15 Oct 2021
Muhammad Ali - A Historic Visit To Tyneside
In July 1977 the people of the North East of England were surprised and delighted to welcome Muhammad Ali to their region. The greatest heavyweight boxer of all time was invited by Johnny Walker, a painter and decorator from Whitburn, South Shields, who called upon him to help raise funds for his local boxing club. Johnny was an ex-boxer who had travelled to America to persuade Ali to visit a part of the world he had not even heard of. Ali was a huge celebrity, known for his larger than life, charismatic personality and philanthropic ways which attracted his fans in droves. It was a unique chance to see their hero on home ground and one which created memorable scenes on our streets. Ali travelled on an open-top bus, waving and calling out to thousands of adoring fans who greeted him with Northern warmth and enthusiasm. During his four day visit he visited Pendower Hall Special School, and sparred with local boys and ex-professionals at Grainger Park Boys Club.
At the Al-Azhar Mosque on Laygate Lane, South Shields, Ali and his wife Veronica arranged for their marriage to be blessed by the imam, with their baby daughter Hana in attendance. Seven thousand well wishers turned out and three hundred special guests were invited to the ceremony. The event was greatly significant to the local Yemen Muslim community.
An official reception was held at Jesmond Banquet House and there were charity dinners at the Mayfair and the Gosforth Park Hotel. Ali gave a lengthy interview conducted in the Eldon Square Recreation Centre which was broadcast on ITV’s World of Sport. In it he expressed how overwhelmed he was at the friendliness of the people in his first visit to a European country and that it was a blessing from God to have so many fans. He remarked on the peace, serenity and cleanliness of our streets and how people were obedient and respectful of the police in the absence of pistols. No visit would have been complete without him trying a local traditional delicacy, ‘the stottie cake’ stuffed with salad, cheese and ham!
Ali used his fame to campaign for the advancement of African Americans’ civil rights and he evolved as an important activist. He was a cross-cultural icon, a prophet and outside of the ring, a champion of peace. He was widely regarded as one of the most celebrated figures of the twentieth century and his free styled, rapping rhymes were endlessly quoted.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
Ali charmed his way into the hearts and minds of all who were lucky enough to meet the great man, and the stories and memories he generated live on today in North East folklore.
With credit to Newcastle Evening Chronicle for kind permission to use photographic image 1. Credit to The Mudditt Family for image 2. Credit to Roman Skrypnyk for image 3.
Number of words: 503
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