the next round. Since that night “Cassius Clay” had won the World Heavyweight title, had rejected his slavery-linked name and had become Muhammad Ali.
The Highbury fight lasted only six rounds before Ali opened up a terrible cut above Cooper’s eyes. Cooper tried desperately hard throughout but he was no match for the athletic grace, confidence and supple co-ordination of Ali.
I remember watching Ali’s feet as he danced and shimmered around the ring. And most of all I remember following the flow of his upper torso and head, a harmonious ripple of controlled energy that seemed to roll and bob without effort and with an easy certainty. As with all great dancers, Ali’s physical motion was primed and pumped by a vivid intelligence.
My recollection of that night ends with the raising of Ali’s hand. I have no memory of leaving the stadium or of how we managed to get home (a hotel would have been out of the question).
There have been lots of tributes and obituaries for Ali, and there is still much more to say than I am going to write here. His significance and his appeal cut across many of the boundaries that the Post-War world seemed to thrive on. Aside from his sporting prowess, he was a towering figure in the cultural and political changes of the 1960s and early 1970s.
When I saw him in 1966 he had already come out against the Vietnam War and had refused to be drafted into the army. Everything he said on that subject and on the subject of race and civil rights rang with truth, dignity and courage. He injected hope and secular redemption into public discourse in a way that is scarcely recognisable now.
This is why his triumphant return after serving a four year ban still has mythic resonance.
It is sad that he fought on too long and lost to men he would have defeated in his prime, but his prime was truly something to behold: beauty, power and wit. And I’m not just referring to his great sense of humour and teasing showmanship, wit is present in movement, in skills, in fleetness of mind, and in the ability to challenge power successfully.
I used the word ‘hope’ earlier in this piece. In her excellent book “On Boxing”, Joyce Carol Oates quotes something that sums up the darkness and the light in the Ali legend. In the mid-1960s the state of Texas brought in poison gas as its preferred method of executing condemned offenders. A research team was given permission to install microphones in the sealed death chamber.
The first victim studied was a young black man. As the pellet dropped into the container and the gas began to curl upwards the microphone recorded him chanting: “Save me Muhammad Ali…save me Muhammad Ali…save me Muhammad Ali…”.