THE arrival of Muhammad Ali brought sudden excitement and great expectations to where there had been only despondency and despair. You could actually feel the atmosphere lift when he swaggered into Munich accompanied by an entourage of 54 helpers, healers, hawkers, hucksters and hangers-on. I had travelled the world covering major sporting events but had never witnessed anything quite like the Ali circus coming to town. They took over Munich like an invading army.
Ali’s management had chartered a flight from the United States, and virtually every one of the passengers was on the fighter’s payroll and/or expense sheet. They filled 40 rooms in the five-star Bayerischer Hof hotel and another ten in the Munich Hilton, where the relatively small Dunn party was camped.
Throughout his stay, I noted that Ali never changed his wristwatch from US time. He ate breakfast in the evening and dinner in the morning, and while everybody thought he was not training he would go to the gymnasium in the middle of the night. I witnessed him knocking lumps off his white sparring partner Rodney Bobick, while taking it easy on his four black hired accomplices, including former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis, who had been forced to retire with a damaged retina. Ali carefully hit him only in the body.
It was noticeable that he did not have a southpaw among his sparring partners. When I put that to him, Ali just shrugged and said, ‘Southpaw, north paw, east paw, west paw, I’m gonna knock your boy clean out. Have you told him he’s fighting the greatest heavyweight the world has ever seen?’
Ali saw me as a vessel to get to Richard. I had worked with him on three previous fights and there was mutual respect but he knew I was in Dunn’s corner. I say respect. In truth I idolised the man. For me, he was and remains the greatest sporting personality of them all.
People are always asking me what the real Muhammad Ali was like. Having been privileged to spend hours in his company, I can tell you that there were at least three of him. There was the brash, flash Louisville Lip who would say anything to sell tickets, the caring humanitarian and sincerely religious Muslim, and the one I liked best of all, inquisitive, quietly spoken and more interested in listening to you than talking about himself. But put a microphone near him and he went into sales pitch, and he made no secret that as important as it was promoting his title fight with Dunn, publicising his recently published autobiography, The Greatest, was just as crucial.
‘I’ve just completed a world tour selling my book,’ he told me during a training break, ‘and, man, I’m exhausted. I’d much rather be fightin’ than writin’. You’re a words man and know that getting it all down on paper is much harder than just talkin’.’ He did not mention the part his ghostwriters Richard Durham and Toni Morrison played.
We chatted for an hour while I got material for the fact files that I was preparing for the pending arrival of the British press contingent. ‘My reputation’s on the line here,’ he said. ‘I’m told very few tickets have been sold. That looks bad for me. Not my fault nobody’s heard of your Richard Dunn. I’m gonna make him famous by knocking him all the way back to Yorkshire.’
What concerned me during my talk with Ali – I called him ‘Champ’ – was the slight slur to his speech that had not been there the last time we had chatted before his 1975 ‘Thrilla in Manila’ with Joe Frazier. I asked after his health and he responded in trademark rhyme, ‘Muhammad Ali is as fit as can be; he’s ready to dance 15 rounds; just you make sure you’re in your seat to see; it’ll be even better than it sounds.’
The huge smile that followed was the old, loveable Ali, and – silly me – I welled up.
The next morning, over coffee with Mickey and Ali’s hugely respected personal physician and close confidant, Dr Ferdie Pacheco, I put it to the man known as ‘The Fight Doctor’ that Ali was showing signs of his ring wars. Pacheco, a renowned artist with the paintbrush when he was not working in Ali’s corner, leant forward confidentially and talked to Mickey and me in the hushed tones of somebody carrying a weight on his back, ‘I’ve been telling the Champ for months that it’s time to quit. He and Frazier nearly killed each other in Manila. That was the time to get out. No human body can take the sort of punishment Ali absorbs. All those body shots from George Foreman, the wars with Norton and Frazier. It’s all beginning to take its toll. I’ve told him if he doesn’t quit then he can carry on without me. He was a shadow of the real Ali against Jimmy Young. Your guy just might be getting him at the right time.’
Dr Pacheco looked around the hotel restaurant at the dozens of people eating and drinking at Ali’s expense. ‘Look at all these leeches,’ he said, with quiet loathing, ‘they’re all feeding off the Champ. Not one of them will be honest and tell him the party’s over. He’s their meal ticket. Without him, they are nobodies. There are more than 40 here just taking a free ride and giving nothing in return. Ali is the easiest touch there will ever be. He would give away his last cent. And this lot would take it.’
