Muhammad Ali and Paul McCartney were together again Friday night.
Forty-eight years after they first met at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, the two 70-year-old icons were focal points of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Games at London Olympic Stadium Friday night.
The frail-looking Ali — wearing a white suit, dark sunglasses and leaning on wife Lonnie to help steady himself from the ravages of his Parkinson’s disease - was one of a handful of dignitaries who helped escort the Olympic flag into the stadium.
Actually, Ali stood along the path of the flag carriers, who stopped briefly in front of him for a moment of homage before proceeding on to raise the flag as he sat down in a chair.
That Ali joined the celebration Friday night was appropriate. He’s been part of the Olympics for over half of a century. He won a gold medal as a light-heavyweight at the 1960 Games in Rome and then moved everyone’s heart as he steadied a hand trembling from his affliction and lit the Olympic Cauldron at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Sir Paul McCartney, who along with Ringo Starr are the only living Beatles ( John Lennon was murdered in 1980 and George Harrison died of cancer in 2001) - closed out Friday’s night’s gala celebration with a top of the stadium sing-along that had all the Olympic athletes and the crowd chorusing in.
McCartney opened with the closing line of the Abbey Road song The End (“And in the end, the love you take…Is equal to the love you make.”) and then sat down at a grand piano and delivered the 1968 classic Hey Jude.
McCartney and Ali - then still known as Cassius Clay - first met on Feb 18, 1964 at the Fifth Street Gym, the old second-floor walk-up run by the Dundee brothers, Chis and Ali’s longtime trainer. Angelo.
Back then Clay had no idea who the Beatles were and they knew little of him.
It was a week before the young, brash Clay — a loquacious longshot some in the press had dubbed “Gaseous Cassius” - would challenge menacing heavyweight champ Sonny Liston for his crown at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
The Beatles were just 11 days into their first trip to America. They had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show - where they were watched by a record 34 percent of the American population - and then had played one show in Washington D.C. and two more at Carnegie Hall before coming to Miami to appear on the Sullivan Show a second tome.
Their handlers had tried to get them in to see Liston, but the scowling champ had refused, saying: “Not with them sissies.”
And so they had then ended up at the Fifth Street Gym, though they weren’t that thrilled about it claimed Robet Lipsyte, the respected, former New York Times columnist and current author, who was a young boxing writer back then and had happened to walk into the fight club with the equally young quartet of Brits
As they waited for Clay - with Lennon suggesting they leave - they referred to the young heavyweight as a “silly over-hyped wanker.” Later Clay would make an off- the- cuff comment about them using a more derogatory term.
And yet the moment Clay walked into the gym and spouted “Hello there, Beatles! We ought to do some road shows together. We’d get rich.” - there was magic in the air. You’d have thought the whole thing was orchestrated.
The Beatles dutifully followed the pugnacious Pied Piper to the ring and playfully skipped around until Clay scooped Ringo into his arms and cradled him like a baby.
The four then lined up next to each other so Clay could pretend to use one punch to topple them domino style. Soon the Beatles had dropped to the canvas and folded their hands as if they were praying that Clay would not pummel them.
I have one of the original photos from that session - given to me later on by a photographer friend who worked with me at The Miami News and was there shooting that day - and it is the most prized possession I have in my collection of boxing photos and memorabilia.
It shows Clay, arms thrown heavenward in mock triumph while the Beatles lay at his feet pretending to cowe,r but unable to hide their delight.
After the session Clay would ask a reporter “Who were those (guys)?
That night the Beatles went to a drive in movie to watch Elvis Presley in “Fun in Acapulco.”
Lipsyte - who 14 years would later write the book Free To Be Muhammad Ali - has admitted he didn’t quite comprehend the greatness he was witnessing that February day in 1964. As he recounts in his wonderful book An Accidental Sportswriter:
“After the Fab Four left, Clay jumped rope, shadowboxed and sparred as his court jester, Drew Bundini Brown, hollered, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble!’ Afterward, stretched out on a dressing room table for his rubdown, Clay pretended to fall asleep as reporters asked him what he was going to do after he lost.
“Finally, a crabby old reporter from Boston said, ‘This whole act is a con job, isn’t it?’ and Clay pretended to wake up and he said, ‘I’m making all this money, the popcorn man making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it’s warm.’ The Boston reporter shut up.
“I think that was the moment when I began to wish this kid wasn’t going to get his head knocked off, that somehow he would beat Liston and become champion or at least survive and keep boxing. He would have been such a joy to cover ought. Too bad he’s got no chance. Too bad he’s only passing through, a firefly fad like those Beatles. We could all have had a blast.”
Friday night nearly five decades later, Ali and McCartney - those firefly fears long eclipsed by their eternal light - again provided joy and everyone did have a blast.Tweet