Muhammad Ali made boxing what it is today. Boxing was and still is the gladiator sport, but Ali brought character to the game. He was the first one that started badmouthing opponents, using his gift of the gab. But when Ali did it, he did it with a twinkle in his eye, with a little bit of class. Some of the people that do it now just make themselves look like dickheads.
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He was the one that started all the banter in boxing - ‘I’ll knock him out in five, I’ll knock him out in four’ - so even non-boxing fans started to ask ‘who’s this Muhammad Ali?’ That’s when non-boxing fans became boxing fans, because it became entertaining. He was technically brilliant, too. He could box. He could stand there with George Foreman, take the punches, come back and knock him out.
He was so much more than a boxer. He was an entertainer and he also stood up for his beliefs. A lot of people in boxing have strong religious beliefs; most have come from underprivileged backgrounds and have had tough times. Muhammad Ali was one of them, but it’s unique that he would risk prison have his career cut short just because of his religious beliefs. People didn’t respect it too much at the time, but as years went by, he was admired.
He’s still the boxer that young fighters want to emulate. And it’s not just boxers; everybody wants to be the best, whether it’s a boxer or Joe Public. I think if you asked any man or woman on the street the top three people they’d most like to meet in their life, Muhammad Ali would be in everyone’s three. You don’t have to be a boxing fan. I was very privileged to go to one of his dinners when he came over to the UK and I also had the honour of speaking in front of him at Old Trafford - which is one of the few times that it’s a privilege to go to Old Trafford.
I was even more fortunate when he came to my gym – just the fact that he’d come to Hyde, which isn’t even in Manchester, it’s just a local town. Not many people come to Hyde, certainly not Muhammad Ali, so it was one of the greatest days for me, my family and my area. They had to cordon the streets off. If someone had said ‘Muhammad Ali is coming to Hyde’ most people would’ve laughed it off. It was great. I always thought I’d love to meet him and thankfully I’ve done that now and got my own little memory of him.
There was still that twinkle in his eye. Some days he was quite bad and really struggled, but every now and again he’d be full of beans, and he’d smile at you or throw a jab. He was so poorly, but then you’d see the great man come to life. It was really memorable. He was a unique man and there’ll never be another.
To meet Muhammad Ali, not only the greatest boxer of all time, not only one of the greatest sportsman of all time, but one of the greatest men of all time, was a highlight of my life.