THERE are men and women who would trade the family silver just to be in the same room as their sporting heroes. Sir Michael Parkinson was in an even more privileged position – he shared his career in television and newspapers with the icons and therefore met them all. Here, in a hitherto unpublished interview conducted in 2009, he tells Bryan Cooney of some of the more memorable moments. His reflections begin with Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier…
PARKINSON: It was wonderful, of course. You come to understand how lucky you were in your timing. I grew up with those people, those giants. I mean, look at Muhammad Ali. I was around when he was the most famous man in the world. I was lucky that we got on together; we did four interviews. And I charted his decline in a sense. from 71 to 82, when I did the last interview with him…from this glorious athlete to this kind of caricature of a prize fighter, struggling with this consuming illness.
COONEY: Wasn’t it the second TV interview that Ali became volatile? I loved what your dad recommended – that you should have thumped him.
PARKINSON: I looked at me dad and thought: Are you joking?
COONEY: Did you feel intimidated?
PARKINSON: No, not really. They know their limits. I mean, at the time, he was well and truly under the influence of his handlers. If you’d watched that entire interview – it actually lasted an hour and a quarter – there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about them and it accumulated. It came toward the end of the interview and I’m glad it did otherwise there wouldn’t have been much of an interview.
That was Ali. He was committed to his ideas; his ideas were racist in many ways. All white men were evil , all that stuff, all that s***. But he believed it. Sadly, the people around him who persuaded him into this kind of posture were not that committed. Were they that committed, they would have cared for him more. And had they cared for him more, he wouldn’t be in the state he is now. He was exploited. And it’s a terrible sadness. At the end of his career, he’d got no money, no cash. He had some houses, some buildings, some office blocks, but he had no cash.
I know that because he went to see my agent, Mark McCormack. Mark told me this story. At the end of it, Ali was confessing his plight and saying to Mark what he wanted. Mark said: “Fine. I know now what I have to do for you. Do you have anything to tell me?” I thought that was a marvellous question: what do you have to tell me?
Ali looked at him and said: “Tell you what, Mark McCormack, big deal maker, let me tell you something. When you do a deal for Muhammad Ali, stick a nought on the end!” Mark said: “ It worked. I mean, here’s a guy who comes with a begging bowl and yet says: ‘Stick a nought on the end.’ The first thing Mark did for him – this is the poignancy of the thing – was a cockroach-killing commercial.
Then he was persuaded by management to fight at least two fights too many. I interviewed him in 1981 and if I said to you he fought twice after that, you’d recoil with horror. Yes, recoil with horror. The eyes had gone, the speech was slurred. All the signs and indications were of an early onset of a debilitating mental illness. He was a big, brave man. He could take a punch; that’s the great thing about being a champion; he could take it on the head and not go down.
COONEY: So often after fame comes tragedy.
PARKINSON: Absolutely. Because he was the biggest star of all, he was the biggest tragedy of them all. There’s a sense that he’s been ill served. I know he’s been given an honour and that sort of thing, but my view is that he’s been ill served in his time of trouble. People are not telling the truth about it. The fact is, I can see boxing’s predicament. He was the greatest fighter that we’ve ever seen – I think he’s certainly the greatest heavyweight I’ve ever seen – he’s an extraordinary man. What boxing daren’t admit is that if it’s going to happen to him, it can happen to anybody. That’s the point.
He ain’t some pugilist down the gym who’s taken a few too many at country fairs and things like that – this is a great athlete. That’s the problem,. He’s worthy. I think his record is worthy, his life is worthy of a bigger debate than is going on at present. People are pretending that it’s not that (the blows to the head). that it’s Parkinson’s Disease. It’s not actually. It’s caused by his brain being bounced around too much inside his skull. That’s what happens. You talk to Freddie Pacheto, his doctor, about it. He’ll tell you.
COONEY: People in boxing are so remiss about this: they don’t want to recognise culpability.
PARKINSON: No. But who am I to talk? I love the fight game, I love sitting there watching great fighters. You’d see Muhammad Ali and Frazier fights and it wasn’t just great boxing matches, but great theatre, great drama. I defy anyone not to sit there and not be overwhelmed by it. All those things that we care about – guts, courage, bravery and fortitude, resolve, and physical grace, too – were all there embodied in that moment.
It’s more exciting than ballet, it’s wonderful. It really is. To deny that or to deny the kind of visceral thrill you get as well, is not to understand the game and why people are attracted to it. It’s a complex question, isn’t it – one that everyone who loves the fight game cannot resolve. The basic premise is one man’s desire to knock the other one’s head off. And here we’re talking of it in terms of high art.
COONEY: How were you with Frazier?
PARKINSON: We did the third show, which would have been in the run-up to one of the great encounters with Frazier at Madison Square Garden. It ended up with Ali suffering a broken jaw – and a lot else besides.
On the eve of that, we did a co-production with Dick Cabot in America and both fighters were in the same studio. Cabot, an American talk show host, and myself drew lots as to who should go and spend two days at training camp. I drew Smokin’ Joe. Which I liked because I’d seen Ali and knew Ali; Joe and I had never met properly. I went to this ring in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; they kitted me out with this sweatshirt that said “Smokin’ Joe” and these trousers over my pipe-cleaner legs. And I get in the ring. S***! They said we’d do two rounds. It was fun. It’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, me fighting Smokin’ Joe. It really is hilarious. His trainer didn’t want me in the ring at all. It was just a bloody interruption, on the eve of a world title fight.
Joe said: “Just keep throwing the left hook and I’ll move inside and make all the noise. You’ll be okay, kid.” I mean, if he’d hit me, he’d have killed me. That’s the thing you know about these guys, I mean, they’re fit like we don’t know about. Of course, he comes in and I hit him like that. He flicked out his left, bang, and I was hearing bells for two days afterwards. I remember coming out of the ring, and his trainer looking at me with ill-disguised hatred. And he said to Smokin’ Joe: “Okay, champ, stop f****** about. On the big bag.” So he did. The trainer got on as well, and he started this bloody barrage, boom, boom, the sweat was flying off him. This for about three or four minutes.
The trainer’s saying, Okay, okay champ. He was so worked up and he’s looking for something to hit. He had the big training gloves on and he hit the stripped pine on the wall, and the air conditioning unit collapsed. I thought: “F****** hell; I’ve just been in the ring with him.” And then you saw a week later him hit Ali for 15 rounds; Ali was doing all the rope-a-dope stuff. Each blow made a noise like a door slamming shut. You were thinking: “Christ, what damage are these two doing to each other?” Ali peed blood for two weeks after that. Some game, innit? Some game.
NEXT: Life with George Best.
PICTURES COURTESY OF: Wikipedia