Michael Parkinson, who helped bring Muhammad Ali into British homes thanks to his iconic interviews with the boxer, spoke of the sportsman’s ‘fascinating’ character in the wake of his death.
Paying tribute to the icon, who died last night in hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of 74, the presenter, 81, described Ali as a ‘man of great genius’, but who was ‘not without flaws’.
Sir Michael’s four feisty interviews with the fighter in the 1970s and 80s were among Ali’s most memorable appearances on British television, and helped form his strong connection with the country.
Michael Parkinson, who helped bring Muhammad Ali into British homes thanks to his iconic interviews with the boxer, spoke of the sportsman’s ‘fascinating’ character in the wake of his death. The pair are pictured in 1981
Paying tribute to the icon, who died last night in hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of 74, the presenter, 81, described Ali as a ‘man of great genius’, but who was ‘not without flaws’
Ali had made many trips to the UK both during his boxing career and in the years which followed, and earlier this year, was even suggested for an honorary knighthood by boxer David Haye in a petition that was signed by more than 200,000 people.
Today, as news of his death was announced, a host of famous British faces – both from the world of sport and beyond paid tribute to Ali, including chat show host Sir Michael.
‘He was not a man without flaws,’ he said. ‘You have to consider those. But if you wanted to concentrate on what was attractive about him I could talk forever.’
Sir Michael’s four feisty interviews with the fighter in the 1970s and 80s were among Ali’s most memorable appearances on British television. Here they are pictured in 1974
The presenter said he was never sure if Ali had meant all of his comme
He added: ‘I could not believe how beautiful he was. He was an extraordinary looking man. He was graceful and all those things and, of course, he was as funny as hell.’
Sir Michael, whose interviews with the boxer were famously explosive, told Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It’s one thing to be abused by a film star but to be abused by a man weighing 17 stone who is the heavyweight champion of the world, who would kill you with one blow, your options are a bit limited.’
The broadcaster said ‘if you believed he was serious’ about his views on white people then ‘he was actually guilty of what he accused others of being, racist’.
‘We mustn’t deify him at all from that point of view, he was a man of many flaws, but he was a man of great genius, great charm, great humour and he was, in his quiet moments, fascinating.’
During one interview, the two once squared up as Ali described the Yorkshireman as a ‘honky’, and during another, Ali signed off by saying: ‘You and this little TV show is nothing to Muhammad Ali.’
Later today, the presenter said he was never sure if Ali had meant all of his comments, or if he had said them for attention, and to cement his reputation as a showman.
Sir Michael told Sky News: ‘You were left wondering “did he really believe that?” Or was he doing it for effect?’
Current heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua posted a photograph on Twitter and Instagram of Ali’s dressing gown
David Beckham posted a photograph of him meeting Ali as he paid tribute on Instagram
Former boxer Ricky Hatton also remembered his encounters with the sporting icon on Twitter
The veteran host said Ali had a ‘real star quality which I have never seen in anyone else I have interviewed’ , but said that despite their four interviews he did not feel that he had ever truly got to know the boxer.
‘I don’t think anyone got to know him, other than those who were very close to him,’ he said. ‘He was an individualist. he went his own way. He had a view of his place in the world.
‘He was able to laugh at himself but on occasions he could be quite brutal.’
Earlier this year, Ali’s wife Lonnie revealed how her husband would watch back the interviews with affection in later life, and Sir Michael said today that every time Ali appeared on his chat show an extra two million viewers tuned in.
But he revealed that he turned down the chance to interview the boxer in 2000, after he was named the Athlete of the Century, due to the extent to which Ali’s Parkinson’s had taken hold.
Ali with two of his daughters, Laila (left) and Hannah (right) during a visit to London in 1978
Ali, then Cassius Clay, and fellow boxer Jimmy Ellis, take part in an early morning training session along Regent Street in 1963
‘I’d seen him on American television and he wasn’t capable of doing an interview,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to be part of that.
‘I wanted to remember him as he was, and I’m glad I didn’t do it.
‘The interview was done but they had to put subtitles on it. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit with his great man and go through all that, not for my sake but for his.’
