Muhammad ALI (1942-2016)

Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 504
  • Subject No: 502
  • Broadcast date: Mon 25 Dec 1978
  • Broadcast time: 10.15 -11pm
  • Recorded: Tue 19 Dec 1978
  • Venue: New London Theatre
  • Series: 19
  • Edition: 10
  • Code name: Three

on the guest list...

  • Reg Gutteridge
  • Veronica - wife
  • Odessa - mother
  • Cassius - father
  • Rahman - brother
  • Eva - aunt
  • Jimmy Ellis
  • Glenys Carter
  • Joe Martin
  • Fred Stoner
  • Ronnie O'Keefe
  • Angelo Dundee
  • Zbigniew Pietrzykowski
  • Wilma Rudolph
  • Drew Bundini Brown
  • Howard Bingham
  • Henry Cooper
  • Joe Frazier
  • Hana - daughter
  • Laila - daughter
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Tom Jones
  • Anthony Quinn
  • Joe Louis

production team...

  • Researchers: Maurice Leonard, Vivien Lind
  • Writers: Tom Brennand, Roy Bottomley
  • Directosr: Royston Mayoh, Terry Yarwood
  • Producer: Jack Crawshaw
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...

Life In The Ring

from flyweight to heavyweight

Extended Life

the special editions

The Story of This Is Your Life

a BBC Did You See...? special

Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

A Life Remembered

tributes to the original presenter

Maurice Leonard

the researcher's story

Producing Life

the producers who steered the programme's success

The day we lost The Big Red Book

Further secrets revealed by producer Malcolm Morris

Henry Cooper

Reg Gutteridge

Researcher Maurice Leonard recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in an exclusive interview recorded in July 2016

Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life

Screenshots of Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life

Roy Bottomley This Is Your Life book

Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in his book, This Is Your Life: The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book...

In the build-up to Christmas 1978, as I drove to the studios, inevitably Bing Crosby sang White Christmas on the car radio; it was a black Christmas I was dreaming of – in the shape of three-times World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. On Christmas Day television I wanted to flatten the BBC opposition with the man who, at the time, was World Champion Personality.

The very mention of his name at the production conference meant that Eamonn would, from then on, hear no other. To the former Amateur Middleweight Champion of Ireland, Ali was a god-like figure; a fighter whose lightening intelligence was not merely confined to the ring. Not for nothing was he known as 'The Louisville Lip'.

As Eamonn recalled to his cost. More than a decade before, after Ali had fought our own Henry Cooper, he made his first British TV appearance on Eamonn's late-night chat show. It was also the first appearance since he had announced his change of name, for religious reasons, from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali.

He told Eamonn that if anyone in the USA still called him Cassius he said only one thing, 'You know my name, fella...' It was stated quietly, but with enough menace to scare off a bar room of brawlers.

Said Eamonn: 'Fair enough, but let's talk about the fight last night, Cassius.'

Diminutive Dudley Moore threw himself out of the way of an imaginary punch at Eamonn. Noel Coward masterfully avoided choking. There was a slight movement of Ali's shoulder, though he continued to stare in front of him.

'Muhammad,' he growled.

By Christmas 1978 the whole world knew his name. But, in fight-game parlance, how were we to land the 'sucker punch' on Ali with our Life 'hit'? For a start, we had to get him from America, where he was in constant demand for public appearances, often on the move from Louisville, Kentucky. And always with his wife, Veronica.

She, by the way, told us that when they were first introduced the Louisville Lip had gone very quiet. Later, when she knew him better, she asked him why. The World Heavyweight Champion three times over told her, 'Because I was scared stiff of you!'

Our next move was to send senior researcher Maurice Leonard (these days Michael Barrymore's producer) to stalk Ali throughout his American travels, grabbing any of Veronica's free time to get the much-needed personal background on the most public of sportsmen. On one such secret visit, an Ali 'minder' stepped from the bushes, stole up on Maurice from behind, and stuck a pistol in his ribs. Maurice protested he was expected by Veronica – which she confirmed – but on no account must the World Champion find out.

'The minder though the worst,' said Maurice.

His telephone calls back to base confirmed we had the potential for a great Christmas Day programme. But the problem remained – how to get him to the New London Theatre for our recording date of 19 December – and the surprise Eamonn planned?

