By Alan Hubbard
It is now two years and four months since Muhammad Ali passed away aged 74 , but the memories of his magic linger on, evoked every time the final bell tolls for one of his opponents.
Several who engaged in his 61 bouts continue to outlive him, the most illustrious being George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks , Earnie Shavers and Joe Bugner.
But the majority are have taken the final count of ten, the latest being two men who tested his sublime skills almost to the limit before inevitably succumbing to the fastest fists the heavyweight division has ever witnessed.
This year has seen the passing of American Al ‘Blue’ Lewis, at 75, and only recently the German southpaw Karl Mildenberger, aged 80.
I was at ringside for both their contests, when ubiquitous Ali overcame Lewis at Croke Park, Dublin,in July 1972 and six years earlier at Frankfurt’s Waldstadium when he accounted for local idol Mildenberger in September 1966.
The bouts epitomised not only Ali’s class, but his character and of course charisma.
The Mildenberger fight came shortly after he had twice visited Britain to defeat first Henry Cooper and then Brian London in world title contests.
Mildenberger, the European champion, was stiff, stubborn and awkward, his style causing Ali some problems in the early rounds. Ali eventually won when the referee stopped a one-sided bout in the 12th.
The referee happened to be Teddy Waltham, the then general secretary of The British Boxing Board of Control who held a ref’s licence and was renowned for his strict interpretation of the Queensberry rules.
Early in the bout he stepped between them and snapped: “Ali, close your glove!”.
”Which one, Mr Waltham?” Ali cheekily queried.
Waltham’s fee for handling the fight was $500. He was paid in cash but later discovered it had been’ lifted’ from his back pocket as he left the arena.
‘Not only was Ali generous with his money, but with his time, too… Being a sportswriter round him was bliss. He is sorely missed’
He and Ali were in the same flight back to London and when Ali learned of the incident he immediately sent one of his entourage with five 100 dollar bills to re-imburse him.
Not only was Ali generous with his money, but with his time, too.
When he fought Lewis in Dublin , stopping his one-time spar-mate in 11 rounds, my friend Colin Hart of The Sun and I flew over hoping to interview him a few days before the fight, but our plane was delayed. Arriving at the hotel we discovered he had gone to bed, flu stricken and was being attended in his room by a doctor.
We found his trainer Angelo Dundee in the hotel lobby and he was was apologetic.”Afraid you’ve missed him fellahs,” he said.
We explained to him our disappointment and that all we needed was to talk to Ali for ten 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 to go on up.”
We found Ali stretched out in bed with his brother Rahman, being given flu jabs. We emerged two and a half hours later, notebooks bulging.
We could have filled them several times over with the quotes he gave us. He even produced his cheque stubs and flicked through them to show us how much of his money his then missus Belinda was spending.
No wonder we called him the heavyweight champion of the word.
Being a sportswriter around Ali was never less than bliss. He is sorely missed.
Today’s over-protected footballers- and sadly now even certain high-profile boxers – please note.