Broadcaster Sir Michael Parkinson interviewed Muhammad Ali on four occasions, often verbally sparring with the outspoken and articulate boxer on his television programme.
Sir Michael remembered him as “the most extraordinary man I ever met” – one of two people who could add an extra two million viewers to his show, and the person who eclipsed every one of the thousands of others he has interviewed.
He told the BBC: “When you look back over a career such as I have had and you look at all the thousands of people that you’ve interviewed, a few stand out. And he was the one who stands out most of all. An extraordinary man and you are lucky to have met him.”
He added: “His image will live on and his memory will live on for the rest of time, I suppose, because he did actually change boxing. He persuaded into arenas people who hitherto had thought boxing was repulsive or indeed had no interest whatsoever. He was more than box office.”
Sir Michael said Ali’s family had recently been in touch to ask for a compilation DVD of the interviews the pair had done as Ali spent days watching them with great pleasure on the internet.
He said: “At his death I just had this wonderful thought of him sitting there laughing away at the times that we had in the four shows that we did together. It’s a lovely memory to carry, because he was the most extraordinary man I ever met.”
Recalling their interviews, Sir Michael suggested Ali was both entertaining and provocative.
He told the BBC: “One point, where I questioned him about his views on race, I more or less said to him that he could be very provocative and that maybe if I said things to him that he said to me I’d be arrested as I left the studio.
“I quoted Budd Schulberg as saying that in spite of all this that he, Ali, had the most white friends of any black athlete he knew. From that point on there was real anger in his response. Up until that point he had been playing along as he always did – he was a wonderful actor – but at that point it hit something in him that stirred him.”
“I looked into the eyes of somebody who I thought might actually fell me with one blow, he was so angry. He was in extremis, and it is frightening to sit opposite who was a world heavyweight champion who might kill you with one blow.
“My father said afterwards, ‘You didn’t handle that very well’. I said, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ He said, ‘Why didn’t you thump him?’. I thought, ‘Hmmm, it’s a possibility I suppose, but I’d rather you tried that than me’.
“But that was just one aspect of this multi-layered man. He was extraordinary and I loved him, in a sense. I really did, I admired him. He had faults, of course he had faults, now is not the time to talk about it, but he was just a remarkable human being.”
He added: “The other thing that attracted you as an interviewer is that you knew that he was only one of two people who actually put two million, and more, viewers on your show as soon as you announced he was on. The other was Billy Connolly. And that was wonderful.”