LONDON: A British civil rights activist recalled on Saturday how Muhammad Ali told him he had more nerve than great rival Joe Frazier when he asked the heavyweight boxing legend to visit a London school for free.
Paul Stephenson—speaking after Ali’s death aged 74 on Friday having battled Parkinson’s disease for decades—went round to Ali’s hotel in London in 1974 and asked him if he would visit the school in a rundown area of the city.
Ali was on his way through to Chicago after beating another formidable rival in George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in what was then Zaire.
Stephenson was a governor of a school in tough south London.
“There were a thousand plus boys at the time and they will all remember that day,” he told the Bristol Post.
In an earlier interview with the newspaper Stephenson related how Ali, when confronted by him at the hotel, had said he was a very busy man.
However, after chatting away for a while, Ali warmed to the idea of the school visit—but then asked the million-dollar question: how much would he be paid.
“I told him I couldn’t even pay him a dollar,” said Stephenson.
“And he said, ‘Not even a dime? Man, you’ve got more nerve than Joe Frazier.’ And from then on Muhammad and myself just hit it off. I arranged to send a car for him the following day.”
Ali was so moved by the experience that he even dedicated a poem to Stephenson and the school. “I like your school Mr Stephenson; I admire your style; But your pay’s too cheap; I won’t be back for a while.”
Stephenson believes it might not have happened had he referred to the boxer by his birth name Cassius Clay.
Ali claimed the heavyweight title for the first time defeating Sonny Liston as Clay but changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1964.
“He had a great desire for equality and justice,” said Stephenson, who worked with the boxer to set up the Muhammad Ali Sports Development Association in Brixton, London, and put him in touch with the man who put in place an equivalent one in Birmingham.
Perhaps surprisingly, boxing never played a role in their communications, Stephenson said.
“We never spoke about boxing. We really got together and talked about bringing communities together,” he said. “He was an amazing human being. The world has lost one of the greatest human beings.”
Tributes from British boxing
The British boxing community also paid handsome tribute to Ali.
Barry McGuigan, former featherweight world champion, said Ali’s grace and charisma had every youngster wanting to be a boxer.
“He was just so amazing in every way,” said McGuigan, now a successful boxing manager.
“More than anything else it was how humble and how brilliantly charismatic he was. He was a beautiful-looking man, a beautiful-looking individual and he had so much compassion.”
Newly crowned cruiserweight world champion Tony Bellew told BBC Radio that Ali was unrivalled in sport.
“The greatest sportsman of all time in my opinion. He transcended the sport and this is a sad day,” said Bellew, who co-starred with Sylvester Stallone in the critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated film Creed. “He can never be replicated.”
Amir Khan, the 2004 Olympic lightweight silver medalist and former light-welterweight world champion, said he was honored to have met his hero.
“Inspiring, charismatic, a true legend—Ali will never be forgotten,” said Khan. Having the chance to meet the great man will be a memory and privilege I will always hold dear to me—an incredible human being, fighter and role model. Thank you Muhammad for inspiring us all.”
Britain’s former undisputed heavyweight world champion Lennox Lewis tweeted Ali was a “giant among men” and paid tribute to his “talent, courage & conviction.”