October 5, 2015

Float like a butterfly, sip like it's tea

The secret of Muhammad Ali's success

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Stop the press! Or break the internet! Muhammad Ali on the Lord's balcony drinking what could only be tea. This was in 1966 - during the England-West Indies Test - when, having refused to be drafted into service for the Vietnam War, Ali travelled to Canada and Europe for championship bouts.

A month* before the Test, on May 21, Ali, beat Henry Cooper in six rounds at Highbury, the fight stopping when Cooper suffered a deep gash over his left eye and had to concede the match to Ali. "The cut was so bad I had to go see a plastic surgeon," Cooper said later. "The way Ali fought, he was the type of guy who dragged your flesh, so he hurt me really badly - I needed a hell of a lot of stitches."

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Two weeks before the event there was a meeting at the home of Postmaster General Anthony Wedgwood Benn (smoking a pipe above) to discuss the broadcasting of the fight. In the photo with Benn are fight promoter Harry Levine (next to Benn) and Ted Dexter (next to Levine), the former England captain, now representing Viewsport Ltd, a closed-circuit-TV company that had exclusive rights to show the fight.

Talking to the Guardian in 2002, Dexter recalled meeting Ali: "It was in 1966, the year of his second meeting with Henry Cooper in London. I had retired from cricket the previous year - for a while - and a friend took me along to meet the great man. What struck me was the vast size and impressive softness of the man. And that huge right mitt when we shook hands. He was just a magnificent athlete. He was so gentle and softly spoken that it was difficult to imagine a greater contrast with the big-mouth public image. I remember thinking to myself at the time that this was not just a great boxer but one very clever guy."

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Just as impressed were the West Indian cricketers who met Ali at Lord's, though probably not with his batting technique. Ali was politely complimentary about cricket, but warmer when talking of Wes Hall's bowling. "Running up as fast as Wes Hall would be good training for me," he said. Hall is in the left corner of the picture above, holding three bats.

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After his victory, Ali reads about it in the Sunday papers. And you can be sure that once he's done with the boxing news, he'll go right to the story about Charlie Griffith being reported to the MCC for throwing during a match against Lancashire (back page, under "The Agony of a Gallant Henry" story).

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If nothing else, boxing and cricket have the concept of "breaks" in common, as Ali demonstrates, stretching out in West Indies' dressing room at Lord's.

*October 6, 0550GMT: The Lord's Test was a month after the Ali-Cooper fight, not five days before it, as was previously written.

Nishi Narayanan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo