Muhammad Ali’s final British opponent has hailed the “charisma, style and panache” of the man who gave him his greatest night in boxing.
Halifax-born Richard Dunn was living in Bradford when the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself: a night in the ring with Ali at Munich’s Olympiahalle.
He had charisma, style, panache. He had everything and knew how to work a crowd, knew exactly what to doRICHARD DUNN
Southpaw Dunn beat West Germany’s Bernd August to snatch the fight with the world heavyweight champion and, on May 24, 1976, the pair fought out a gripping five-round battle.
There was to be no great upset, with Ali knocking down the Yorkshireman twice in the fifth before referee Herbert Tomser stopped the fight. It was to prove Ali’s last fight in Europe, with NBC’s commentators on the night hailing an “old-fashioned club kind of a fight”, saying the American “came out for a war and he got a war from the Englishman”.
Ali’s death at the age of 74 came on Friday night in Arizona, over three decades after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
For Dunn, it brought back memories of that showdown with ‘The Greatest’. “It goes on forever, that night,” Dunn said. “I think it was the best sporting moment of my life.
“Even getting there and walking down to the ring and waiting for him to come in was phenomenal.
“The fight went pretty well I thought. Obviously it was a wrong decision to stop it! It was just a good fight. He was the best man on the night and that was it.”
The respect between the pair had been obvious even before they went glove to glove. Just weeks earlier, Dunn had been the star turn on ITV’s This Is Your Life, on which Ali had taunted his opponent, and even teased Dunn’s wife Janet, with a video message.
Ali had done his homework, demanding his opponent bring a portion of Yorkshire pudding with him. And he knew Dunn had served as a Territorial Army paratrooper.
“So you’ve taken 67 parachute drops,” Ali said on the programme. “Well, I want you to mark this down now: you have one more big drop to come, a big hard drop, it’s going to be the longest sharp drop you’ve ever had.”
As it turned out, Dunn’s legs were like jelly after he was floored for the second time in round five and, while he wanted to go on, Ali would surely have inflicted only more punishment. Ali told NBC that night: “I predict he’s going to be a top-notch contender. He gave me more trouble than I expected.”
But Dunn would never win another fight, retiring after two more defeats. Now 71 and president of the Scarborough branch of Parkinson’s UK, a role he took in honour of his famous conqueror, Dunn knows why Ali transcended sport to have such a wide appeal.
“He had charisma, style, panache. He had everything and he knew how to work a crowd, he knew exactly what to do,” Dunn said.
“I think he treated me with a lot of respect before that fight. He didn’t do half the silly things he did with the other fighters. Why, I didn’t know. It might be because I’d met him ages ago, long before the fight, and we got on well together.”
Their showdown came just seven months after Ali’s great victory over Joe Frazier in the ‘Thrilla In Manila’, but he was showing signs of being in decline. “He’d been struggling a bit. He’d been through 15 rounds in his previous fight against Jimmy Young,” Dunn said.
Dunn met Ali out of the ring in July 1977, when north-east England came to a near standstill for a four-day visit by the man who was still ruling boxing’s blue-riband division.
“I remember when me and my wife went over to Newcastle,” Dunn said. “He walked over to us and he sat down for 20 or 30 minutes and explained how tired he was. There were people who were dragging him around the world. I’ll never forget him. I considered him a friend.”
The world will say a final farewell to Ali on Friday, when his funeral procession takes place in Louisville, his home city. Former US president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal will deliver eulogies at a service which will be open to the public.