December 26, 2016
December 26, 2016
Muhammad Ali

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THE heat enveloped me as soon as I stepped outside the air-conditioned comfort of the terminal at New Orleans Airport, wrapping itself around me like clingfilm until, within seconds, my shirt and trousers pressed damply against my body. The temperature was only 87 degrees, modest by the ferocious standards of Las Vegas – but then this was not the dry, desert heat of Nevada, where the short walk from the carpark to the hotel foyer evaporates the last drop of moisture in your mouth. In New Orleans (Noo Awlins to the natives) dehydration was an enviable condition, but whatever the discomfort I was not about to start complaining.

Most of us, with even a modest share of luck, will realise at least one of the pipe-dreams that sustain us through the dreary daily routine. But I was truly fortunate, and I knew it: on that September afternoon in 1978, I was fulfilling three of my daydreams in a single operation.

Close family ties with the country had made America a place I longed to visit, and I had always promised myself that if I ever got to the States, a trip to New Orleans would figure prominently on my itinerary. Apart from being the most beautiful city in America (some might say the only beautiful city in America, although San Franciscans would disagree) its music had always made it a special place. Kid Ory, Armstrong and the rest had made Bourbon Street, Basin Street, and Rampart Street as familiar to me as Tottenham Court Road and the Haymarket.

And then, of course, there was the Muhammad Ali Factor. Like everyone else who went through adolescence in the early Sixties, I had hero-worshipped the man. I listened aghast in my boarding school dormitory on a smuggled-in transistor as Henry Cooper left-hooked him to the brink of defeat at Wembley in 1963; I spent my winnings from a TV quiz show in 1966 on a ticket for the championship rematch at Highbury, and as a boxing writer I craved the chance to cover one of his fights.

Now, through the improbable agency of the Daily Mirror Punters Club, I was fulfilling all three fantasies at once. The Leon Spinks v Muhammad Ali rematch had been set for the New Orleans Superdome on September 15, headlining the biggest boxing card in the sport’s history. Apart from Ali’s attempt to become heavyweight champion for an unprecedented third time (billed, inevitably, as “The Third Coming”), there were three other title fights on the show. Victor Galindez, one of the best champions of the day, was risking his WBA light-heavyweight title against the Jewish Bomber, Mike Rossman, while the dramatic Danny Lopez defended the WBC featherweight crown against Juan Malvarez of Argentina. Almost as an after-thought, and with the near-contempt with which Americans outside Los Angeles view any fighters scaling under 9st, the elegant Panamanian Jorge Lujan figured in the small print defending his WBA bantamweight title against the rugged Californian Alberto Davila.

The Punters Club decided to run a package trip to the show, and placed an advertisement for it in Boxing News. BN’s co-owner David Kaye, a man persuasive enough to talk a river into flowing up a mountainside, offered the club an arrangement whereby we would not charge for the advertising if they took me along, and to my delight they accepted.

I flew from Gatwick with the punters, in the excellent company of Mirror photographer Monte Fresco. The flight was enlivened by an astonishing black man called, he said, Count Suckle, although I hate to think how often he hears the obvious variation on that theme. He treated us to an hour-long monologue about his sexual prowess and accomplishments, with particular reference to his achievements in Malaysia, where he watched the Ali v Joe Bugner title fight. Monte, who was there at the time, assured me that the story was not in the least exaggerated, in which case there may now be half a dozen Malaysian 11-year-olds claiming descent from the British aristocracy.

We broke the journey at Bangor, Maine, for refuelling. An airline official, wearing a three-piece suit and white plastic shoes, came on board to tell us what to do when we ‘deplaned’. It was the first of many illustrations of how the Americans murder the language. I bought a local paper at the airport shop and read an article about how China was shaking off the influence of Chairman Mao, a process the paper called “deMaoification”.

Bangor is a coastal town, famous for its lobsters. There is a fish tank in the airport lounge with a tank full of live lobsters: you pick the one you want, and they cook it while you wait.

I settled instead for what was billed as an “undressed cheeseburger”, more to see what “undressed” meant than because I fancied a cheeseburger. It turned out to be a cheeseburger without salad and also, as far as my palate could detect, without cheese either.

We came in over the Hudson Bay on the way down to Bangor. As a schoolboy in Portstewart I had, for reasons that baffle me now, developed an obsession with the Hudson Bay area and read voraciously about its fur trappers, explorers, and pioneers – I never dreamt then that I would actually see the Bay sometime, even if it was from 35,000 feet.

