Scot’s play about Muhammad Ali in Paisley punches above its weight

Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) takes part in an exhibition bout at Paisley Ice Rink in August, 1965, with Jimmy Ellis.
Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) takes part in an exhibition bout at Paisley Ice Rink in August, 1965, with Jimmy Ellis.
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A controversial visit by boxing icon Muhammad Ali to Scotland at the height of his fame is to inspire a new comedy drama more than half a century later.

The Greatest, which will get its world premiere during the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, will recall his infamous exhibition bout at Paisley Ice Rink in August, 1965.

The Greatest is the debut stage play from journalist and stand-up comic Alan Muir. Photograph: Robert Perry

The Greatest is the debut stage play from journalist and stand-up comic Alan Muir. Photograph: Robert Perry

Ali left the arena with boos from hundreds of boxing fans ringing in his ears after what they felt was a half-hearted performance against fellow American Jimmy Ellis.

But the debut stage play from journalist and stand-up comic Alan Muir will suggest Ali had been knocked off his stride the night before his Paisley appearance – after being flattened by a “ginger-haired Glaswegian”.

Billed as “a play packed with heart, smarts and enough punchlines to rival even The Greatest himself”, the show will have a week-long run at Oran Mor, in Glasgow’s west end, in March as part of its award-winning “A Play, A Pie and A Pint” series.

The Greatest is set in a care home, where an unlikely friendship is struck up following a chance encounter between Jimmy, a cantankerous pensioner, and Orwell, a cynical young video blogger.

Ali was at the height of his fame when he landed at Glasgow Airport in August 1965 before it had even been officially opened.

He had been crowned heavyweight champion of the world in 1964, when he also changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam.

Ali was greeted by a ladies’ pipe band in Glasgow, where he also dropped into the city’s Oakbank Hospital, and he also visited the Ayrshire cottage where Robert Burns was born in 1759.

The visit was to be the only time that Ali would wear his gloves to fight in Scotland. But it was not an occasion for the boxer to recall with any great affection after he was heckled and jeered, despite him telling the barracking crowd: “All booing must stop when the king’s in the ring.”

Ali famously cancelled his hotel booking for the night and turned up at Glasgow Airport asking to be put on “the first flight outta here”.

Muir, 43, from Cumbernauld, said: “I’ve always been fascinated by Muhammad Ali. He was a true icon – both in and out of the ring. I was amazed when I found out he had visited Scotland in 1965 to take part in an exhibition bout in Paisley of all places.

“The more I uncovered about his visit to Scotland in August of that year, the more I knew I had to write about it. It was fascinating, funny and a slice of Scottish history I had never heard before.

“As fate would have it, it tied in perfectly with a play I was planning – featuring an unlikely friendship between a cantankerous pensioner and a young video blogger.

“The Greatest isn’t just a story about boxing – at its heart it’s about human connection and the importance of family – in whatever form it comes. I hope it’s also funny into the bargain. Jimmy in particular is a brilliant character to write – brimming with one-liners and gloriously profane insights.

“Orwell – his video biographer and confidant –is a great match for him, and the pair challenge each other as their unusual friendship grows. The Greatest touches on a range of themes – happiness, friendship, inclusion, masculinity and the perils of living in the past while you’re trying to hold on to today – and the small matter of whether the world’s greatest boxer was flattened by a ginger Glaswegian.”

The Greatest is being staged at Oran Mor a year after it hosted the world premiere of a new play inspired by one of Scotland’s most unlikely sporting heroes – Jocky Wilson. It recalled a famous incident when the darts favourite was travelling around the US playing exhibition matches, staying up so late that he was forced to hitch 400 miles to Las Vegas after missing his bus.

Muir added: “A Play, A Pie and A Pint is a Scottish institution and it’s a dream come true to be bringing my first play to life with them. They have a fantastic track record of producing funny, moving and thought-provoking plays. I’m so excited to be working with the talented team.”