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Muhammad Ali in His Own Words is a collection of interviews with the former heavyweight boxing champion and living icon culled from the BBC archive through the decades - beginning in 1965 and ending in 1989. Ali talks to everyone from Harry Carpenter to David Frost to Michael Parkinson at various stages of his career and life and it paints a fascinating portrait of him in different moods and at very different times. Ali always seemed to enjoy visiting Britain or speaking to British journalists as the country had taken him to their hearts even while he still remained a controversial figure at home with many sections of the establishment and wider society. Journalists and interviewers here were quite good I think in picking up on the irony in Ali right from the start. There was usually (although not always) a tongue-in-cheek quality to his bombastic personality and they were charmed by his natural charisma and sometimes silly sense of humour. More often than not, Ali gave the impression that he was having a lot of fun and so all his interviews have some amusing moments. He was God with a custard pie up his sleeve as Joseph D O'Brian once said. What is interesting here is to start with Ali at the height of his powers as the young world heavyweight champion in the sixties and then follow him through pre and post Rumble in the Jungle interviews, a fascinating interview on Parkinson in 1980 when he had just lost to Larry Holmes in an ill-advised comeback and there were whispers that something was wrong with him, and then through to a wonderful piece of audio from a Wogan show (hosted by Joanna Lumley for some reason, Wogan must have been on holiday I suppose) where Ali is reunited with his two most famous former opponents - Joe Frazier and George Foreman. I liked the initial audio here which involves Ali meeting Harry Carpenter. The late Carpenter was the voice of boxing on the BBC for many decades and a very likeable and knowledgeable presence. He has a good sense of humour and so his interviews with Ali were always funny and you can tell that Ali always had a lot of affection for Carpenter. When they talk here Ali has just won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston. The monstrous Liston was considered to be unbeatable and Ali was an 8 to 1 underdog who was expected to slip into obscurity after the ham like fists of the champion had inevitably exposed him. To the surprise of practically everyone, Ali proved a far trickier puzzle to solve than Liston had expected and the bamboozled and glum looking champion retired on his stool after eight rounds.
The two Liston bouts remain controversial and to this day some maintain the mob connected Liston threw the fights but despite the speculation and conspiracy theories there has never been any firm conclusive evidence to confirm any of the suspicions. Anyway, instead of the monosyllabic, complex and somewhat intimidating Liston, a former prison convict who seemed to have everyone against him, the world suddenly and unexpectedly had a very different heavyweight champion. One who was media friendly (for Ali loved to talk), charming and - most importantly of all - funny. You can tell Carpenter is rather entranced by Ali and senses that a new era in boxing has dawned and that the young man he is talking to might be destined for very great things. Ali speaks about his humble background in Louisville and his family, how he got into boxing, and of course Sonny Liston - who he mercilessly lampooned in the build-up to the fight and tagged The Big Ugly Bear. Liston was the most formidable person you could ever wish to meet and not used to having trash talked to him by opponents and so had been completely bemused and even unnerved by Ali's antics. What I found interesting was the way Ali here - and in a Frost interview later on - talks about the psychology of psyching out his opponents. When he fought Liston and George Foreman, both of whom were fearsome punchers and much bigger than him, he says his main goal in the months before the bout was to make them angry so that come fight night they would carry some of this emotion into the ring and not fight their normal fight. Boxers who are angry in the ring waste energy and telegraph their punches. They get tired more easily. It's much better to be relaxed and calm in the ring and box to a plan. One thing that Ali did of course after the Liston fight was join a nutty black separatist group called the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. I suppose it was a different time but the BBC genuinely seem to have no idea what to make this or what they even supposed to call him now.
Ali has more of a testy side to him in the earlier interviews that comes out now and again whenever he's pressed on the Nation of Islam and racial politics. He becomes very defensive and irritated when David Frost and Michael Parkinson probe this area of his life. He actually turns on Parkinson in one of the interviews here and it's one of the rare incidents in a very public interview where Ali is genuinely angry and not very attractive as a personality. The Harry Carpenter audio with Ali is always a lot of fun though. The David Frost interview occurs just before Ali sets off to Zaire to fight George Foreman in 1974. It's one of the most famous boxing events of all time and like the Liston fight all those years ago, Ali is a huge underdog. Ali is 32 now and has been beaten a few times. After his exile from the ring for refusing the Vietnam draft, he's not as quick or light on his feet as he used to be while Foreman in 24 years old and looks like an even more awesome version of Sonny Liston. Ali had life and death struggles with Norton and Frazier but neither lasted two rounds with the destructive Foreman so - once again - no one thinks that Ali can win. The interview takes place at Deer Lake, Ali's famous rural training camp in the United States, and the soon to be champion is on good form. There is an audience drawn up from visitors, camp members and the general public and so the showman in Ali makes the most of the fact he has a crowd to work and play to. He also exudes nervous energy because he's about to fight Foreman and is in the process of talking himself up and getting into the right frame of mind. I don't think David Frost is the greatest interviewer to be honest and his fake insincere laugh at anything Ali says is grating but Ali is good value and it is interesting when Frost presses him on his view that there should be a separate nation for black people in America and Ali starts to get testy and preachy. You can tell Frost thinks that Ali's views on this are bonkers and Ali himself would modify his views over time and begin to distance himself from some of the more whacked out Nation of Islam beliefs. I think the actual party had a split in the seventies and Ali aligned himself with the more moderate wing. He didn't believe in flying saucers coming to destroy the Earth and saving black people as whites had been created by the Devil or something and all the nonsense he'd absorbed in the sixties.