Bobby Goodman, Ali’s travelling PR and son of the legendary fight publicist Murray Goodman, was open-mouthed with amazement at the lack of interest generated by the German promoters. ‘They have not even bothered to get flyers printed,’ he grumbled. ‘It’s being run by a bunch of goddam amateurs. I’m going to do my best to drum up publicity, but I’ve got a feeling this show is dead in the water.’
He went off for a game of golf with his old Limey chum Reg Gutteridge, a fascinating, larger-than-life character who encouraged me to get out into the big wide world as a journalist when I was his copy boy on London’s Evening News back in the 1950s. Reg, son of Dick Gutteridge, one of boxing’s famous Gutteridge twins, was an exceptional amateur prospect when he lost a leg in the Normandy Landings of 1944. He had the character to change direction from a boxing career to become an exceptional sportswriter and the best-informed ringside commentator in the business.
I caught up with Bobby later and asked how the golf had gone. ‘That Reg Gutteridge!’ he exclaimed. ‘I hit what I thought was a perfect shot off the tee on the short fifth but didn’t see where the ball went. Reggie puts his ball down on the tee and says very casually, “So I need this for a half.” I’d got my first ever hole in one and that Limey so-and-so didn’t let me celebrate.’
They remained the best of buddies and each became a member of the renowned American Boxing Hall of Fame. That sure beats a hole in one.
Ali’s third morning in Munich dawned with Mickey getting a call from Arum saying that Top Rank were preparing to pull the plug on the fight. ‘The Germans have failed to come up with a contracted $250,000 to cover his taxes,’ he said. ‘I’ve told Ali and he says he’s quite happy to come home.’
Mickey immediately telephoned Jarvis, and within an hour he had persuaded the German company to come up with the outstanding money under the threat that he would sue them for ten times the amount if the fight fell through.
Ali immediately ordered $200,000 of tickets, which he paid for, then he went to the local American military camps and handed out fistfuls of free passes to the troops. Back home it was a philanthropic act that brought savage criticism from the many Ali haters. They pointed out the irony of a man who had refused to fight for his country against the Vietcong giving away free tickets for American soldiers to watch him fight.
‘I can’t win,’ Ali said. ‘There are some people back home, mostly white folks I have to tell you, who would have me boiled in oil no matter what I say or do. They can’t see that it was wrong of us to be bombin’ and setting fire to them innocent people in Vietnam. I’d be the first to fight for my country in a just cause, but what we did in ’Nam was wrong, so wrong. Now I’m giving the American Army boys some free entertainment to give them somethin’ to cheer out here far away from home, and there are people who are callin’ me all the bad names they can put their tongue to for caring about my countrymen. But it don’t bother me. Only the judgement of Allah matters and I know I’m doing the right thing.’
Richard Dunn continued training oblivious to all this drama, and at a trial weigh-in at the end of the session he found his weight was 4lb down below the 15st he was aiming for. He was over-trained. Jimmy Devanney gave him a day off, and he went shopping in Munich for a present for Janet.
‘Bought her a music box,’ he reported. ‘She collects them for a hobby, and they all play t’same tune. [He hummed the music for me] De-de-de-dum, dum-de-dum-de-de-dum.’
For those of you who can’t read music, he was humming the theme tune from [i]Dr Zhivago[i]. But it was Dr Pacheco who was more on my mind. Was Ali really ready for the taking? Had Richard got lucky with his timing?
Could I yet see Jarvis Astaire running naked around Wembley Stadium?
Another telephone call from Bob Arum, this time to Muhammad Ali. He had just received sky-high extra bills from the two hotels where the helpers, healers, hawkers, hucksters and hangers-on were staying, all of them signing receipts to Ali’s room.
They were summoned en masse to an emergency meeting at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, where I took an eavesdropper’s place on the periphery of a chandeliered, deep-carpeted room that was used for lectures and corporate announcements. Ali was centre stage in a large armchair like a king on his throne. I was seeing another face of The Greatest, the angry Ali. It was not a pretty sight.
His opening salvo had most of his followers shrinking in their seats. ‘Listen up, motherfuckers,’ he said, with a cold thread of steel in his world-famous voice, ‘I’ve just been told I’ve gotta pay an extra 50,000 bucks because so many of you are taking liberties with food, room service and, most of all, telephone calls back home to the good ol’ US of A.’
He picked on the most celebrated of his disciples, Bundini Brown, who worked as his motivator and companion and was responsible for his most imitated catchphrase, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’
‘You, Bundini, just how many phone calls can you make in a day? How many meals can you eat?’
