Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali 1942 - 2016

I met Muhammad Ali just once at a strange place: Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford in June 1992. It was exam time and I should have been revising like mad but there was no way I was passing up the chance to meet Muhammad Ali. He was, of course, a shadow of his former self by then, suffering from various early onset Parkinson's symptoms that were almost certainly brought on by boxing, especially that last terrible competitive fight against Larry Holmes where Ali's brain took a pummelling. Boxing it must always be remembered is an awful sport if it can even be called a sport at all. But Muhammad Ali was from 1962 - 1974 the greatest fighter in the world, maybe the greatest boxer there has ever been. That period '62 - '74 can pretty much be summed up as the era of Muhammad Ali, George Best and the Beatles. All six had Irish roots. Best was born in Belfast and the Beatles were all 2nd generation Micks from Liverpool. Muhammad Ali's original name was Clay but his maternal family were Gradys from Co Clare. Grady comes from the Irish Grádaigh, meaning "noble". Ali visited Ireland many times over the years, to fight at Croagh Park, to appear on the Gay Byrne show and on his last visit to tour the home of his ancestral grand parents in Ennis, Co Clare.
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That day in Blackwells was pretty emotional. Ali was touring a book and many of the hardbitten hacks in the British tabloids hadn't seen him for over a decade, not since he was the lippy, skinny, sarky promoter of his own fights, always by far, the wittiest man in the room. In 1992 he looked old, gaunt, grey. Some of the hacks in the front row were even starting to well up as Ali stood there holding his book, shaking and saying nothing. "You're the greatest, champ!" one reporter said as tears rolled down his face. Ali smiled and started fumbling in his tracksuit pocket. He took out a ten pound note, reached across the stage and gave it to the man. Then he winked and said into the microphone "I told him to say that." Everyone laughed. The Champ, brought low by disease and time, still bloody had it. 
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I wanted to take the emotion of that little encounter with Ali and do something with it in my writing. I imagined a slightly younger Muhammad Ali coming to Belfast during the Troubles. He never did come to Belfast during the Troubles but I write fiction for a living so it wasn't difficult coming up with a scenario about what might have happened that day. Here's me reading Chapter 1 of Rain Dogs - the complete Muhammad Ali bit... Or if you're not into the whole youtube thing, you can read the entire thing here, too. RIP, Champ.