The run-in to Bangor was memorable. For as far as you could see when we broke through the clouds there was nothing but thick forest below us, and it seemed to go on for ever. Fully 10 minutes passed, travelling at 600mph, before we saw the slightest evidence of human life, even a road. It was a breath-taking demonstration of the vastness of America.

The cabin crew changed at Bangor, and the very surly team we had on the journey’s first leg were replaced by a couple of Southern beauties who had the dark chocolate drawl, even saying “Y’all”, although they may have felt obliged to add that for a bit of local colour. We approached New Orleans over one of the world’s engineering miracles – a 25-mile bridge across the bay, linking Louisiana with Mississippi. It stretched to the horizon below us, white and straight as a strip of cloth laid across a deep blue sheet.

A coach waited for us at the airport, driven by a character who looked and sounded like one of those Alabama sheriffs from the Civil Rights days, the kind who were always letting the alsatians loose and clubbing a demonstrator or two. He wore an elaborate arrangement of headset and mouthpiece, like an American television commentator, and kept up a non-stop conversation with the driver of the coach in the front. He was a compulsive talker who could not tolerate more than five seconds of silence, even when he had nothing to say.

Most of it, even allowing for the accent, was unintelligible – things like “Two-four Lester boy, there’s a l’il ole doodlebug up front there boy”, and suchlike. All of this nonsense was delivered in a loud, penetrating voice that rendered the two-way radio superfluous: ole Lester could have heard him adequately from half-a-mile away without it.

We drove past the Superdome, a vast concrete edifice shaped like a mushroom with the stem cut off and, so far as I could see, without a single window. “That there’s the Superdome”, the driver informed us. “It cost $197m to build and now it’s up for sale, so if’n any of y’all want to take a l’il souvenir back home…”

We took a cab to Bourbon Street, but sat in a monumental traffic jam for ten minutes, less than 100 yards from our hotel. We left the cab there, after the driver had warned us not to “mess with those Mexican girls on Bourbon – they’ll rip you off, man. Try the girls on Decaster – they’ll give you a good deal”. A little local knowledge is always useful, so we gave him a decent tip.

The jam was caused by a couple of police cars and an ambulance attending a young black boy in his teens who had been stabbed and was lying, barely alive, on a blood-slicked pavement. On a London street the scene would instantly have attracted a throng of gawpers and ghouls, but here people were walking past without a second glance. They were either more sensitive than the British, or more hardened to street violence: probably the latter.

Bourbon Street was exactly as I had imagined it. There really was jazz on every corner, sometimes little bands and sometimes just one or two musicians doing their thing. The night was full of music and although there were a hundred different tunes in the air they somehow did not clash, but blended into one all-pervading sound that got right inside my head. It was an extraordinary sensation.

I had never been anywhere that felt so alive. The place bubbled with atmosphere, and was crammed with outlandish characters. All the “bad dudes” were in town, as they were for every Ali fight: black men dressed in the most garish fashions, some of them even in ankle-length white mink coats. Their women, too, were spectacular. Most of them seemed to be trying to look as “white” as possible, with straightened hair, occasionally even dyed blonde. It struck me as odd, considering Ali’s oft-expressed views on the clear divisions between the races… but then Ali’s own enthusiastic interest in the opposite sex has invariably been aimed at women who look American rather than African.

I went to the press headquarters at the Hilton the next morning to collect my credentials. Reg Gutteridge was there, and he introduced me to a remarkable old man called Sam Taub who, since he had celebrated his 92nd birthday the previous day, could justifiably claim to be the world’s oldest boxing writer.

I attended the recording of a TV interview with Ali and Spinks. All the eight fighters involved in the title show were seated along a table, yet only the heavyweights got into camera shot: the other six were not asked a solitary question between them. It seemed a discourteous way to treat some of the greatest boxers in the world, but then Americans are not best known for their good manners. Plastic politeness, though, was everywhere. “Y’all have a nice day now”, “Thank you for your custom sir, it’s been our pleasure serving you”, and so on, from the same people who elbow you out of a bus queue in London. Americans seem to say it as a reflex; I don’t doubt that a mugger would tell you to “Have a nice evening, sir” as he made off down the alley with your assets.

But perhaps I am being unfair: I have also encountered innumerable instances of genuine kindness and concern, like the lady who once abandoned her shop, till and all, to tend to me with water and towels when I developed a quite spectacular nosebleed outside her premises on the Las Vegas Strip.

Ali was subdued, even bored. The interview was being conducted on the air from Washington, so that we only heard the answers and had to guess the questions.

Before they went on air, the photographers were allowed five minutes to get their pictures. A little boy, no more than nine years old, had somehow got past all the credential checks and security men and knelt facing Ali across the table, with only the top of his head visible. He was carrying a polaroid camera, but was so overcome by being so close to the great man that he ‘froze’ and did not take a picture.

