Following the death of Muhammed Ali in 2016 many words were written, eulogies posted and words spoken about his life and enduring legacy. People professed opinions about his greatness in the boxing ring, his stance against induction into the U.S army during the Vietnam War, his views on the civil rights movement and his religious beliefs. Nowhere in the world was the praise more fulsome than in the British Isles. Ali made numerous visits to the United Kingdom and Ireland and the welcome was always warm and welcoming.
Much later in Ali’s life he was to discover far more profound links with people “over the pond”. In 2009, aged 67, he was united for the first time with relatives in Ennistown, Ireland. It had been discovered that Ali’s great-grandfather, Abe Grady, was born and grew up in Ennis before he emigrated to America in 1860, where he married an Afro-American woman, an emancipated slave. Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady, was Grady’s grand-daughter. Ali finally met hundreds of extended family members of the Grady clan as the entire town turned out on a highly emotional day. And in a way it was only fitting that Ali should rediscover his family roots, for there was no doubt that the man who at times felt so victimised in America never felt anything less than at home on the far side of the Atlantic.
During his long and preeminent career, Ali only crossed gloves with four British heavyweight boxers and it could be argued that he brought the best out of each in different ways. Of the four boxers, one became a national treasure in the United Kingdom and a knight of the realm; two were clearly out of their depth, however, both endeared themselves to the British public in different ways and the fourth was, in many peoples opinion, the best equipped to challenge the champ.
Henry Cooper fought Ali twice, firstly at the old Wembley stadium in 1963 and at Highbury, the former home of Arsenal football club, three years later. In that momentous first meeting the path of the World heavyweight championship could have gone in a completely different direction. Britain’s boxing pride and joy floored the future champ with a thunderous left hook. Such was the potency of Copper’s left hook that it was affectionately called- not by the recipients on the receiving end- “Enry’s ‘Ammer”. In 1963 it exploded on Ali’s chin in the last moments of the fourth round. There then came a sequence of events which, it could be argued, denied Cooper one of the most famous upsets in sporting history.
Ali’s right arm looped across a rope as he went down, cushioning a fall which might have been much more damaging had his head crashed into the canvas. He was saved by the bell, four seconds into the count. Then he was rescued by the quick-thinking genius of his trainer, the fabled Angelo Dundee. In one breach of the rules, Dundee held Clay up as he staggered to his feet, helped him back to his corner and immediately gave the future champ smelling salts. With no sign of his man regaining his senses on his stool Dundee kept administering smelling salts, a contravention of British boxing rules which permitted only the use of water.
Also, a myth took hold that Dundee had slit open Ali’s glove to prolong the intermission while a replacement was found. Folklore has it that Ali was given two more minutes than the scheduled one minute to recover. In fact, while the referee did indeed inspect a small tear in the glove, no replacement was sought and video-tape of the fight reveals that only six seconds were added to the interval, albeit half a dozen precious sporting heart-beats for Ali.Nevertheless, such was the outcry, a stipulation requiring a spare pair of gloves to be available at ringside was subsequently added to boxing regulations. Cooper started the 5th round aggressively, attempting to make good his advantage, but a fast recovering Ali effectively countered and Cooper was hit high on the face with a hard right which opened a severe cut under his eye; British referee Tommy Little was forced to end the fight and thereby gave Ali a fortuitous victory.
In 1966 the rematch took place, again in the open air, and Ali, by this time, was the world heavyweight champion. However, Ali was now alert to the danger posed by Cooper’s left and was more cautious than he had been in the previous contest; he held Cooper in a vice-like grip during clinches, and when told to break leapt backward several feet. Accumulated scar tissue around Cooper’s eyes made him more vulnerable than in the previous meeting and a serious cut was opened up by Ali, which again led to the fight being stopped, Cooper, for the second time, was ahead on the scorecards. Sir Henry Cooper went on to be the BBC Sports Personality of the year in both 1967 and 1970, and he was knighted in 2000-the only boxer to date. He died in 2011, aged 76. He is enshrined in the hearts of the British sporting public to such a degree that he will always be “Our ‘Enry”.
Brian London was a former British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion who challenged Ali for the world title in August 1966. This was London’s second challenge for the title. In May 1959 Brian London travelled to the U.S and challenged Floyd Patterson. London acquitted himself very well until he was knocked out in the 11th round. London approached the Ali fight in a confident frame of mind, he also hoped that the crowd would play a part in the fight; however, Ali was fast approaching the peak of his monumental powers and posted a masterful performance. London was knocked out in the third round.
