Muhammad Ali touched us all. I was fortunate to be old enough to witness his early career after the Rome Olympiad. His two fights with Henry Cooper and one with Brian London ( “I knew he was fast but I did not know he was greased lightening”) endeared him to Britian and this feeling was mutual. I am delighted amongst my collection of sporting memorabilia to have a signed photo of him fighting Cooper in Highbury and even more rare the commemorative brochure of Henry Cooper’s fiftieth birthday in April 1984 at the Dorchester signed by the two of them.
My beloved cat Cassius bears his name and was I so proud that my Cassius developed a set of boxing skills. One bout took place in front of my late parents on a Thursday morning with his old adversary a Filipino cleaner named Joel. Joel was tall and rangy in the style of the Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns but, although conceding height and reach, the superior ring craft of Cassius soon had him trapped in a corner. He moved in for the kill with a flurry of jabs with that incredible paw speed of his. Joel could only jump in the air. My late mother implored the referee to stop the contest. Watching closely emotion got the better of me as I chanted “Cassius, boom aye” (” kill him”). as the Zairians did on the epic night he beat Foreman to reclaim his title, the only heavyweight to do so three times. Now my Chef de Security, Cassius gives much back to the sport he graced with voluntary work at boxing clubs and as trainer for white collar fighters. Occasionally he will slip away for a few days on a mission. I never ask but a few days later I read of a terrorist being taken our silently and professionally. Now packing a few pounds around his midriff he can still bob and weave with the best. My p/a, in trying to reclaim a cover on which Cassius was taking his afternoon nap, found herself at the wrong end of a fast jab.
He was naturally devastated about the passing of a man he knew well. Sometimes they would spar together, on others Ali would produce his deck of card to show him a magic trick. Cassius would joke “What’s my name ?” as Ali taunted Ernie Terrell but the Great Man would only laugh, he was a great jester and one of the warmest men you would ever meet.
I did ask our James Westacott how he rated him as a fighter:
“These boxing comparisons whilst entertaining are meaningless. In terms of ring record, Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano had better ones but they were really light heavyweight compared to Ali a super heavyweight. As pure ring technicians I would rate the Sugar Rays Robinson and Leonard higher. Carlos Monzon only lost two fights early on in his career and was more destructive but his durability was never tasted. Above all we will never know what would have happened had Ali not been stripped of his title. He might have got at Smokin Joe Frazer much earlier. I think we are influenced by the incredible personality that was Ali but his ability to take a punch and to be totally left field and improvise his ring craft in his later career must make him the Greatest Heavyweight of them all.“