‘Right on, Champ,’ wailed a man answering to the name of Jeremiah who used to be a caretaker at a mosque in Philadelphia and was now known as Ali’s ‘Amen Man’.
Bundini’s eyes began filling with tears. ‘Why pick on me, Champ? Why pick on ol’ Bundini? I done wait on you hand and foot, man.’
‘I’m just using you as an example,’ Ali explained, clearly wanting to get his message across to everybody; the hustlers selling t-shirts, the shoe-shine boys he’d brought from Louisville, the dodgy watch salesmen, the ticket scalpers who we in the UK would call touts, the kitchen workers, the masseurs, the Muslim preachers and a couple of dozen hangers-on Ali had picked up during his world travels. All of them in Munich at his expense.
The heavyweight champion of the world took his time looking around at the odd-ball gathering, no doubt wondering who half of them were. The one thing they all had in common was that they had flown the Atlantic to Munich on an Ali-paid freebie. Several times he used the ‘N’ word as a form of expletive, staring hard at each of his followers as if eye-balling them before a fight.
‘Listen, I take you all over the world,’ he said. ‘You see places. You learn things. Never been anywhere in your life. Now you treat me like this.’
‘That’s right, That’s right!’ echoed Jeremiah.
‘Look, fellas,’ Ali said as he started to soften, ‘I don’t mind you eatin’. You want three steaks for dinner, get three steaks. I don’t want anybody goin’ hungry. But I don’t wantcha wastin’ food. Sendin’ food back. And as for them telephone calls; you can’t be callin’ New York and Chicago and LA every minute. I don’t mind a man callin’ his wife and kids once a day. Five minutes on each call, all right. I knows all about bein’ homesick. But those half-hour conversations have gotta stop.’
This was a weary Ali talking. He was tired of the travelling, tired of the training, tired of the circus. Bottom line is he was a lovely, caring man and gullible for any hard-luck story. One of his crowd told me, ‘You don’t have to be a professional con artist to get anything out of Ali. He’s got such a big heart that it’s easy to part him from his money, and a lot of people take him to the cleaners.’
His lecture lasted for 20 minutes, and all his hangers-on shuffled out of the room like chastened schoolboys. Ali told me later, ‘Nobody has had this kind of crowd around him. Not even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. They rely on me and I won’t let them down, but they’ve gotta be sensible and not take me for a fool.’
Telephone calls to the United States from the two hotels dropped by 80 per cent after the meeting and the food bills shrank as the hangers-on realised they could be losing their meal ticket.
Ali went back to the gymnasium and to promoting his book, appearing on a German daytime television show in which he sparred with five volunteers from the audience, including a middle-aged housewife and a senior citizen. It was all toe-curlingly embarrassing, and if that’s the way to sell books then count me out.
Meantime, Richard Dunn returned to training and found himself being jeered and booed by spectators as he sparred with Neville Meade and Eddie Fenton and slogged the punchbag.
Ali’s hangers-on had found a way to serve their master.
We were joined by a team of Puma representatives who had signed Richard to an exclusive deal to wear their sportswear. He was getting a £10,000 fee, much more than he had earned in 95 per cent of his fights.
This made a story in the German newspapers because it meant an escalation of the sales war between Puma and Adidas. They were both German sportswear companies launched by brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler in the 1940s, disbanding their joint family business to start global brands in rivalry to each other.
Ali famously wore white Adidas boots with the twirling red laces, and American Everlast shorts. Richard was Puma from head to toe, with the leaping Puma logo on his dressing gown and shorts, all designed in the claret and blue colour of his parachute regiment.
When Ali got to hear that Dunn would be wearing his parachute colours, he said, ‘I wish him a happy landing when he hits that canvas.’
I wrote a response from Richard, ‘Ali will be my fall guy.’ Yes, I had sold my soul.
Now we prepared to welcome Romark.
Norman Giller is the author of 120 books, including 20 written with his close friend Jimmy Greaves. He was the Daily Express‘ chief football reporter in the 1960s, then spent 20 years as a boxing publicist, working with the likes of Frank Bruno, Jim Watt, John H. Stracey and Sir Henry Cooper, with whom he co-wrote four books. He was a This Is Your Life scriptwriter for 14 years, and was shortlisted for a Sports Book of the Year award in 2022. Giller, who started his long writing career as a reporter with Boxing News, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE MAN WHO PUT A CURSE ON MUHAMMAD ALI: The Downright Crazy Story of Richard Dunn’s World Title Challenge, published by Pitch Publishing, is available now