His cognitive decline was terribly evident, but Muhammad Ali’s irresistible spirit remained intact when he arrived in Birmingham’s Handsworth area in August 1983.
Those were hard days for this place. There was racial tension in the streets. Unemployment and social dislocation had sparked the riots two years earlier, and there would be more riots two years later. But for one indelible week this summer, the neighborhood was bathed in Ali’s light, humor, and magic tricks that needed little persuasion to perform.
He did not receive money for the visit. It was picked up with a Birmingham businessman’s Heathrow Rolls Royce and serenaded by TV-AM chef Rustie Lee, a TV star at the time, in her Handsworth restaurant. But he was only there to keep his promise to attend the opening ceremony of the community center they named after him.
The Muhammad Ali Center was a place where young people could channel their energy. There were karate classes, pool tables and music evenings. Ali’s speaking powers weren’t the best when he took the stage to inaugurate the venue. “I’m not just bragging about being the best,” he told them. “We’re the best”. He destroyed the house.
Given the sport’s pursuit of ways to capture its history and heritage, it is conceivable that the center would now be a beacon in the landscape of a city that has just spent £218m of its own taxpayers’ money on the £778m Commonwealth Games stage. It’s nothing else. The Muhammad Ali Center is in a shocking state of disrepair: pool tables overturned, bar smashed, the stage where Ali once stood is almost visible among the bird droppings. Twisted aluminum from what once served as roofing material lies among the rubble.
Muhammed Ali was besieged by supporters on the streets of Birmingham during a visit in 1983
The boxing legend visited to attend the opening ceremony of a community center named after him to help young people – which was located in the Handsworth area of Birmingham
The center is in a dilapidated state and Birmingham connects with one of the greatest athletes to rot
Two homeless young men had just spent the night in the partial shelter this place offers when I visited last week. “People still set fire to this place,” said one of them, pointing to the burnt legs of the chairs, which betrayed the crude attempts of others to stay warm here, despite the nauseating stench. The toilets were broken. Rubbish from plastic bags dumped by dump trucks spilled outside.
The District is clearly aware of Ali’s support during some of his most difficult years. A mural of him in shorts and gloves adorns the top of a red brick wall in the neighboring Lozells district – part of an interactive art trail “inspiring the locals”. But the center inexorably fades from collective memory.
It’s always been a fight. In 2002, its closure brought a fire. It has been owned by the local organization Kajans Women’s Enterprise for seven years, which proposed its demolition three years ago. It didn’t happen.
For community groups, the neglect of the site, which has been in place since the 1960s, is a source of concern. “It’s part of our heritage,” says one of them. “An integral part of our community.”
Others sharing this view include Gary Newbon, who as a sports reporter for broadcaster ATV interviewed Ali during his 1983 trip. Newbon ventured into places other journalists had not reached during an interview in a studio in Birmingham, letting Ali know that all these punches seemed to be taking their toll. “People are worried about your health,” Newbon told him.
There is an unspeakable sadness in the way Ali dismisses Newbon’s suggestion in an effort to express his insistence that all is well. He was overwhelmed by what would be revealed to be Parkinson’s disease a year later, but he threw everything on his journey nonetheless, drawing crowds to every Birmingham street he walked. Blacks, whites, rich, poor, community leaders, policemen: he happily followed them all.
Ali also visited a restaurant in Handsworth that belonged to celebrity chef Rustie Lee (left)
Fans climb scaffolding just to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest athletes of all time
Ali was besieged by about 1,000 fans when the center opened on August 10, 1983.
Handsworth seemed really important to him, says Newbon. “He cared so much about the community, and those he called his ‘brothers’ in Handsworth obviously meant so much. Opening this place was a big deal for him. It’s a scandal how it fell into disrepair.
The local councilor told me it was someone else’s patch. A representative from the Kajans group rejected the view that the site deserved a better standard of care.
The representative said there were “significant” plans for the Muhammad Ali Center. what are they? I asked. “It’s not something we make public,” she said.
There were rumors of “significant” plans for the Muhammad Ali Center that have yet to materialize
The property was leased for 999 years, with the understanding that it would be used to increase economic prosperity and improve the quality of life of the local population
Birmingham City Council told me that it had granted a 999-year lease to the group on the condition that it be used to increase economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for local people, particularly the African and Caribbean community. He understands that plans are in the works.
Perhaps you had to be there, in that stuffy, tense summer of 1983, to feel a pang of sadness at the tangible connection with one of the greatest athletes left to his fate.
Many years ago, at a restaurant in the local Soho Hill, Ali tried the “disappearing scarf” magic trick on Rustie Lee, then sang along with it to a three-piece band. back to before the controversy of his life. “I know I have fans, but I’ve never seen so many,” he said. “This greeting reminds me of old times. It’s the best.
There is sadness that a tangible relationship with one of the world’s greatest athletes has been left to rot (Ali pictured with John Conteh at Debenhams department store in the Bull Ring shopping center
Ali smiles as a fan slaps him on the cheek as he greets supporters in Birmingham
Ali (pictured greeting the police) began to notice a decline in his cognitive abilities in 1983
Greish makes history
Congratulations to Jack Grealish on winning the most lucrative sponsorship deal in British football history, making him £10m richer. And the potential earning opportunities don’t even end there.
Boxer Julius Francis managed to get a national newspaper to sponsor the soles of his shoes when he fought Mike Tyson 23 years ago, assuming he would be on the mat often.
Greish falls over so often he could be the new Julius Francis.
Jack Grealish has signed the most lucrative sponsorship deal in British football history
These demanding cards should be penalized
It takes a special kind of moron to demand discipline from an opponent, and Antony did just that on Sunday, waving an imaginary yellow card in another clumsy attempt to do what he was paid to do.
“Yes, yellow!” my grandson shouted as we watched, proof that this behavior is a virus. Cheats are also influential when seven-year-olds watch. Those who wave an imaginary yellow should be given a real yellow.
This sanction would not have been required in an era of United like Bryan Robson.
Retaliation would be similar to Robson’s experience of once tangling with Liverpool’s Tommy Smith at Anfield. “For the next 15 minutes, Tommy completely cemented me,” Robson recounted last week.
Antony waved imaginary yellow cards for Manchester United against Liverpool