Bermuda remembers Ali, The Greatest
Bermudians are remembering “an inspiration”, “a formidable fighting spirit” and “the greatest champion ever to have lived” with the passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
The great sportsman, who passed away on Friday, visited Bermuda in 1965 and 1974 and made a lasting impression on those who were lucky enough to meet him.
During his visits, the American icon did not shy away from the limelight — he took time to visit a number of schools, including Robert Crawford and Central School (now Victor Scott Primary), and to make a speech at the Clayhouse Inn while wowing the staff and guests at the former Hamilton Princess where he was staying.
Trailblazing promoter Olive Trott brought Ali here in 1965 to take part in a boxing exhibition at the Tennis Stadium. She asked her friend and former police officer Wentworth Christopher to “provide assistance” throughout his visit.
While Ali was at the Hamilton Princess during his three-day trip to the island, he was faced with contempt by some of the hotel guests because of the memory of his stance against the Vietnam War, which cost him 3½ years out of the ring when he was at his peak. One of the things that stood out in Mr Wentworth's memory was how Ali had those same guests “feeding out of his hands” in a few moments.
Mr Wentworth recalls: “Some guests were not too friendly disposed to him due to the ‘draft-dodging' situation and it was interesting to see how he was able to win over those guests — people were looking at him in mystery and contempt, but he soon had them feeding out of his hands.”
Mr Christopher was able to remain in proximity to Ali throughout his stay and was even the target of his playful humour.
Recalling the incident, he laughed: “I wasn't too happy about that ... I was dressed in a three-piece suit and Muhammad was in a tracksuit. We were leaving Burnaby Street going towards Cedar Avenue and I was walking at a dignified pace. All of a sudden, he started running and, of course, I couldn't let him run ahead and leave me walking at a dignified pace, so I had to run in my three-piece suit. It must have been a sight for people to see.”
According to Mr Christopher, Ali's visit was spurred by a healthy interest he had paid to the contestants of Miss Universe event, who shared a gym with him in Miami Beach.
Ms Trott, the founder of the Miss Bermuda contest in 1965 and a woman whom Ali affectionately called “my Bermuda mama”, set a challenge for her friend Ali.
“Olive Trott was at the Miss Universe contest and he had his gym in the same building,” Mr Christopher said. “She saw how he was admiring all the contestants, so she told him if he came to Bermuda and put on an exhibition, he would get to see more of Miss Bermuda. That was in July of 1965 and he was here in September.”
The boxing exhibition itself was a success. Ali faced Kid Gavilán in the ring and the match was refereed by Bermudian Freddie Thomas, the father of Marico Thomas, of Four Star Pizza, and a boxer himself.
Speaking on the loss of Ali, Mr Christopher added: “It was a sad experience. It was tragic even when you saw him at the Olympics [as a torchbearer at the Atlanta Games in 1996], when a man who was so fast on his feet was a shell of his former self, even though you could still detect that formidable fighting spirit that was within him. I remember a great man, a man of character. He was kind-hearted and easy to get along with. Most people who interacted with him were in awe of him.”
During his visit to The Central School in 1974, he certainly had the young boys who attended the school in awe.
Brownlow Adderley was one of those boys, and he said he was so excited to see him that he was “jumping up and down”.
During the assembly, one of the other boys, whom Mr Christopher believes to be Troy Clark, started doing the “Ali Shuffle” and Ali told him to come up on stage and do it.
He said to the boy: “You think you can beat me?” The boy nodded and Ali promptly got down on one knee and told him “go ahead and see if you can knock me out”. Mr Adderley recalled that the boy went at him “furiously and fearlessly”, causing Yvonne Simmons, the school principal, to attempt to intervene, but Ali said “no, let him go”.
Troy managed to catch Ali with a punch and the Champ played the role of being out for the count. Ali then raised the boy's hand and said he is the new world champion.
Mr Adderley said: “I was amazed; I wanted to be the kid on the stage.”
But he got to have an even closer encounter with the man who became known simply as “The Greatest”. After Ali's visit, the teachers told the children to return to their classrooms, but Mr Adderley had other ideas. “I didn't care if I got punished, I just wanted to get close to him, so I bolted after him and some of my friends followed me,” Mr Adderley said. “We ran up to his car and he wound down the window and said, ‘You wanna piece of me, too?'”.
Mr Adderley, who had a stutter back then, was so star-struck that he couldn't get a single word out.
He added: “Then he just said: ‘Stay in school and learn all you can'.”
Describing himself as a “sports fanatic”, Ali was an inspiration but he inspired the young Mr Adderley in other ways.
“As children we live in our own world and are not subjected to the struggles our parents went through,” he said. “Then you learn more about history and my admiration for him grew.”
Mr Adderley had a chance encounter with Ali was years later in New York when he was in the city with “baseball fanatics” John Ray and Anthony Mouchette, and Ali stepped out of a yellow cab on Broadway.
“Tony recognised him from the back of his head,” Mr Adderley recalls. “No one has the same-shaped head as him. I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, champ' and I saw his hands were shaking from the Parkinson's. He gave me a signed Muslim leaflet.”
On hearing the news of Ali's death, Mr Adderley said: “I was very saddened — it is hard to deny that he was the greatest. He was magnificent.”
Harry Patchett was a young teacher of English at Robert Crawford school when Ali visited. “He spoke to the students and staff for 45 minutes without a script or notes of any kind,” he recalls. “The students were spellbound throughout his presentation, hanging on to his every word — the boys at Crawford in 1974 were a tough crowd, but he had them in the palm of his hand.”
Michael Dunkley paid tribute to Ali saying: “All of Bermuda should pause for a moment to be thankful for the life of Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest fighter and personality of our time. Generations will recall the excitement and love he brought to the world.
The Premier added: “Muhammad Ali was a man of principle, unafraid and courageous ... He brought this same spirit of commitment to global causes, and through his generosity, many young men and women have benefited. For people everywhere, of every race, nationality and age, Muhammad Ali was a charismatic hero, a freedom fighter and a true role model. The world is better for his life. May he rest in peace.”
Peter Larder took part in a karate demonstration in the same ring as Ali during the exhibition in Bermuda on his first visit. “I met Ali briefly in the changing room and he was charming, boasting to me that he was faster than any karate man,” Mr Larder said. “I remember him as light-hearted yet fully focused on his two ‘bouts' in front of a fairly small but admiring Bermudian crowd.”
A man called Ali Muhammad met with Ali's unforgettable humour when he met him as a young boy at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
“I remember Muhammad Ali asking me my name,” Mr Muhammad said. “I said in the proudest voice I could muster, ‘Ali Muhammad'. I'll never forget what he said ... ‘Oh, you must be the lover, not the fighter; that's why it's the other way around.'
“Whenever I introduce myself to this day, I still repeat that quote.”
Ali's memory of Bermuda remained strong even after he was stricken with Parkinson's disease and confined largely to a wheelchair.
When he was approached by a Royal Gazette reporter at a media event during the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and asked of his trips to Bermuda, he flashed a broad smile. Barely able to speak at that point, he clearly remembered his Bermudian friends, who followed his legendary career right until his final bout.
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