A host of British sporting stars also paid tribute to Ali today.
Current heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua posted a photograph on Twitter and Instagram of Ali’s dressing gown, writing: ‘He was and still is an inspiration to so many. RIP the greatest.’
Ali takes on Henry Cooper at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium in 1966. The fight was stopped in the sixth round due to cut above Cooper’s left eye
The pair are reunited at a book signing at Cooper’s gym in south London in 1993. Also pictured is photographer Howard Bingham, who snapped Ali throughout his career
Cooper and Ali wave to the crowds during an equestrian show in Windsor in 2009
David Haye, the former two-weight British world champion, said he would not have taken up boxing if it wasn’t for Ali and even named his eldest son after him, calling him Cassius Haye.
Haye told the BBC that his family were all boxing fans because of Ali and they admired and loved him.
He said: ‘I wanted to have what Muhammad Ali had, he was the pinnacle of what a boxer could be.
‘I came from humble beginnings as he did, and he showed that hard work, focus, dedicating your life to something, anything’s achievable.’
Haye said that when faced Nikolai Valuev in 2009 in a world championship fight, he adopted Ali’s tactics of moving quickly and avoiding punches to defeat his 7ft opponent and win the title Ali once held, an achievement he called a ‘lifelong ambition’.
Haye said he admired Ali for ‘putting his life on the line’ for his political beliefs, particularly his stance on the Vietnam War, adding that with his ringside showmanship Ali ‘changed boxing’.
Amir Khan said it was ‘extremely sad’ to witness the ‘passing of boxing’s greatest fighter and icon Muhammad Ali’.
Khan said: ‘I would like to send my deepest condolences and thoughts to his family at this time. No fighter or sportsman will ever reach the level of Muhammad Ali, whose name will continue to echo through the ages. Inspiring, charismatic, a true legend – Ali will never be forgotten.
Ali meets policeman Ray Egan during his visit to Birmingham in 1983
‘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.’
Former British heavweight champion, Frank Bruno said on Twitter: ‘Inspiration, Mentor, my Friend, an Earthly God of humanity, Simply.’
Boxing promoter Frank Warren told Sky News: ‘Not just boxing but the world has lost an iconic figure.
‘He called himself the greatest and if he wasn’t the greatest, he was certainly one of the greatest boxers of all time.
‘Not only that, he crossed over to the general mainstream public. He became bigger than sport and was probably one of the most recognisable people on the planet.
‘What he did for his own race – being a black American – he stood up against the war in Vietnam to the detriment of his career and his life. I think at the time he was out of the ring for three years and was sentenced to five years in prison, which he appealed. To do that shows how strong his belief was.
‘He probably paved the way for (Barack) Obama to be the president of America.’
And fellow promoter Kellie Maloney said on BBC Radio 5 Live: ‘You either loved him or hated him, but what you did was respect him.
‘He transcended boxing, took it to a new level. He was the first real superstar, not just in boxing but in sport.
‘If you asked my daughters who the favourite sportsman in the world is, they’d say Muhammad Ali. He didn’t just win battles in the ring, he won battles outside of the ring.’
Maloney met Ali while at a function with her former fighter, Lennox Lewis, and added: ‘He could hold a room. Even when he wasn’t well, people were in awe of him.’
Away from boxing, Ringo Starr, who met the boxer along with the other members of The Beatles in 1964, tweeted: ‘God bless Muhammad Ali peace and love to all his family.’
Former F1 world champion Jenson Button said: ‘#MuhammadAli #cassiusclay “If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize” #restinpower.’
David Cameron wrote on Twitter: ‘Muhammad Ali was not just a champion in the ring – he was a champion of civil rights, and a role model for so many people.’
Lord Sugar said: ‘Muhammad Ali he was the greatest, not just a great boxer but he fought for racial equality. Sad Loss to the world R.I.P.’
And new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wrote: ‘Muhammad Ali was not just a boxing legend, but a civil rights champion and a towering figure of our time.’
