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Muhammad Ali

 

When Muhammad Ali wowed a South London school

In memory of Muhammad Ali, who visited this school in Brixton out of the kindness of his heart.

Story and photos by Peter Arkell

Muhammad Ali at Tulse Hill school

Muhammad Ali

A day in the life of a comprehensive school, 42 years ago:

Tulse Hill School, near Brixton, South London, 1974. The whole school, over 1,000 pupils, assembles in the hall. Normally school assemblies are for just a part of the school as the hall is too small for a full assembly, but this is a special day. Rumours have been flying around, but the kids are not sure, until the man himself, the "sportsman of the century", fighter for civil rights, opponent of the Vietnam war, Muhammad Ali, appears on the stage, fresh from his victory over George Foreman at the "rumble in the jungle".

Muhammad Ali

He is introduced by one of the school governors, Paul Stephenson who was formerly a member of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Sports Council: "I got on stage", Stephenson said in an interview with Sky Sports later, "and said I've got here a young man who has made a great impact in Africa, he's on his way home to Chicago but he's agreed to come and see you, and wish you the best for what you are doing with your lives. When Muhammad walked out from behind the curtains the school erupted, the roof nearly came off. I'd never seen anything like it."

Muhammad Ali

After speaking to the school students about the importance of study, and respect for the teachers, Muhammad Ali invited the largest boy in the school to come down onto the stage for a sparring session. The school was treated to a boxing lesson (in bare knuckles) by the greatest boxer ever, complete with running commentary from Ali, who moved around like a butterfly, but spared the boy his sting.

Muhammad Ali

The press were not invited, but a member of the Young Socialists, who was at the school, managed to phone the Workers Press to say that she had heard Muhammad Ali might be coming to the school, and I was told to get down there quickly. Just in time. I arrived a few minutes before Ali finished his speech. It was very dark, and I was warned not to use flash, as the press were not supposed to be there. A genuine scoop for the Socialist press.

5 June 2016

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