Muhammad Ali, being refused a hamburger and told, “We don’t serve negroes”, replied, “That’s OK. I don’t eat ’em.”
Muhammad Ali will be 70 on Tuesday, yet even though the dancing years have ebbed away and the famous shuffle is no longer a dazzling quickstep but a distressingly slow wobble, he remains the most recognisable human being on earth, and among the best-loved.
When he told the world he was The Greatest, we believed him, because he surely was. Perhaps not the greatest boxer – Ali himself always acknowledged that Sugar Ray Robinson held that title – but when the argument turns to who is the greatest sports figure in history, it is no contest.
There has only ever really been one Lord of the Rings. “Parachute me into High Street, China,” he once said at his zenith, “and every kid would know who I am.”
I was fortunate enough to travel the world with the phenomenon who so ennobled his art that his act as the undisputed heavyweight champion has proved impossible to follow.
Sport’s biggest irony is that the greatest orator it has known is now reduced to a mumble, the face that launched a thousand quips partially paralysed, like much of his body, through Parkinson’s Syndrome, the nerve-numbing condition from which his housepainter father died, but which in Ali’s case was surely exacerbated by 10 fights too many.
His birthday will be marked by a big bash in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, at the downtown cultural centre and museum that bears his name. Another tribute is planned for Las Vegas, the scene of so many of his triumphs, and sadly of his eventual demise.
In 50 years of covering sport, there have been moments when I have been tempted to shed a tear but only once have I ever done so. That was on the night of 2 October 1980 in the car park of Caesars Palace, where an 18,000 crowd assembled for what was to prove Ali’s penultimate fight.
It was the night that an icon disintegrated before our eyes as Ali, a 38-year-old robotic shell of the sublime athlete of his heyday, suffered a savage beating that even his opponent, Larry Holmes, was reluctant to administer, repeatedly beckoning to a dispassionate referee to end his erstwhile idol’s agonising humiliation. Even the media were pleading “stop it, stop it” amid counter-cries from some in the Ali entourage fearful of losing their meal ticket.
It was Ali’s career-long cornerman Angelo Dundee who finally defied them. “I am the chief second and I stop the fight,” he yelled to the referee, a dull-eyed Ali slumped on his stool at the end of the 10th round. It was too late to save Ali’s career, but it probably saved his life.
Ali had reigned in an age when boxing crowns were not tawdry bits of bling. He turned it into an art form, making a ballet out of brutality.
Being a sportswriter around him was bliss. We were never short of a storyline. Once, back in the 1970s, on arriving to interview him in Dublin, we discovered that Ali was flu-stricken and being attended by a doctor in his hotel bedroom. We explained to Dundee that all we wanted was to talk to Ali for 10 minutes. “No chance,” came the reply. “He never talks to anyone for less than an hour.” He phoned Ali’s room and winked. “Hey guys, the champ says go on up.” We emerged two hours later, notebooks overflowing.
Not that Ali was a saint. A serial womaniser, he had a darker side which surfaced after he became champion and a member of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam movement – perhaps understandably considering the past injustices to black people by white America. Having been barred from a local fast-food restaurant because of his colour, when he returned from Rome after winning the Olympic light-heavyweight title in 1960 he placed his gold medal on the counter and ordered a hamburger. “We still don’t serve niggers,” he was told. “That’s OK,” the then Cassius Clay is said to have cheekily replied. “I don’t eat ’em.”
But there is no longer a trace of malice in him. Throughout his illness he has never had an ounce of self-pity, and he is as generous with his time as he is with his money. “Whenever you see him, you just want to hug him,” says one of his seven daughters, Hana.
I know what she means. I shared a hug with Ali not so long ago, and was again close to tears when he placed a trembling hand on my shoulder and leaned down to whisper: “It ain’t the same any more, is it?”
Ali hasn’t floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee for over 30 years but he is still in there fighting, perversely outliving the majority of his 50 opponents, among them Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper, whose left hook back in 1963 came within a split second, or a split glove, of changing the course of boxing history.
Perhaps the most pertinent birthday tribute comes from Dundee, himself now 90. “Muhammad was great outside the ring, he was great inside it. Right now there is nobody out there to turn people on like he did.
“It is unfair to try and compare anybody with him because he’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy. There’ll never be another Muhammad Ali.”