WE all hated him. Arrogant, loud-mouthed, disrespectful and dead lucky. That was the consensus in the playground the day after Cassius Clay, as he was then, beat Henry Cooper in June 1963.
We just couldn’t believe what we had seen the night before on TV.
Clay had entered the ring, not yet a world champion, in full mock-ermine robes and a replica crown.
He screamed that he was the greatest with his mouth so wide you could see his tonsils on your black and white screens.
No-one had behaved like this before.
Henry Cooper was a quiet Englishman, with a likeable East End manner and a killer left hook.
Heroes in those days did their thing with modesty and didn’t brag - Sean Connery as James Bond, Bobby Charlton as Bobby Charlton and all those uncles and neighbours who had fought in the war and didn’t talk about it. Then he came along.
Not only did he shout the place down and take liberties with his regal entrance, he beat Henry Cooper when the fight was stopped because Cooper’s eyes had cut up badly - as they often did. But not before Cooper had floored him with a left hook that the recipient said hit him so hard that his ancestors felt it in Africa. We were devastated that ‘Our Enery’ had lost to such an apparently un-sporting loudmouth.
Little could we or any kid in any playground in the world have known then what a force had been unleashed. As provincial English eight-year-olds we didn’t know that Cassius Clay, as legend has it, had thrown his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river because as a black man he couldn’t get served in an all-white restaurant in his home City of Lousville Kentucky. We didn’t know that later, as Muslim convert Muhammad Ali he would risk prison, be stripped of his world title and banned from boxing for three years at the height of his powers for refusing to join the US Army to fight in Vietnam to, as he put it: “bomb brown people 10,000 miles away” while “so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”
We didn’t know how funny, how physically stunning, humane and intelligent, how unique a symbol of a changing world he would be, never mind how great a fighter. We hadn’t yet seen the full speed, power and balletic energy of the man who would beat world champion Sonny Liston and destroy Floyd Patterson and a dozen others on his way to the top.
We could not have imagined the brutality of the fights against Frazier, the incredible theatre and unpredictability of the victory over Foreman in Zaire to win back the world title at the age of 32.
Muhammad Ali made some terrible mistakes in his personal and professional lives, left a trail of angry wives, lovers, opponents and resentful offspring in his wake.
He trusted the wrong people, got through tens of millions of dollars and, most tellingly, fought on until his mental and physical capacities were permanently damaged. But no-one who saw the ‘Lousville Lip’ in his ermine and crown for the first time in 1963 will ever forget him or that moment.
At that time his projection of his talent, ambition and belief were too much for our infant minds to grasp. But we, and the rest of humanity, soon realised what a force of nature the world had in its midst.
And we loved him for it.