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Men’s Boxing When Ali and Burns crossed paths

JOHN WIGHT tells the fascinating story behind the boxer’s unexpected interest in the poet and lyricist when he visited Scotland in 1965

ROBERT BURNS and Muhammad Ali are not historical figures you would ever expect to see named in the same sentence, but back in 1965 their paths actually did cross.

Ali came to Scotland in August of that year to fight an exhibition bout at the old Paisley Ice Rink against his long-time friend and sparring partner Jimmy Ellis. Waiting to meet and greet him off his flight were the women of the Braemar Ladies Pipe Band from Coatbridge. Replete in highland regalia, they piped him down the steps of the aircraft onto the tarmac at what was then Renfrew Airport in Glasgow.

The year 1965 had been a turbulent one for the heavyweight world champion up to this point. In February his former mentor, friend and spiritual guide Malcolm X was assassinated at the hands of the Nation of Islam, following a deeply angry and acrimonious split. The fallout saw Ali receive death threats in advance of his May rematch against Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Ali won the rematch in controversial fashion with his now legendary “phantom punch,” with many claiming still to this day that Liston took a fall on orders from the mob, who controlled Liston’s career.

1965 was also a turbulent year for black America overall. On March 7 the civil rights movement in Alabama organised a march from Selma to Montgomery. This was in protest at the murder of a black civil rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by a white police officer. When the marchers, around 600 of them, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were set upon by hundreds of waiting state troopers in an event known to the history of the black civil rights movement as Bloody Sunday.

This then was the backdrop to Muhammad Ali’s August 1965 visit to Scotland as part of a wider European tour.

Ali was by now the bete noire of the US sporting and political establishments, due to his association with the Nation and his defiance of US boxing and racial convention, which held that the world heavyweight champion should be an upstanding citizen and also be conscious, if black, of the racial sensitivities of white America.

Author and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove, writes: “On his visit here [to Scotland], he [Ali] posed naked to the waist in a kilt, sporting a glengarry bunnet and charmed the crowds.” Cosgrove goes on: “It remains one of the greatest photos of celebrity Scotland, only rivalled by The Beatles at the ‘Haste Ye Back’ sign at the English border or Ali’s nemesis Sonny Liston, who also visited Scotland on the exhibition circuit, marching along Glasgow’s Gordon Street in full highland dress.”

Ali’s visit to Scotland saw him appear at Celtic Park, home to Celtic FC, prior to a league match. However he did not receive a warm welcome and left the pitch in the face of a chorus of boos from the terraces. Afterwards he was introduced to the Celtic team. Of the meeting, Celtic legend John “Yogi” Hughes remembered Ali as being “massive — a huge guy. I’m a big guy myself but he had a tremendous physique. He wasn’t there very long and we were a wee bit overwhelmed, to be honest.”

Despite the exhibition bout with Ellis being scheduled to take place in Paisley, Ali insisted on visiting the iconic Burns Cottage all the way out in Alloway, South Ayrshire. That this young black American fighter from Louisville, Kentucky, had even heard of Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, is testament to his own intellectual curiosity and Burns’s international reach and fame.

When Ali arrived, he said: “Is this the place? I heard he could write poetry as well as me.” He then accosted a bust of Burns in the cottage with a light punch and said: “I am not the greatest. I believe that man Burns is better than me at poetry. But I am the second greatest.”

There’s a wonderful black and white picture of Ali sitting in the famous Burns Chair, made from the wood of the wooden press that was used to produce the classic Kilmarnock Edition of Burns’ poems in 1786. In the chair he’s surrounded by a few bewildered locals as he holds a notepad and pencil and pretends to write a poem of his own.

The exhibition bout was a four-round desultory affair, involving Ali and Ellis going through the motions until a section of the crowd in attendance began to boo them. The local newspaper reported that in response Ali turned to the crowd and said: “All booing must stop when the king is in the ring.”

Alan Muir, who wrote a play about Ali’s visit called The Greatest, told BBC Scotland: “For whatever, reason Muhammad Ali wasn’t that great.

“He was dancing around his sparring partner but neither of them were throwing many punches and folk just got fed up.”

Afterwards Ali told reporters: “Coming here to fight is just a favour. Taxes are so high. I don’t make money out of this. Very few boxing fans can afford to come to America to see me fight so I have come to them.”

When he returned to America, Muhammad Ali could never have imagined what the future would hold. In making the decision to defy the attempt by the US military to draft him to serve in Vietnam in 1967, he brought a political tsunami down upon his head that almost culminated in him being sent to prison.

Regardless, Ali stood fast and the rest is history. One wonders if he may have taken some inspiration for his refusal to back down from Scotland’s bard himself. After all, as Burns once wrote: “Firmness in enduring and exertion is a character I always wish to possess. I have always despised the whining yelp of complaint and cowardly resolve.”

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