Monday 24 October 2016

Peerless showman could even deliver a knockout punch on the golf course

Dermot Gilleece

Published 05/06/2016 | 17:00

Muhammad Ali standing over a defeated Sonny Liston in their 1965 rematch. Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS
Muhammad Ali standing over a defeated Sonny Liston in their 1965 rematch. Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

Growing up in the 1950s, I first became conscious of heavyweight boxing as a very significant sporting spectacle. If memory serves me, it wasn't unusual to be awake into the small hours, listening to radio broadcasts of title fights involving such iconic names as Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott.

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It was a time when we gave full rein to the notion of the best pictures being on radio: without television, there wasn't much option. A decade later, the sudden availability of the magic box along with the arrival of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali as a fighting phenomenon proved to be an irresistible sporting marriage.

I can still remember my father's laughter at the arrogance of the man, claiming to be the greatest. It was the first time we had experienced such brashness in major sport.

Sure, there were stories about the vanity of certain hurlers and Gaelic footballers, but this was the first time we had seen somebody display it in such a bold, open manner.

Though we were to learn that with Ali it was largely the cleverness of a marvellous self-publicist, the notion has stayed with me throughout my career in sports writing. And where feigned humility was once a requirement of a leading sportsperson, it has since become commonplace for the great ones to tell us just how good they are.

I twice visited Ali's home city of Louisville, for the PGA Championship of 2000 and Europe's ill-fated Ryder Cup challenge in 2008, both at Valhalla GC. Remarkably, there was no mention of the great man in the tournament programme for either event. You would have thought that 'Hometown Hero' would have been a perfect fit, but it referred not to Ali but to Bobby Nichols, Louisville's finest golfer.

But of course Ali had only a passing acquaintance with the royal and ancient game. The American magazine Golf Digest ran a charming story about him, however, in their October issue of 1974 when the great man, at 32, was only a little way past the peak of his awesome powers.

Rather disrespectfully, the magazine suggested that for someone who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee in a fight ring, he tentatively approached golf "like a sprawled giraffe and swung like a spinning top". The story, related by golf professional Brad Wilson, had to do with a meeting he had with Ali while giving golf lessons at Stardust Country Club in Mission Valley, California.

It seems Ali had set up a training camp at LeBaron Hotel, down the road from Stardust CC, in preparation for a scheduled San Diego assignation with Ken Norton in March 1973. Ten days before the fight, Wilson was on the Stardust practice range early on a Saturday morning when Ali appeared, dressed in a grey tracksuit and wearing heavy running boots, and proceeded to throw some quick shadow punches. He then headed for the golf course.

When Wilson inquired if Ali were going for a run, the fighter's trainer, Angelo Dundee, replied that the course was "a great place for him to run". Recognising a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the professional then asked Dundee if he thought Ali might swing at a golf ball for him. "Ali's his own man," came the reply. "You can ask him when he gets back. It's entirely up to him."

So it was that when Ali returned, soaked with perspiration, Dundee introduced him to Wilson. Fighter and trainer then talked briefly before Wilson invited Ali to make some golf swings which he would record on a Polaroid sequence camera. Though he agreed to do it, Ali claimed he had never before swung at a golf ball.

The truth of that assertion gained rich emphasis when he proceeded to ask Wilson: "How ya hold this thing?" Then, after Ali's hands were placed on the club in a baseball grip, the next question was: "What do I do now?" "Just do whatever feels natural," replied Wilson, pointing the camera all the while.

Whereupon Ali hit what Wilson described as a surprisingly straight shot of 140 yards. "How 'bout that Angie!" crowed a delighted Ali. "You didn't know I was a champion golfer, did you?"

Wearing his professional's cap, Wilson later observed that despite the unorthodox look, Ali's swing had some desirable elements, as in a good shoulder turn, flexed knees, led the downswing with hips and legs, right elbow close to the side, head down, right shoulder lower than the left, and eyes remained fixed on the ball.

In the event, when Ali managed to hit a second ball solidly, he again reacted with child-like glee. "Look at that ball go," he enthused. "Nobody can knock the ball that far. Nobody but me, the great, the one and only Muhammad Ali!"

By this stage, a gathering audience fed the showman in Ali, who suddenly jumped away from the ball and at one point raised both hands into the air and crowed: "Muhammad Ali is the world's greatest golfer! Nobody can beat Muhammad Ali! Not Arnold Palmer, not Jack Nicklaus, not nobody. I'm gonna make 'em look bad, predict the score, how bad I'm gonna beat 'em, everything - just like I do in boxing!"

His final words to a bemused trainer were: "Hey Angie, let's quit boxing and start playing golf. We'll get rich - and besides, that ball can't hit back!"

By way of proving that such aspirations can work in reverse, Mexico's Esteban Toledo won the Allianz Championship four months ago, for his fourth win on the Champions Tour.

"I wanted to be the best fighter in the world, like Muhammad Ali; people thought I was crazy," said the 53-year-old, who was once a lightweight hope in his native country.

For me, a lasting memory of Ali is from a sultry night in Atlanta, Georgia, 20 years ago. That was when he held the Olympic torch in an outstretched right arm while his left arm shook almost uncontrollably.

Here was amazing grace under pressure; a champion of unrivalled majesty that even a cruel illness couldn't diminish.

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