That was when we enlisted the willing services of ITV boxing commentator Reg Gutteridge. The ruse was that, for Ali's millions of British fans, Reg wanted to do a 'your life so far' interview, with film clips. For this, of course Ali demanded a fee (fighters need to look to their old age) and this was agreed.

Ali flew in and was brought to the 'studio' for the arranged interview. But when he walked in through the side door of the New London Theatre auditorium the audience erupted. Eamonn could hardly get out those famous words above the uproar.

'My thanks to our good pal Reg Gutteridge for getting you here for that interview you knew about, but in fact, if you'll step this way I'm going to do my best to knock you out with some great surprises,' boomed Eamonn above the din, this time getting the name right.

And surprises there were in plenty. Even his old mum and dad, though separated, had got back together to fly over for the occasion. His mother, Odessa, told us how Ali – then Cassius – had demonstrated his boxing prowess when only eighteen months old. Swinging his arms, as babies do, he'd knocked out one of her teeth.

But his affection for his mother was plain to see. He called her 'Bird' – 'because she's got a little nose just like a bird.'

We had filmed down Dixie Highway in Louisville, at Waddell's Barber Shop, where his Aunt Eva still did the hair-cutting. We flew her in to tell us how the future World Champ 'bawled the place down' when he was brought in for a haircut as a little boy.

And millions heard how Ali only became a fighter because someone stole a brand new bicycle his father had bought him. He reported it to the police and told the cop that if he ever caught the thief, 'I'm gonna whop him!'

The cop, Joe Martin, told the twelve-year-old Ali, 'You'd better learn to fight first.' Martin, later Louisville Police Chief, ran a gym in his spare time. His youngsters appeared on local TV in Champions of Tomorrow – never more true than when the young Cassius Clay made his first TV appearance.

Maurice Leonard actually found the first man to come out fighting against Ali. Ronnie O'Keefe was working on the production line at the Ford plant just outside Louisville. We flew him in for a twenty-four years' surprise.

Ali never did get the bike back, but he gained so much confidence at Joe Martin's gym that when he heard international fight trainer Angelo Dundee was in town he rang his hotel room from the front lobby.

What happened next was straight out of Rocky, or any Hollywood boxing movie you've ever seen. Angelo Dundee answered his hotel room phone.

The kid in the foyer spoke urgently: 'I gotta talk to you, mister. I gotta talk to you on account of I am gonna be the Heavyweight Champion of the World.'

Said Angelo: 'Son, if you're gonna be the future Heavyweight Champion of the World, I guess you'd just better come on up.'

What a partnership that turned out to be, though Angelo reckoned it cost him a fortune when young Ali was shadow-boxing. He had this tendency to whack the gym doors off their hinges.

The young Cassius Clay won the boxing gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. But that almost didn't happen, because he was scared. Not scared of opponents, but scared of flying. We flew in his opponent in the final from Poland, 'Ziggi' Pietrzykowski.

Viewers also heard how Ali 'nicked' his penchant for personal publicity from an American wrestler called 'Gorgeous George'. He always told anyone who would listen that he was 'the greatest and the prettiest'.

Cornerman Drew 'Bundini' Brown was the man who invented 'He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.' And when Henry Cooper came on, Ali shaped up as he was reminded of Henry's punch that floored him. Ali himself had to confess it was a belter.

For me, the great moment was when 'Smokin' Joe Frazier agreed to fly over. Ali had been out of boxing for three years when he was sent to interview Joe for a book. Ali had been 'exiled' from the ring for refusing to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds, and at the time of this interview he was on the brink of his fighter's licence being restored.

He was so looking forward to meeting Joe in the ring that on a drive from Philadelphia to New York he told Joe he'd written a poem about him:

Joe's gonna come out smokin',

And I ain't gonna be jokin',

I'll be peckin' and pokin',

Pouring water on his smokin',

This might shock and amaze ya,

But I'll retire Joe Frazier.

Joe listened politely, then said, 'I think I'll stop the car and we'll go up that alleyway over there and sort it out here and now!' But they decided to save it for the ring.

From Hollywood, Anthony Quinn, a legend himself, told about stepping into the ring with Ali for the movie Requiem for a Heavyweight.