In the pantheon of British heavyweights Brian London’s name does not always spring to the forefront of the minds of boxing aficionados. That being said, London fought four men who held world titles at one point: Ali, Patterson, Ingemar Johansson and Willie Pastrano. The Briton also fought boxers of the caliber of Zora Folley, Jerry Quarry, Pete Rademacher and Joe Bugner; all men who challenged for heavyweight titles at one point. Brian London may not be the most accomplished heavyweight that Britain has produced, but now one can doubt his conviction. Brian London lives in the Northwest coastal town of Blackpool and is well respected for his charity work.
Joe Bugner also fought Ali twice and is the only fighter to have gone the distance twice with Ali, in Las Vegas in 1973 and Malaysia in 1975. Joe Bugner, of the four British heavyweights to make the challenge, seemed to have the right physical characteristics to bring the World title to the U.K. Bugner came into the first fight at 6-4 and 219lb compared to Ali’s 217lb. The scorecards for the 12 round contest appear to be a wee bit lopsided in favour of the American, however, Bugner acquitted himself very well in front of a partisan crowd. The Briton won the respect of both the media and the public alike; no mean feat in the U.S.A. After the fight Ali professed the opinion that Bugner was capable of being a world champion. A very narrow point’s loss to Joe Frazier in Bugner’s next fight seemed to reinforce Ali’s statement. Many regard this period has the pinnacle of Bugner’s career; with the Frazier bout the best performance.
The second Bugner fight with Muhammad Ali, in June 1975, took place in a steamy Kuala Lumpur. This fight, with the heavyweight title at stake, proved to be a one-sided affair. The contest went the full 15 rounds with Ali never seemingly in trouble at any point. Bugner’s main focus during the fight was purely defensive; and he did it well. However, the media and public were less forgiving than in the first fight; Bugner blamed the tropical heat for his less than aggressive approach. During an interview in 2008 Bugner defended his tactics during the second fight and cited the extreme humidity and temperature. It could be pointed out that it’s the same for both fighters. In 1986 he moved to Australia where he adopted the nickname Aussie Joe after taking out dual British-Australian nationality.
Richard Dunn was the last of the British quartet to challenge Muhammad Ali and Dunn is the least well know of the four. Richard Dunn at one point held the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweights titles. He matched Ali in height at 6-4, unfortunately, that’s the only comparison to be made. Dunn challenged Ali when the champ was hurtling towards the twilight of a great career. Even an aging champ was way above class for a boxer whose honesty outstripped his ability. Dunn, in a pre-fight interview, promised that he “I will try my best and not let anybody down”.
We all like an underdog-especially an honest one. The British public willed the out-classed Dunn on and true to his word he tried his best. Ali knocked Dunn him out 2:05 minutes into the fifth round; this was to be the last knockout Ali ever achieved in his professional career. Although he was seriously overmatched, many British fans have said that Dunn made one of the most courageous showings of any British fighter when he faced Ali. Dunn was knocked down five times in five rounds. A sports centre is named after Dunn in his home town of Bradford in honour of his achievements. Richard Dunn lives in contended retirement in the Yorkshire coastal town of Scarborough.
There are two more boxers from the British Isles who can claim tenuous links with Muhammed Ali.Danny McAlinden was an Irish boxer from Newry in Northern Ireland. Whilst he never fought Muhammed Ali; he did have the distinction of fighting Rahman Ali, the younger brother of the champ. McAlinden traveled over to the United States in 1971 and won the fight on points in Madison Squares Garden and not many European heavyweights can claim that distinction. It was touted at the time that McAlinden would challenge the older of the two Ali brothers, along with George Foreman, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however that was not the case.
The obituaries section of The London Times not only provides a rich vivid tapestry of British history, but also throws up little and interesting biographical details or pieces of trivia that we might never discover. The recent death of Jack Bodell in November 2016, and featured in The Times, highlighted the British boxer’s relationship with Ali. Bodell was a former British heavyweight champion who spared with Ali before the latter’s heavyweight defence against Karl Mildenberger in 1966.
Bodell’s relationship with Ali produced one of those wonderful pieces of trivia we all like and treasure. Ali and Bodell became great friends to the extent that when Bodell retired and opened a fish and chip shop in Coventry in 1983, Ali accepted an invitation to the opening. Yes! One of the greatest sportsmen in history went to England to unveil a “chippy”.
Was Ali paid? Did the former champ bank a huge cheque? Not on your life. As Bodell put it, quite wonderfully: “He didn’t charge me a penny, but I did give him some cod and chips”. Posterity does not record what Ali thought about that great British culinary experience. However, it’s speaks volumes that he took the time to embrace a people in which he always had a great affinity.