It's a joke he repeats more than once here, but I love Ali talking about how he calls Foreman The Mummy and talking about how silly it is in horror films he way that the shuffling super slow mummy always manages to catch up with whoever he is chasing! An interview with Ali on Parkinson in the immediate wake of the Foreman fight is fascinating for contrast because Ali is now like a balloon that has had the air let out of it. Prior to the Foreman fight with Frost he was loud and hyper but now he's soft spoken and even humble, almost shy at times. It's like he got himself into the right place to fight Foreman, promoted the fight in his inimitable way, and now, just for a moment, can sort of be himself. He's the heavyweight champion of the world again after all the struggles and trials. Ali's gist is that of course he would win because Foreman wasn't very good to start with and completed overrated. Surprisingly modest for Ali and of course completely untrue. One thing I found interesting listening to these in isolation is that Michael Parkinson doesn't always have very good chemistry with Ali. Maybe it's because he has to remain detached as an interviewer but there sometimes seems to be a faint tension between them that you don't pick up in other Ali interviews. Parkinson always seems dreadfully slow to realise when Ali has said something as a joke and seems a bit condescending sometimes. I don't know if Parkinson is one of the contrary spirits with the cult of Ali but I always get the impression in these interviews that he admires Ali as a boxer and likes him as a personality but deep down doesn't consider him to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. Maybe I'm wrong. A 1980 interview between them is very interesting because Ali has just lost to Larry Holmes after coming out of retirement. It was a bad defeat and Ali looked as if he could hardly lift his arms up in the ring let alone throw any punches. Holmes, who was a great champion and Ali's former sparring partner years before, was in his prime and took some credit for his restraint against an almost defenceless Ali that night. Ali blamed the defeat on thyroid pills he was wrongly prescribed and now at the age of 40 was planning to fight again to prove the Holmes fight was an abberation. There are stories about Ali having brain damage and being a shadow of the man he was only a few years ago and it's sort of like he's on Parkinson to set the record straight.
Of course, we know now that Ali's proposed comeback would fizzle out after one more uninspiring fight (the well was dry and Father Time is one opponent no boxer can beat) and that he was probably already suffering from the early effects of Parkinsons Disease. Listening to the interview though you'd probably take Ali's assertion that he was fine at face value. His speech is slower but not bad at all and he's on good form and very funny. He says he stayed at the prestigious Mayo Clinic for two days and they found not a single thing wrong with him. I liked the bit here when they discussed a small acting role Ali had taken and he explains why he believes he could never be a very good actor. We know him too well. We'd always see Ali rather than the part he as playing. The last interview is really good I think. Ali, Frazier and Foreman reminiscing about their battles and joking around together. It's funny but every book I've read (including Frazier's autobiography) gives one the impression that he hated Ali to his dying day but they seem to have a lot of respect and affection for one another here. Ali's voice is a whisper by now but he still seems very sharp mentally and has some good jokes and even a poem for the occasion. George Foreman is great here too. A real professional and good talker and it's no surprise that he became a commentator for HBO and spokesperson for those grills. Foreman is very generous here the way he praises Ali and Frazier and downplays his own career. Interestingly, Foreman has just returned to boxing at the time after a ten year break and was about to fight enigmatic white hope Gerry Cooney in his first major comeback test. The wonderful Harry Carpenter is brought out to take part in the trip down memory lane with his three old friends and Foreman's genial air slips just a fraction when Carpenter says he'll beat Cooney but should stay away from Mike Tyson!
Joanna Lumley is not the greatest interviewer (she actually asks Foreman another question at one point when he's still in the middle of an anecdote as if she hadn't been listening at all) but is sensible enough to sit back for the most part and let the four men banter amongst themselves. Muhammad Ali in His Own Words is a decent little collection if you are a fan and not a bad thing to have on a dull train journey or walk. It's certainly worth a look and at the time of writing can be picked up for well under five pounds.