And that is what it very nearly was when we went over to Las Vegas to hear from Ali's boyhood hero – the 'Brown Bomber' himself, Joe Louis. Confined to a wheelchair, all he could manage was a very moving, 'Hi, Muhammad.'

Now, because of Parkinson's Disease, the great Muhammad himself has slurred speech, his voice often inaudible. But whoever can forget him floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee? The Louisville Lip, punching his way into the Hall of Fame. Truly a legend.

Muhammad Ali This Is Your Life
Reg Gutteridge's autobiography

Reg Gutteridge recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, Uppercuts and Dazes...

My other cornerman job was for Muhammad Ali. How's that for a throwaway line?

I was asked by the This Is Your Life team to contact Ali, who was then in early retirement, and ask him to come to London for an interview with me. My job, though, was to get Ali to the Royalty Theatre where Eamonn Andrews was waiting to pounce from behind a door in the theatre foyer. [ editor: it was actually the New London Theatre]

As we sat in a hired car driving towards our destination, Ali kept popping questions at me like: 'Why are you paying me for this interview? You never paid before. Are you keeping the money for yourself, you old rogue?'

I knew then, of course, that Ali was winding me up and that he must have been told about the surprise scam by his wife to save him any possible embarrassment. He kept on teasing me, though. 'What are you going to ask me about?' He demanded, 'And will there be an audience?' As the greatest ad-libber in or out of the business, Ali had never asked me questions like this before, but I wouldn't budge because I knew he would react better in front of the cameras if he thought he was fooling everyone instead of the other way around.

Ali kept this little game going all the way to 'curtain up' time. When we arrived at the theatre and the cameras were rolling, he deliberately pushed me through the door first even though I was trying to squirm sideways and out of range.

Having read Eamonn's script, I was worried that Ali might not recognise the former American cop, Joe Martin, who encouraged 12-year-old Cassius Clay to take up boxing when he reported that his bike had been stolen.

Although his desperate illness was just starting to affect his short-term memory, I need not have fretted because Muhammad's long-term memory was still as sharp as a tack.

The show was a Christmas cracker and was later screened across the USA. Ali got his fake chat show cash and I got a vodka and tonic, a sausage on a stick and a free ride home.

Gus Smith biography of Eamonn Andrews

Gus Smith recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in his book, Eamonn Andrews His Life...

Later on when Eamonn achieved one of his Life ambitions - to surprise Ali - he agreed that the show was one of the most memorable he had ever presented. It was a longer show than usual and was screened at Christmas time. 'It was very, very exciting for me,' he recalled. 'I had to think fast to keep up with him. Ali wasn't called the Louisville lip for nothing. In some ways I considered him a genius.'

To Henry Cooper, it was an unforgettable This Is Your Life event, the greatest boxing programme of them all. 'I think this was because of the star names paraded before viewers, all of them paying tribute to Ali. There was obviously tremendous organisation put into the programme. When I came on briefly Ali shaped up to me as Eamonn reminded him of my big punch that once floored him. Ali admitted it was a good one, but for me of course it came too late in the round, for the bell saved him. He was undoubtedly the greatest fighter of his era.'

TV Times: This Is Your Life listing

TV Times 22 December 1978

A Surprise for Santa?

FATHER CHRISTMAS - this is your life! Unlikely, you think, that Eamonn Andrews in the Christmas Day edition of This Is Your Life will pick the bearded man in the red gown. Still, the 30 telephone subscribers in London named Christmas would do well to stand on red alert, just in case.

Last year's recipient of the red book was blind telephonist Lin Berwick.

Series 19 subjects

Alice Goldberger | Michael Parkinson | Mary O'Hara | Barbara Kelly | Terry Scott | Jimmy Shand | Eric Newby | Patricia Neal
David Bellamy | Muhammad Ali | Vera Lynn | Naomi James | Leslie Thomas | James Galway | Elaine Paige | Lord Lovat
Kevin Keegan | Stephane Grappelli | Robert Powell | Shirley Crabtree | Peter Barkworth | Robert Law | Dinah Sheridan
JPR Williams | Joyce Pearce | Ian Ogilvy | Margaret Kelly