King Ali of Paisley

SONNY Liston is nothing.

EARLY IN AN AUGUST WEEK OF 1965, THE 23-YEAR-OLD world champion now known as Muhammad Ali stepped off a small aircraft at Renfrew and walked across the runway to a packed terminal with the music of the Ladies Pipe Band of Coatbridge shrilling in his ears. He posed for photographers, delivered some fighting talk that thrilled the watching hordes and was ushered to a waiting car and brought to the Macdonald Hotel in Eastwood.

He was in town to fight an exhibition in Paisley, at the old ice rink that opened its doors in the Second World War and served as a distraction from the angst of the time. The Pirates ice hockey team were the mainstays, but the venue had a bit of added glamour from time to time.

Tennis matches were played there and luminaries of the game like Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Pancho Segura and Rod Laver all had a certain popularity. But to a local crowd, tennis players could never rival boxers for appeal and the rink attracted some of the greatest fighters ever known.

In 1963, Liston had appeared there; in 1964, Sugar Ray Robinson sold the joint out. But nothing that had gone before compared with the scenes that greeted Ali when he put the gloves on for the first and only time in Scotland on August 20, 1965 - 40 years ago yesterday.

Sure, the gloves were specially made - custom-fit eight-ounce jobs instead of the regular ten ounce - so as to cut down the risk of Ali getting hurt. A thousand dollars was good money but not good enough to put his title defence with Floyd Patterson in November at risk for. Still, the place was heaving, so much so that police had to move in and cordon it off for fear of a stampede from ticketless fans.

Everyone in the world wanted a piece of Ali, everyone wanted to say they had once been in the presence of greatness. But Ali was quiet now. In the car, heading from the airport, he was nothing like the braggadocio that shook up the world when he beat the seemingly indestructible Liston - "beat him like I'm his daddy" - and claimed the world heavyweight title at the Convention Hall at Miami Beach, Florida on February 25, 1964 and nothing like the imperious being - "I'm so mean I make medicine sick" - that floored the big ugly bear with an anchor punch in the first round of the rematch at St Dominick's Arena in Lewiston, Maine just three months before this trip.

If they didn't know any better, his fellow passengers on the way to Eastwood would have thought him shy and retiring - the gentle giant not the Louisville Lip.

"He wasn't the bumptious guy we had seen on the telly," said John Quinn, the respected Evening Times boxing writer. "You couldn't sit down and have a right good conversation with him because he was reserved, you know? He was great, but I got the impression that he was looking over his shoulder all the time."

If he was, he had good reason. What made Ali's visit intriguing was not just the fact that he got into the ring at Paisley but that he got into the ring with so much going on behind the scenes. In the remarkable story of his life you would be hard-pressed to find a more volcanic period. He was champion of the world but he was deeply troubled. Rumours that Liston had taken a dive in Maine refused to go away and they incensed Ali but that was as nothing when set beside his other problems.

By 1965, Ali was fast coming under the control of the shadowy forces of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam whose members - many of whom were ex-cons - preached a doctrine of separation of black and white, a Ku Klux Klan in reverse. These people took over not just the running of Ali's career - with catastrophic financial consequences for the champ - but his very beliefs.

Before he ever set foot in Scotland the Nation had influenced his thinking to such an extent that Ali was spouting racial hatred and sermonising that any black person who had sexual relations with a white person should be killed.

He had married Sonji Roi a year to the day before he arrived in Scotland, their anniversary falling during the visit, but by then their relationship was in an advanced state of collapse. Sonji loved Ali but the Nation had taken such a grip on him that he had changed completely in that year.

Where before he would sing her love songs, now he would castigate her for wearing make-up and dressing inappropriately. At their divorce hearing Sonji wore a knee-length dress and Ali was asked if the Nation of Islam found it acceptable. "No, it's too tight," he said. "Her knees are showing and her limbs are showing. She's wearing false eyelashes and lipstick. It's lust to the eye and embarrassing to me."

After the divorce was finalised, Ali sent her a note: "You traded heaven for hell, baby," it said but years later he would confess that he pined for her and would mope around the house sniffing her perfume, an admission that did much to confirm the destructive influence the Nation had on him.

On top of his woman troubles, Ali had to endure the mix of emotions that came with the murder of Malcolm X, the activist who was once like a brother to him until their bitter falling-out. Malcolm X, like Ali, had been an unabashed devotee of Elijah Muhammad but slowly he changed, talking less of supremacy and more of brotherhood, beliefs which brought the wrath of the Nation of Islam down upon him. He was denounced from pulpits and was rumoured to be the target of death squads. On Valentine's Day, his home was firebombed and he ended up on the street that night in his pyjamas holding a .25 calibre pistol in case his attackers returned. He got to believing that the Nation was in league with the Klan and the Nazis to get rid of him. Whatever the truth of it, Malcolm X was shot dead at a lecture theatre on February 21.

Ali never publicly approved of Malcolm's murder but neither did he denounce it. On the night of the shooting, a fire broke out in Ali's apartment on the south side of Chicago. He said it was a coincidence. Two days later a bomb exploded at the Nation's headquarters in New York. Clearly, somebody blamed the Nation for Malcolm's death.

As if that was not enough, in the build-up to the second Liston fight, just three months before touching down in Glasgow, newspapers in America ran with stories from the underworld saying that Ali would be killed in the ring. The champ laughed it off: "I fear no-one but Allah," he said. "If they shoot, the gun will explode in their hands. Their bullets will turn against them." Then, softening, the loveable Ali re-emerged. "Besides," he said, with a wicked grin. "I'm too fast to be hit by a bullet."

So, if he seemed like he was looking over his shoulder from the moment he touched down in Glasgow, maybe we know why.