Muhammad noticed him, and must have realised what was wrong. He suddenly came to life, pulling faces and clowning, until finally the child found the nerve to take the pictures that, no doubt, he still cherishes. Whatever Ali’s faults, there are times when even his worst enemy would find it hard to dislike him.

Much of my time was spent in the pressroom. It was my first experience of a major American promotion, and I was more than a little wide-eyed to find myself chatting to faces who had hitherto only been names in boxing legend to me. (The pressroom served as fight headquarters, and there was a constant flow of ex-champs, managers, promoters and trainers through it.)

I went to the Royal Street to find 636, the site of the Olympic Club where James J. Corbett beat John L. Sullivan in the first gloved contest for the world heavyweight title. The building was derelict now, with nothing to indicate what it once was.

Nearby was a sign for a fortune teller, and in view of New Orleans’ reputation in psychic and supernatural matters I went for a reading. It was done by a very old woman who worked out of a back room in a tea-shop in one of those buildings with the beautiful lace-work wrought iron balconies on every floor. As I entered the room, and before I had even spoken, she said: “You make your living with words”, which was a mightily impressive start. From then on the reading was a mixture of the wildly inaccurate with the uncomfortably true, with truth having the edge. It was an unsettling experience.

That evening, Monte Fresco and I went to the most grotesquely tasteless bar I have ever been in. It was called, aptly, “Anything Goes”. The doorman was a two-foot midget dressed as a monk, which set the general tone of the place.

The city itself is a curious blend of the exquisite and the appalling. Having spent some time wandering around the lovely French Quarter, we stumbled on the new Hyatt Hotel, which is in heroically bad taste. It is a show-case for everything that is gross and unintentionally funny about the Americans; glass everywhere, fountains playing in the lobbies, and hideously patterned carpet so thick that you almost needed a machete to hack a path through it.

The hotel’s one appealing feature was a glass-sided lift that went, at heart-stopping speed, up the outside of the 26-storey building. It offered a spectacular view of the city, along with a bad dose of vertigo.

The day before the fight, we were taken to view the Superdome from the inside. It is the biggest indoor arena in the world, seating 100,000, and its upper tiers are so high above the arena floor that giant closed-circuit TV screens had been suspended from the ceiling to enable the customers in the ‘gods’ to see what was happening at ground level. Walking down from the top tier, I had to throw my weight backwards the way one would when coming down a steep mountainside.

It was a strange sight, the ring standing empty and minute in the centre of the vast, echoing stadium. As George Whiting was fond of putting it in the Standard long ago, it looked “like a scaffold awaiting an execution”. The picture on fight night was very different. The show attracted what remains, in 1986, the largest paid attendance ever for an indoor promotion, and virtually all the 100,000 seats were occupied by the time the first pair ducked between the ropes.

One of the few that was unoccupied was the seat with my name on it. I had been allocated a pitch in the press reserve area, high above the ring, and was decidedly unhappy at coming so far to get such a poor seat. Not for the first time, Reg Gutteridge came to the rescue. He was doing the closed-circuit commentary back to Britain, as well as ITV’s commentary and, almost as an after-thought, reporting the fight for the now-defunct London Evening News. He had, it seemed, been allocated a seat in each of these assorted personifications, so I grabbed one of them and sat with him in the commentary position at the ring apron. In exchange, I acted as a second pair of eyes for him as well as offering the occasional word to the cinema viewers at home, the first chance I had had to perform what has become a fairly regular and always enjoyable role.

The ringside area was crammed with flamboyantly dressed ‘dudes’ and their ladies, all of whom insisted on taking the longest possible route to their seats, invariably involving a parade around all four sides of the ring. Predictably, none of these over-dressed, over-moneyed individuals took the slightest interest in the first fight.

Jorge Lujan, a slender stylish Panamanian, outwitted the tough and aggressive Californian Alberto Davila over 15 brisk rounds to retain the WBA bantamweight title. For someone like me, for whom any world title fight is a major experience, it was weird to be present at a world championship that was ignored by virtually everyone in the 100,000 crowd, with the excited and voluble exceptions of Lujan’s seconds in the corner above us.

Davila was managed by an affable bail bondsman from Los Angeles called Benny Georgino, who also looked after the sensational Danny “Little Red” Lopez. Danny had the red hair of the Irish with the angular features of the American Indian, and he hit like no other featherweight I have ever seen. Like most big punchers he was himself vulnerable, so his fights could generally be relied on to contain a full quota of knockdowns and thrills. But against Juan Malvarez that night, he surpassed even his own dramatic standards.

