Boxing: When we were made to feel like kings

Being a sports writer in the Ali era was sheer bliss. Alan Hubbard provides a personal account of life aboard The Greatest's caravan
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The Independent Online

The dancing years have ebbed away and the famous shuffle is no longer a dazzling quickstep but a distressingly slow wobble. Yet Muhammad Ali remains the most recognisable human being on earth, and surely the best-loved.

Will Smith's celluloid portrayal of a somewhat sanitised segment of his life and times is about to go on release. Blockbuster movies may be in vogue but there has only ever been one Lord of the Rings.

In the next few days, as he approaches senior citizenship, doubtless there will be an orgy of Ali eulogies, understandably so. I make no apology for adding mine.

I was fortunate to travel the world with the phenomenon who so ennobled his art that his act as the heavyweight champion of the world has become impossible to follow. There have been those who have worn the crown, or tawdry versions of it since, but none with such style, such guile, and such charisma.

It matters not that the greatest orator sport has known is now reduced to a mumble, a shaking shadow of his erstwhile self because of Parkinson's Syndrome, the nerve- paralysing condition that was probably precipitated by having 10 fights too many. Alas, he never was the retiring sort.

Not that I'd claim to be a bosom pal (he remembers faces, rarely names), though. I've hovered in his dressing rooms from Atlanta to Zaire, visited his home, been a victim of his magic tricks and interviewed him scores of times.

Dear old Ali never could resist an interview, nor did he ever refuse a request to give one. Flu-stricken, he took to his bed just before we flew in to Dublin for his less than memorable fight with one Al "Blue" Lewis in 1972.

"Can we talk to him for just five minutes?" we beseeched trainer Angelo Dundee. "No chance," Dundee laughed. "He never talks to anyone for less than an hour. Go on up." We emerged hours later, our notebooks overflowing not only with his boyish doggerel, but hitherto unrevealed details of his finances. Lolling on his bed alongside his brother Rahman he flipped through his cheque stubs, showing how his wives (past and present) were spending his millions.

In days when football club chairmen rip the cassettes out of tape recorders if they don't like the questions, and you are lucky to get a quote from the spokesman for a player's agent, being a sports writer in the Ali era was bliss. Media groupies we may have been, but we were never short of a story. Those were the days when we, too, were kings.

One of Ali's nine children, 25-year-old daughter Hana, recently told a story which probably sums up what the world feels about her father. She said that a few weeks ago she met him for a pizza dinner near her home in Los Angeles. As they finished and walked out into the balmy Californian evening, a tramp approached. "He smelled quite badly and was in a terrible, filthy state. I reached into my purse to give him some money but the vagrant shook his head and said, 'No. I just want to hug your dad'. Before I knew it Dad had his arms around this man and was hugging him in the street. Both of them were crying. Then dad took him inside the restaurant, ordered him a meal, and sat with him."

Primary school teacher Hana and her sister Laila, a professional boxer much to her father's chagrin, were born during Ali's third marriage, to model Veronica Porsche. They have a nine-year-old step-brother whom Ali and his current wife Lonnie adopted. He had four other children, including identical twins, with second wife Belinda and two others were born out of wedlock to two different women.

Hana says: "My father isn't perfect and doesn't pretend to be but he's been a great father to us. He is a man who gives and gives and his greatest gifts to us were love and time.

"It was really difficult for him to be a normal father because we had to share him with the world but when I see how other celebrities mess up their lives I realise he did a great job.

"He's always been there for us. None of us has ever wanted for anything, or has been in any kind of trouble. We're all striving to be successful in our own right."

There are so many memories of Ali, and just one little secret, too. Astonishingly, while he could dance the night away in the ring, he did not know how to trip the light fantastic out of it. Imelda Marcos discovered this when she put on one of her numerous pairs of dancing shoes and invited him to waltz with her in Manila. An embarrassed Ali had to decline the arm proffered by the Filipino president's wife. "Sorry, lady, I can't dance," he muttered.

A few nights later, in a darkened corner of Joe Frazier's dressing room after a fight which Ali himself described as "the closest thing to dyin' " the exhausted champion comforted Frazier's sobbing teenage son, Marvis, who said he was in tears because his father had been beaten. "You stop that cryin', boy," Ali ordered. "Your daddy lost nuthin' tonight. He's a champion, too. Just you remember that for the rest of your life."

Of all these memories, uppermost in the mind is 30 October 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, when he won back the title from the ogre-like George Foreman in one of sport's defining moments.

There have been nine Olympics, numerous Commonwealth Games and World Cups, and a host of other sporting occasions witnessed in many climes and all continents during some 40-odd years of scuffling as a sportswriter but none can equal Ali's African dawn. When the heavens opened and the thunder clapped seconds after he had sent Foreman corkscrewing to the canvas, it seemed almost like celestial applause.

It is easy to recall such triumphs, much harder to register the tragedy that has now engulfed him. Sad, too, that at a time when the world is paying homage to the undisputed sporting icon of the 20th century, there should be a clutch of literature that, at worst, sets about demonising Ali and, at best, dumbing him down. Several pundits, some of whom never knew Ali, are coming out of the woodwork to bad-mouth him as a hypocritical Muslim, an opportunist, an adulterous husband and a phoney.

Certainly Ali was no saint. He did have a darker side, a mean streak which surfaced soon after he became champion, though perhaps understandable when considering the injustices done to his race by white America.

But there is no longer a trace of malice in the man. Throughout his illness he's never had an ounce of self-pity, and he remains as generous with his time as he was, in his heyday, with his money. "Whenever you see him, you just want to hug him," says daughter Hana.

I know exactly what she means. I shared a hug with Ali not so long ago and, like that smelly old tramp, was close to tears when he placed a trembling hand on my shoulder and leaned down to whisper in my ear. "It ain't the same any more, is it?" "No Muhammad," I replied, "it ain't." Happy birthday, champ. The magic is still working.