MICKEY DUFF WAS, BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, A LOUSY FIGHTER but, then, he never wanted to be anything other than a promoter. He had his last professional bout aged 19 years and eight months and became a certified matchmaker eight weeks later. He did it for 50 years before retiring on his 70th birthday. He is now 77 but says he remembers '65 like it was yesterday. What he doesn't remember, you suspect, he invents. Let's not forget; this is boxing, baby.

Duff was born Monek Prager in 1929, the son of a Polish Rabbi from whom he became estranged. The family moved to England in 1938. Monek changed his name in the 1950s and began his assault on boxing, slowly creating a reputation for himself in the east end of London. Duff took no nonsense. His way of dealing with the gangland figures was to show no fear. He banned the Krays from a show and received three dead rats in the post but none of that ever bothered him. He won respect. In those days nobody ever took liberties with Mickey Duff.

But he was just one part of the promotional team that brought Ali to Paisley. The other was Peter Keenan, the celebrated dual Lonsdale belt winner. You wouldn't chance your luck with Keenan either. If Duff was eccentric, so, too, was his partner, who once stated that all southpaws should be drowned at birth.

He was a tough guy, physically and mentally. His father was a hawker and his boy left school early to join him in the game. Boxing was where he stood out, though.

In January of 1952, Keenan - who died five years ago - had his one and only shot at a world title, in Johannesburg, against Vic Toweel. He lost and blamed Tommy Gilmour Snr, his manager, for not bringing him to altitude early enough. He managed his own affairs after that and when he quit the ring in 1959 he formed an alliance with Duff in bringing Liston, Robinson, Ali and other superstars of American boxing to Britain.

"Officially, in the beginning," says Duff, "Keenan was the guvnor. He was seven or eight years older than me and when I got into the matchmaking game he gave me my start. But when God invented brains, Keenan thought everyone else left town.

"He thought he was the only clever one. He was difficult. The most opinionated man ever but capable of great kindness. A nice fella, yeah, he was decent. I never forgot that. When I became big-time I needed him and his shows like a hole in the head but we stuck together. He looked after me, I looked after him. When I brought Ali over to England we did a deal for him to go to Keenan in Paisley. We made money. I still have it. Retired a millionaire, you know."

Ali's entourage in Scotland was a skeleton crew compared to the army that would soon attach themselves to his bandwagon. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, flew in as did his brother, Chris, who promoted Ali at that time in the States. Chris Dundee was a respected individual but had connections with people you wouldn't ever want to show up at your front door. Ali's two regular sparring partners, Jimmy Ellis and Cody Jones, were in town and that group all had Ali's interests at heart.

Also present was his manager, Herbert Muhammad - son of Elijah - who was widely considered one of the legions who took serious advantage of him, financially, in later life.

"Those bastards," Duff yells. "I could see what was happening, Keenan could see what was happening, anybody with eyes could see it. Ali had problems from the day he became a fighter and 99% were down to the people he surrounded himself with. He had more ponces around than any other fighter I ever knew.

"He thought it was prestigious to have an entourage. I went up to Paisley. I says to him: 'Muhammad, lose these pricks. You're paying them for doing nothing' but he says: 'Mickey, these are my men'. Yeah, right. They were the men who took money off him, who bled him dry. They started bleeding him even before he showed signs of blood."

None of this was known to the 5,000 customers who flooded into the Ice Rink that night. There's been talk over the years of a supposed incident involving Keenan and Ali where it is claimed that Keenan, in a fit of pique, slapped the world champion about the head for not promoting the exhibition as vigorously as he might. Certainly, Keenan was brave enough to do it but it's a dubious story since the evening was a known winner from weeks out.

Walter McGowan and Ronnie Jones topped the bill with the chief supporting bout being Ian McKenzie and Willie Hart, well regarded middleweights from Ayr and Glasgow. There were half a dozen fights but, really, everybody had come to see Ali, and nobody was more keen than the 13-year-old who was brought in to greet him in his dressing room beforehand.

Because of his father's connections, Tommy Gilmour Jnr had the kind of access that his friends could only dream of.

"I was actually working that night," said Gilmour. "I held up the numbers [of the rounds] at all these shows. That was my job. I was the best card boy in the world. I was the number one kiddie. I held the numbers up for Sonny Liston, held the numbers up for Sugar Ray Robinson, held them up for Muhammad Ali.

"My dad and Keenan were always at loggerheads but he was always very good to me. When Liston went to Ireland, Keenan took me over to hold numbers up at the Ulster Hall. I was internationally famous. Liston was dull but the likes of Clay, what I remember, he was uptight about the whole thing. He had a lovely smiling face and he was really nice but I wanted my picture taken and we couldn't get it done. He was in the dressing room and he was anxious. He wasn't his usual self for some reason. So my dad spoke to Chris Dundee and they sorted it. I got my picture. A nice thing to have."

Ali fought Ellis - who would later become a world champion himself - and Jones that night and lived up to the promise he gave Quinn's readers in the Evening Times. "You people in Paisley will see more action in my exhibition than all those paid millions to see me destroy that big ugly bear Liston," he had said.

But there's another story that has done the rounds for years, one that depicts Ali being barracked out of the ring at the end. Quinn doesn't remember it that way and Gilmour was too young to care. "I had my picture. That's all I was bothered about. That and my few quid."

On this subject we return to Duff: "That's a lie. That's a damn outright lie. Whoever said that should be sorted out. Muhammad Ali was never booed out of a ring. They adored him up there. That Ice Rink was a bloody good venue and they loved him. He was The Greatest, the best of all times. Until the end. That was sad, you know. I could tell you stories about how sad but no, son, we won't do that."

Best remember the Ali who came calling one week 40 years ago, for all his terrible beauty.