One-time bareknuckle boxer Paddy Monaghan has recalled the remarkable friendship he developed with the late Muhammad Ali.
The 72-year-old from Fermanagh started a campaign to get Ali's boxing licence reinstated when he was stripped of that and his world heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to join the US Army's war effort in Vietnam.
Monaghan oversaw a petition that accumulated 22,224 signatures, later wrote to US president Richard Nixon to plead Ali's case, and eventually grew so close to him that "The Greatest" frequently visited him and his family in their home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
Among the many images taken of Ali, training, fighting and appearing in exotic places all over the world, those of him unexpectedly visiting Monaghan where he lived on the notorious Saxton Road are perhaps the most surreal.
It was a visit he regularly repeated, but may not have done so had Monaghan accepted his offer of moving to live near him in the US. The bareknuckle fighter worked his corner for the 1974 fight with Joe Frazier, having also done so in Dublin when in 1972 he defeated Alvin Blue Lewis.
"It was tremendous, my ear drums were popping, the cheers, with thousands of people in a stadium, and Madison Square Garden," Monaghan, who is credited with giving Ali the title of 'People's Champ', said yesterday.
"He was a loving brother, I loved the man. The friendship: I'll miss him out of this world. But I feel like he's in the next ring waiting for us.
"When they took his title, they had no right to do so because the matter was outside the boxing ring, it was nothing to do with boxing.
"I felt strongly about it, and I felt the man in the street would as well, which he did, all over the world.
"I was badly dyslexic, and dyslexia wasn't heard of in those days. I was known as a 'problem child'. My mother taught me (to read and write) so I could read the boxing news in the papers, about Cassius Clay.
"When they stripped him of his title, I felt my 'college of knowledge' was taken away from me, so I wanted to do something about it.
"I got 22,224 signatures. I also (later) wrote a letter to President Nixon, and took it up to the American Embassy (in London).
"(Jabir) Herbert Muhammad, his manager, came over to London. I gave him a sackful of mail from the fans; I'd started a fan club. He took them back to Muhammad, who saw the mail and wanted to get in touch.
"We arranged to meet in the Royal Lancaster Hotel. He was here to do an Ovaltine advert. I thought it'd be a 'Thank you' and a tap on the shoulder, and that'd be it. Most people would have done: not him.
"(But) everything had to be kept quiet: I don't think Muhammad could be associated with bare-knuckle fighters, it wouldn't look good."
Therein began the unlikeliest of friendships between one working-class Northern Irish boxer whose fights were concealed, and another whose were global events through the charisma, heart and ability that made him the greatest and most popular heavyweight the world has seen.
Monaghan was accused of fabricating their relationship - which has been documented at London's Ali Exhibition - until the first of numerous visits to his terraced house brought Abingdon to a standstill as crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of their hero.
The two were last together in Dublin in 2009; Ali died last Friday in Arizona after being taken to hospital with a respiratory condition complicated by his long-term struggle with Parkinson's disease.
"He said 'Paddy, you don't realise how much you've helped me, but can you help me one more time? I'm over here for Ovaltine: what the hell is Ovaltine?' Whether he was joking, I don't know," said Monaghan, whose life story will be told in book 'The Rough Diamond', written with son Tyrone.
"We were always joking around, but we had our serious moments too. He was a wonderful man. Every time he came to our house, he'd always leave a piece of his spirit behind.
"He must have visited me 13, 14 times in all, from the early '70s onwards, to the early '90s.
"We talked about boxing and bareknuckle boxing, but the main core of it was just ordinary, mainstream chatter. He hated (bareknuckle boxing); thought it was crazy.
"(People) thought I was nuts. They thought it was bulls***. Nothing was said after that, was it?
"When he first came down, in a big Rolls Royce, the whole town came out. In those days, none came down Saxton Road.
"I got criticised for not inviting the mayor, or any of the local dignitaries down. I thought 'Why the hell should I invite them? I don't know the mayor'. The only time you saw them was when they wanted your vote.
"Looking back now, I've got to pinch myself to believe it. He did the magic tricks, with the kids outside the front door, laughing with the kids and older people, they all loved him. It was like a variety show when he'd come down.
"(But other than his car) there was never a sign of his wealth. Me and him wouldn't have hit it off if he was any other way.
"When I first went with him to America, he wanted me to move. I went home and told my wife (Sandra) 'We're moving'. She said 'We're not'. I said 'Ali's got us a place in America', but she wouldn't hear of it, because of her mother and family.
"He never, ever forgot what I did."
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