View John Snow’s report for ITN
and see this film from the North East Film Archive
July 1977 was the month that the unthinkable happened – “the greatest” visited the North East of England. Three-times world boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took time out to visit the region for four days, with his wife Veronica and his new daughter Hana. At the time he was at the peak of his boxing career and perhaps the best known sportsperson in the world.
Ali was impressed by the warmth of his reception in the North East, and was moved to say, “I’ve never been so honoured, not in America itself by Government officials and authority”.
Ali was received by the Lord Mayor of Newcastle , councillors and many British boxing greats such as Richard Dunn and Dave “Boy” Green at the Mansion House, Newcastle. He also visited the Grainger Park Boxing Club to spar with the young boxers, was guest of honour at a charity dinner at the Mayfair, and did a 50 minute interview with renowend boxing commentator at Eldon Square Leisure Centre.
Take a look at the interview
How did it the visit come about? It was the impossible dream – one of the world’s sporting icons accepting an invitation by a North East boxing promoter to help raise money for a boxing club in South Shields. Johnny Walker, a painter and decorator from Whitburn, had known Ali from his boxing days, flying to the USA to watch his fights. After one of them, he asked Ali to help in raising money for his boxing club in South Shields. Ali said “OK – invite me then”, and Johnny did.
The people of Tyneside turned out in their thousands as Ali toured South Shields in an open topped bus. On his tour he visited South Shields’ Gypsy’s Green stadium, tried his hand at darts, and sparred with a local professional fighter, Reg Long.
Muslims from across the North flocked to see Ali. “I’m overjoyed, and next time I go into the ring, I will remember how many people I have routing for me back here.” They were thrilled and honoured that Ali asked to have his marriage blessed in the town’s mosque, wearing a striking all-white suit. Ali had been brought into the Church of Islam after meeting the black activist Malcolm X.
Ali went on to win the heavyweight championship of the world three times, and become one of boxing’s all-time greats, perhaps “the greatest” as he called himself.
Today Ali is in his 70s and lives on a ranch in Michigan in the United States, but his public appearances are rare because he suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. Ali finds it hard to express himself verbally these days because of his condition, but his mind is still very active.
Ali was an icon, a symbol of his times and a role model for a generation of white and black people. But for the people of Tyneside, and in particular, South Shields, they’ll always remember the day when ‘the greatest’ came to town.
“The King of South Shields” is a 2008 documentary film of the visit, made using archive news and Super-8 footage by local producer Tina Gharavi and her compant Bridge + Tunnel productions. The Yemeni community in South Shields is one of the oldest Muslim communities in the UK, and the film examines the emerging Arab/British identity, during a period when the young men involved were recognising the duality of their culture.
Buy the DVD –