Ali rides through Brixton, south London, in an open top car in 2000. He was visiting in support of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which was fighting to end Third World debt
Ali with U2 singer Bono at the Brit Awards ceremony in London in 2000
Ali was a regular visitor to England and made several high-profile trips, and Rumble in the Jungle rival George Foreman spoke today of his love for the UK and the way he was treated in the country.
‘He loved London,’ Foreman told 5 Live. ‘If he had been born and raised in London he never would have changed his name.’
Ali’s first fight in England was with Henry Cooper at Wembley stadium on June 18, 1963. He won by knockout, having based himself in London for almost a month ahead of the fight.
He arrived at Heathrow on May 27 and would train for the bout by running through the city, the hood on his white sweater pulled up tight as he jogged through Hyde Park and along Regent Street with fellow boxer Jimmy Ellis.
In 1977, Ali thrilled fans in the North East, visiting Tyneside boxing clubs in order to raise money, travelling on this open top bus through South Shields
Ali was back on British shores in May 1966 for a rematch with Cooper, this time at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium. The result was the same and so was the reception Ali received, as he stopped to sign autographs for locals hours ahead of the fight.
The boxer’s final fight in the English capital came against Brian London at Earls Court in August 1966. He won, by knockout, and again made the most of his time in the city.
He went up the GPO Tower, now the BT Tower, at Howland Street to meet the media, while he also posed for photos with old foe Cooper.
In 1977, Ali thrilled fans in the North East, visiting Tyneside boxing clubs in order to raise money. More than a thousand people greeted him at the airport after he had missed his initial connection from Heathrow, and he travelled on an open-top bus, with thousands of fans lining the streets to cheer his every wave.
In March of this year he was forced to pull out of a planned trip to London where he was hoping to make an appearance at an exhibition on his life currently running at the O2 Arena (pictured)
A single flower is placed on display at the I Am The Greatest, Muhammad Ali exhibition as tribute to the boxer
He and then-wife Veronica attended a blessing at a local mosque, again with a packed audience.
Two years into his retirement, Ali required a police escort to hold back the crowds after a free-for-all broke out at the main entrance upon his arrival at a community centre in Birmingham in 1983.
And he was among the guests of honour at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012, carrying the Olympic flag to the centre of the newly-built stadium.
Dressed all in white, and wearing dark shades, he was aided by wife Lonnie due to his frail condition. He sat while others stood, but made it to his feet for the final steps of the flag’s journey.
In March of this year he was forced to pull out of a planned trip to London where he was hoping to make an appearance at an exhibition on his life currently running at the O2 Arena.
However, his family feared the cold weather and long haul flight would place too big a strain on his body.
A man signs a book of condolence dedicated to the boxer during a visit to the exhibition today
Fans flocked to the exhibition to pay their respects to the star, and to sign a book of condolences
Today, fans flocked to the exhibition to pay their respects to the star, and to sign a book of condolences.
Several visitors were tearful as they viewed the collections and signed the visitors’ book.
The organisers of the exhibition at the O2 expressed their ‘deepest sympathies’ to Ali’s family.
In a statement, they said: ‘It is both an honour and a pleasure to be involved with an exhibition that celebrates the life and work of a true great, or quite simply The Greatest.
‘The exhibition has started a book of condolence, for visitors and fans to pay tribute to this great man.’
Robin Aitken, 60, a world curling champion from East Lothian, said it was ‘unbelievable’ to be at the exhibition on the day Muhammad Ali died.
He had bought tickets to visit the collections with his wife a month ago and said he ‘felt sad’ when he heard the news on Saturday morning.
A lifelong fan, Mr Aitken said it was Ali’s positivity that made him so special.
‘The fact he’s so positive and his outlook to life – he’s not just a boxer but the way he stood up for himself and black people in America, he tried to unite everybody.’
But Mr Aitken regretted that the world never got to see Muhammad Ali ‘at his best’.
Twenty-year-old Joseph Blair, from Newcastle, was also at the exhibition and said he was ‘very saddened’ to hear about Ali’s death.
‘It’s amazing to see exactly what he did and what he meant to everyone but it’s quite sad at the same time.’
He said it was Ali’s boxing talent that he found most inspirational and hoped that the legend of Ali would survive for generations.