COVENTRY councillor David Skinner has paid his respects to the late Muhammed Ali after the boxing hero died at a hospital in Pheonix, Arizona last Friday at the age of 74.
The pair met in Nigeria in 1974 – weeks before Ali’s historic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) – while Mr Skinner was working in the foreign service in Nigeria.
Speaking to the Observer, Mr Skinner reminisced about the five minutes he and his wife, Sheila, had with ‘The Greatest’.
“The first thing I remember was how enormous he was,” Mr Skinner said.
“I only came up to his shoulder and he just towered over us.
“When Sheila went to shake his hand her whole arm seemed to disappear him his hand.”
But Mr Skinner says his most vivid memory is of how different Mr Ali was in their private meeting than in public.
“I remember him being very polite and courteous,” he added.
“He spoke very highly of his opponent George Foreman – calling him a very good fighter with a heavy punch.
“Mr Ali said he would have to train very hard if he was to win the Rumble in the Jungle.
“So obviously when he did a few weeks later and we saw him claiming to be ‘The Greatest’ on television, my wife and I realised how different the private, softly-spoken Ali was from his public image.
“Muhammed Ali’s death is incredibly sad and he will be remembered as much more than a great boxer.
“My wife and I will always remember him as the polite, intelligent and modest man he was – a real gentleman.”
Condolence books to Muhammed Ali have been placed at the Council House reception, the Customer Services Centre in Broadgate and at the Muslim Resources Centre.
Coventry Lord Mayor, Coun Lindsley Harvard, also wrote to Barack Obama to express his sympathies to Mr Ali’s family and friends and commend the boxer on his work to promote peace and reconciliation across the world as a ‘champion of the causes of emancipation, integration and togetherness.’
Mr Lindsley also said Coventry would ‘never forget’ Muhammed Ali’s visits to the city in 1979 and 1983, when he attracted huge crowds of supporters.