The Argentinian ripped his defences to shreds inside a minute, before knocking the champion flying onto the seat of his pants with a right, left hook, and right to the head combination. Lopez was up quickly, but had to fight for his life as Malvarez surged in for the finish. The round seemed to go on, and on, at such an extravagant pitch of excitement that we were almost screaming for it to end.

A left hook rocked Lopez again at the start of the second, and as he swayed Malvarez rushed in to complete the job. Instead, Danny took a small step backwards and fired a perfect short right that caught the challenger flush on the jaw. Malvarez stayed upright for a second, then pitched forward, Lopez still throwing punches at him as he fell. The gallant Argentinian tried three times to beat the count, but could not get his legs to function and each time he toppled backwards. It was blind, instinctive courage: as the count was completed Malvarez began to shake and twitch, and one cornerman held him down while another applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Finally, after two minutes he recovered, and was able to walk from the ring.

“I’d have liked to have gone a few more rounds to give the people here a better show”, Lopez remarked afterwards. “I trained hard for this one but it was easier than I thought it would be”. Nobody was quite sure whether or not he was joking.

It was a tough act to follow, and the massive arena was still buzzing as WBA light-heavyweight title challenger Mike Rossman made his entrance. Rossman was managed by his father, a stocky, cigar-chewing Italian-American called Jimmy DiPiano who looked, sounded, and acted exactly like an extra from a gangster movie. (There is nothing new about phony Jewish billing, by the way: Max Baer, the heavyweight champion in the 1930s, wore the Star of David on his shorts to attract the Jewish public but was in fact a German Catholic).

Rossman had the unenviable task of challenging Victor Galindez, one of the great fighters of his era. This would be the Argentinian’s 11th defence, a record bettered only by the magnificent Bob Foster. He was heavily favoured to retain the title, particularly since all had not been well in the Rossman camp. Father and son had a volatile relationship, as often happens when fathers attempt to manage their sons’ careers, but this was to be the night when everything went right.

Galindez was a sorry disappointment. He fought as if his heart was not in the job, with none of the teeth-gritting fire and fury that had carried him through such a fabulous career. Rossman outboxed and demoralised him, snapping jabs into the champion’s increasingly battle-worn face and then stepping up the pace from the ninth to keep Galindez pinned on the ropes for long spells in the 10th and 11th rounds. The old war-horse rallied desperately in the 12th, but it was his last stand: Rossman let him have his final fling, and then opened up in the 13th to force the referee’s intervention.

The tension and atmosphere in the Superdome was, by this time, almost tangible, and for fully 10 minutes before he appeared the crowd was chanting Ali’s name. Support for Spinks was negligible, but then there has never been a fighter in history who could match Ali’s hold on the public’s affections.

Most of Leon’s supporters seemed to be working his corner – he had 10 seconds, including even his former trainer in the Marines, who arrived in town the day before the fight.

The cornerwork was a circus act, and it finally got so bad that George Benton, the former middleweight craftsman who devised the strategy with which Spinks had beaten Ali six months previously, left in disgust after five rounds. The old pro was weeping with frustration as he told anyone who would listen: “I had to get out – there’s too many amateurs in there”.

The fight was embarrassingly one-sided. Ali fooled us all again, this time by doing precisely what he had said he would at the pre-fight press conferences. He moved, danced, and jabbed, and there was nothing Spinks could do about it. It was the only time I can ever recall giving a challenger 15 rounds out of 15, although the three officials were less generous with two scores of 10-4-1 and one of 11-4.

“In many ways, this was Ali’s master-work,” I wrote at the time. “It may have lacked the relentless ferocity of the Frazier fights, or the technical perfection of some of the pre-1967 defences, but it’s the one for which he deserved to be remembered. He fought as if he wanted it to be so: there was no clowning, no talking or taunting his opponent, no rope-a-dope and no new gimmicks.

“He won it exactly as he’d said he would, by rolling back the years and dancing his way into legend”.

Yet mixed with the jubilation was an uneasy feeling that the story would not have a happy ending. At the post-fight conference, Ali told us that “I want to be the first black champion to go out on top. Louis, Robinson, Charles, Walcott – they all stayed too long and went out as losers. I’m gonna be different.”

I longed to believe him, but the doubts remained.

I concluded my report with the words “I fear the multi-million dollar temptation to fight once more may prove too much. There is, too, the incentive to break Joe Louis’s record of 25 defences. For Ali, there is always one more mountain to climb.”

For once, there was no pleasure at all in being right.

This piece was first published in Boxing News magazine.