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When Richard Dunn wasn’t supposed to fight Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali
Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
The greatest boxer, a scaffolder and a magician. Steve Bunce on Muhammad Ali and Richard Dunn

THIS is a story about a heavyweight championship fight that was never meant to happen; a simple fight in every way, with the greatest boxer in the world, a scaffolder and a magician.

It was one week in Munich and it is all true, trust me. (Well, most of it.)

It all starts with Muhammad Ali ringside at the Royal Albert Hall in early April of 1976. Ali was probably ringside. In the ring was the fighting pride of Yorkshire, Richard Dunn, in a European title fight against the all-German national idol, Bernd August. On the night, Dunn was meant to lose; he never did, he won and that ruined some wonderful plans for Ali’s global tour.

Earlier in 1976, Ali had fought in Puerto Rico against the Belgian, Jean Pierre-Coopman, and then in Maryland against Jimmy Young. The Dunn fight was in May; Ali would do 15 rounds with Ken Norton in New York in September. That is 40 rounds of boxing; Ali also went 15 rounds with Antonio Inoki in their match in Tokyo, a difficult fight in the middle of Dunn and Norton. The numbers are mad.

The plan was for August to inflict defeat number 10 on Big Richard and then, just over six weeks later fight Ali in Munich. Makes sense, right? It did, but Dunn was too good for the German and it was over after just 98 seconds of the third round.

The show in Germany was a commercial disaster once August had lost. Ali agreed to a $100,000 reduction on his 1.5-million-dollar purse. Mickey Duff always insisted that Ali was getting 3.3 million-dollars. Duff knew about money. The Ali reduction paid for 2,000 American troops to attend. Dunn, by the way, had been a paratrooper; it is hard to imagine the confused atmosphere inside the Olympic Hall in Munich on the night. Dunn was even led to the ring by members of the 1st Parachute Regiment.

Dunn was against it, that is the simple truth; he needed an edge. And that is how the hero of this story, Romark, entered the game.

Romark was a magician, a popular man with the British tabloids for his stunts, most of which were failures. He drove blindfolded and crashed – that type of thing. It is worth remembering that it was a decade of magicians in Britain. Some good, some bad, some just bizarre.

On the first day in Munich, Romark was with the legendary publicist, Norman Giller, when they met Ali and Angleo Dundee at the hotel. Giller knew Ali and Dundee, they were his friends.

Romark fixed Ali with a magical glare and told him that he was “doomed.” He told him several times as he moved in an odd way. Ali fell on the floor laughing, Dundee turned to Giller: “Norman, who is this nutter?” he asked.

It was only stage one of Romark’s plan; deep magic, my brother, is not simple.

In private, as the week gently slipped by, Romark spent hours with Dunn. He worked on Dunn’s “fists of iron.” Dunn, it has to be said, was a cautious convert to the magician’s way. “He was a donut, that’s what I call him,” Dunn said. Romark prowled the hotel lobby and gym, putting curses and spells on Ali and his people. The papers loved it.

And then, Dunn added to the mayhem when he insisted that Dundee had sent spies to watch him train. “They know, they know they have a fight on their hands,” he insisted.

Richard Dunn is right, I can exclusively reveal: Dundee had no idea who Dunn was, how he fought and he had to send a spy or two to find out. The fight had all happened so fast. Ali did spy on Dunn. Romark had placed a spell on Dunn’s fists. It would have been a carnival to cover.

This is the fight where Ali had somehow collected a grand total of 54 in a swollen entourage, all staying at the exclusive and expensive, Bayerischer Hof. Gene Kilroy, Ali’s devoted friend and business manager, had to call a meeting of everybody to, in theory, read the riot act on spending. It backfired, Ali laughed and the indiscriminate spending continued. “He could never say no,” said Kilroy.

On the night, as predicted, Dunn was stupidly brave and dropped five times and stopped in the fifth. They are the last knockdowns of Ali’s career.

There was a bit of real magic at the end, but even that is confusing. Ali had promised to donate his gloves to a fundraiser for Chris Finnegan, who had been forced to retire with eye injuries. Ali gave the gloves to Giller. He possibly gave the gloves to Duff. Inside the gloves on a piece of paper was written: Ali wins, round five. The other version is that the prediction was written inside the gloves, not on a slip of paper. Ali did pick the round– part of the Ali magic.

And Romark? Well, he had one final wonderful cameo in Dunn’s dressing room after the fight. Romark was in tears, Dunn had a beer, he is looking at his bruised face and thinking about ways to spend his money. Romark grabs him by the shoulders, there is silence. It’s a big moment.

“Richard, I let you down,” Romark tells him. “I’m sorry. I made your fists turn into iron – but I forgot about your chin.”

That will do. A magical story from a heavyweight title fight. There needs to be more tales like it.

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