My Days with Muhammad Ali

Reginald Massey

Muhammed Ali and his wife Veronica with Mrs Gandhi. On the left is Reginald Massey. Photo: Special Arrangement
Muhammed Ali and his wife Veronica with Mrs Gandhi. On the left is Reginald Massey. Photo: The Hindu

During my time in India every school that was based on the British public school model taught boys to box. At the time our hero was Joe Louis. In the late Seventies I headed a modest film production company in London and hit upon the idea to take Ali to Bangladesh, then a new country which needed world recognition. After many trips to the States we got Ali to agree to visit Bangladesh but first there was a small matter to be settled in the ring. Ali had a fight pending against Leon Spinks which he thought would be a walk-over. Not so. Spinks beat Ali, but only on points. All rang me from LA and said that he could not face his fans since he had been beaten. I said: “No Brother, they still love you as The Greatest. The whole of Bangladesh, from the President of the lowest peasant is waiting for you. You must believe me.” He, ever the joker, lowered his voice and asked: “Brother Reg, are you serious?” I replied, “In the name of Allah, I am dead serious!” He replied, “OK, I will come. But don’t die just yet.”

In 1980 at the National Stadium, New Delhi, Muhammad Ali waves to his cheering fans. Onthe right is Reginald Massey. Photo: Special Arrangement
In 1980 at the National Stadium, New Delhi, Muhammad Ali waves to his cheering fans. Onthe right is Reginald Massey. Photo: The Hindu

I organised a British film crew headed by Rory McCleod and Eric Chohan that flew with us. We filmed Ali who was accompanied by his wife Veronica and a posse of Black Muslim friends and guards on the visit. “Bangladesh I Love You” was fronted by Marc Alexander, my New Zealander company partner who is a novelist, poet and film maker. It was cut and edited in London and distributed by Lord Grade. Years later I wanted to make “India I Love You” repeating the same formula when Indira Gandhi was the PM. My partner was Lord Swraj Paul. All went well and filming was on schedule but then international politics scuppered my film. We were in Madras (now Chennai) when a call came to my room. (I had instructed the hotel reception that all calls were to be directed to me first since I was the producer). The voice in a Southern US accent said, “I wanna speak to Ali.” I said: “Ali is resting in his suite. It’s hot in South India.” The Voice said: “Well get to him. Tell him that it is Jimmy Carter from the White House who wants to talk to him NOW.” I transferred the call to Ali’s suite and rushed to Ali’s floor. When I got there I was shocked. Ali was standing to attention and saying; “Yes Mr President I will drop everything here and fly to Riyadh as soon as the US Ambassador in Delhi sends an aircraft.” Ali then turned to me and said: “Dear brother, I have to abandon your film. Sorry, My President has ordered me to fly to all the Islamic countries to get them to pull out of the Moscow Olympics. An hour ago the USSR attacked Afghanistan, a Muslim country. My President has ordered me. I must obey him.”

Within three hours an aircraft arrived in Madras with huge US commandos on board. The aircraft flew off with Ali and his family. My film had perished. My film company had perished. Thanks to Lord Swraj Paul only my company perished but I escaped personal bankruptcy. Paul had very wisely insured the India film.

RReggie Masseyeginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published.  Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.

 

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