‘Nobody believed me until they saw the news’: the day I met Muhammad Ali

Justin Quirk
Hughie Furlong (in suit and tie, third from right): ‘I wasn’t a bit nervous meeting Ali; it was an absolute thrill.’ Photograph: AP

Muhammad Ali, world heavyweight champion, was in London for his title fight against Henry Cooper. Ali was on top of the world; he’d knocked out Sonny Liston – the biggest bully of them all – a year earlier, in the first round. The fight, at Highbury, Arsenal Football Club’s stadium, was a huge occasion, particularly because Cooper was on home ground. Ali was the favourite, but there was talk about Cooper’s left hook. I’d seen Cooper in action and always said that left hook was like a pound of lead on the end of elastic.

I was 26 and teaching PE in Putney. west London. I was a boxing obsessive. A few days before the fight, I got chatting to a young lad in my gym, who told me his dad was Richard Reekie, who wrote for Boxing Illustrated. He said he was with the Ali camp at the Piccadilly hotel, writing his column. In the pub that night, my friend Keith Underhay and I decided to call the hotel. They put us straight through to Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, who told me Ali would be out at 6.30am to start training, so we drove up early the next day.

We were in the foyer when Ali and Jimmy Ellis, another boxer from Dundee’s camp and his regular sparring partner (pictured in white), came down. I asked for their autographs. Ali’s car hadn’t turned up, so he said to me, “You got a car, little man?” It was a bit of an old jalopy, but we drove him and Ellis down to Hyde Park, where they were to meet Jim Brown, the American football player/actor and Ali’s good friend (pictured on the far left). Brown was in London filming The Dirty Dozen. I wasn’t a bit nervous meeting Ali; it was an absolute thrill.

We got in the car and I said, “Thank you for letting us drive you, Muhammad.” He said, “I don’t talk much in the morning, little man.”

When we got to Hyde Park, there was an ITN cameraman there and a female photographer from Paris Match. As soon as he saw them, he went straight into a different mode: dancing, moving around and sparring. That’s when this picture was taken.

Ali and Ellis went off for a run and we waited. When he came back, he said, “Come for a walk, little man.” It’s my biggest regret, but I said, “No, Muhammad – we haven’t come up to jump on your training programme, it’s just great you allowed us to drive you.”

I drove back to Putney in time for work. Nobody believed me until they saw that evening’s news. It was on the six and 10 o’clock bulletins, and I was in the footage. And they believed me when I showed them the autographs I’d got Ali to sign.

I went to the fight a few days later with my wife. Rocky Marciano, singer Kenny Lynch and comedian Peter Cook were all in the crowd. I watched through binoculars and saw how nervous Ali looked coming in. The first round was the fastest thing I’ve ever seen in a fight. Cooper wasn’t overawed, and he did the best he could, but his eyes went in the end and the fight was stopped in the sixth round.

I was terribly sad when Ali died last year. He was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, and there can’t be many people who got to be his personal driver for the day.

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