How the BBC bought Muhammad Ali a pink suit
In 1975, BBC documentary producer Iain Johnstone negotiated filming access to Muhammad Ali. The deal with Ali’s agent was that for ten days over a three week period, Johnstone and his crew could film Ali but on each filming day Johnstone would hand over $300 in cash to Ali. On the first day of filming, the BBC team arrived at Ali’s training camp in Pennsylvania, where he was preparing to fight Britain’s Joe Bugner.
My film crew were already there and we managed to catch the Champ emerging from his log cabin with two women who, it transpired, were Belinda, his wife, and Veronica, who was to be his next wife. He paid no attention to us as they progressed to the gym.
A couple of hundred people had come to watch Ali train with his sparring partners. After the serious business was over, Ali entertained the assembled crowd, showing us the now legendary ‘Ali Shuffle’ and how he had used the ‘Rope-a-Dope’ to beat George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa the previous year. The art was to lie back against the ropes and let them take the pressure out of the punch.
Finally, he caught my eye. “Are you the BBC?”
I said we were.
“Did Joe Bugner send you here to spy on me?” he asked, getting a good laugh from the crowd.
I promised he hadn’t and asked the Champ if he had a message for Joe.
Without pausing, he came across and addressed my camera, “Joe, I told you when you was sparring with me in England and Ireland and Switzerland that one day you’d be a contender for my crown. I’m eight years older but I’m still the greatest. I’m still the best boxer of all time. I’m still the dancing master. I still float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands only hit what his eyes can’t see. And now he sees me and now he don’t. He thinks he will, but I know he won’t. Bugner, they tell me you’re good, but I’m twice as nice and I’ll stick to your button like wine on rice.”
To laughter and applause he pulled on his dressing gown and stepped out of the ring. I went over and, slightly embarrassed, slipped the $300 into his hand. Without embarrassment he transferred it to the pocket of his robe and said: “Come tomorrow. I’ll show you around.”
He was as good as his word. “This is the first and only unique fight camp for boxers, the only one in the world.” He had started it four years previously with an ‘Abraham Lincoln-type log cabin’ and expanded it. Now there was a gym, a large kitchen where twenty people could eat, two bunkhouses for the fighters, guest cottages, a stable and corral for horses, all build, cowboy fashion, from logs.
Ali proudly took me over to a large bell, high up on a wooden tower. He pulled the rope. “I ring it every morning at 5am and the fellas who are still in bed come out and we go for a three-mile run.” I rather hoped he wasn’t going to ask me to stay. “Then I do three rounds on the heavy bag, three rounds on the speed bag and three rounds on the jump rope. Then when I’m paining, I start my sparring. I’ll be tired and exhausted but if I have to go fifteen rounds with Joe Bugner, I’ll be ready.”
On our final day’s filming at Deer Lake, the Champ and his team arrived back from Philadelphia in their minibus. He was wearing a loud pink suit. “Just bought this in Big Man,” he told me, adding with a grin, “with your money.”
Ali won his fight against Joe Bugner. Iain Johnstone’s film Muhammad Ali was shown on the BBC in 1975. The previous year, Johnstone had produced the Frost Interview with Muhammad Ali, which is available on iPlayer.
The above passage is taken, with thanks, from Iain Johnstone’s Close Encounters: A Media Memoir (2014).
Originally published at www.bbc.co.uk on June 5, 2016.