Muhammad Ali truly was the boxing king of the talk shows; Michael Parkinson’s shows were the best of the best

As electrifying and as entertaining as the incomparable Muhammad Ali was in the ring, it’s often a close call as to whether or not The Greatest was equally as entertaining, as special, when he was talking, and talking, and talking.. Far above any other pro boxer in the sport’s long history, Ali truly was the king of the interviews.

Whether he was being interviewed by Howard Cosell, Don Dunphy, Reg Gutteridge, Dickie Davies or Michael Parkinson, Ali was ways witty, ultra-interesting, controversial, funny or thought provoking; sometimes he was all of these things and more at once. It was Ali’s four appearances on The Parkinson Show, the first and third especially, that proved the most memorable of his interviews though.

Three times when in his majestic prime, Ali matched wits with “Parky” – in 1971, and twice in 1974. The final interview took place in 1981, a time when Ali was already ailing, and this one was almost too much for Parkinson, an admitted fan, to bear. Ali still had a twinkle in his eye in 1981, but he was nothing like the wordsmith he had once been.

Parkinson has just written a book dedicated to his four interviews with Ali and fans who have either seen the interviews but want more, or fans who have not yet seen them, are in for an interesting read. The appearances Ali made on Parkinson (the second of which took place in America instead of the UK, with Dick Cavett being the co-interviewer of both Ali and Joe Frazier just prior to their second fight) lit up British TV like no previous chat show entertainment ever had, or ever has.

Ali’s third appearance on the show proved most thrilling, and most controversial. Ali had just beaten the “invincible” George Foreman to take back his crown and he was at his peak of fame and even more outspoken, on a number of issues, than ever before. Parkinson was – at one point in the interview, when he got out a book written on Ali and tried to “corner” the great man (Ali’s words) – so successful in annoying Ali that he was later asked if he was at all scared.

Ali, who had torn into Joe Frazier – with Parkinson defending him, “Oh, he’s not an Uncle Tom,” he said, with Ali adamant that Joe was subservient to the white man – was perhaps as genuinely angry as he had ever been when on live TV (outside of the ring anyway). It all made/makes for great entertainment.

Today, 81 year old Parkinson says he lost all four encounters with Ali – “I lost 4-0,” he says – and though he makes it clear he didn’t agree with plenty of the things Ali said, he retains the huge amount of affection he had for The Greatest; who of course left us in June of this year. Parkinson, in speaking with The Irish Times, says that he could not bear to accept the offers he had to interview Ali in the three-time heavyweight king’s later years. The 1981 encounter was saddening enough for Parkinson.

“I couldn’t bear it,” Parkinson says on a promotional tour to promote his new book. “There were chances to meet him and there were events when people wanted us to get together to do another interview but I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t want to see him like that. I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have sat there and said, ‘Sorry, what did you say?’ It was bad enough talking to him the way he was in ’81, never mind 20 years later.”

Back when he did talk with Ali – and there were no rehearsed questions or subjects that were off-limits as is the case today – Parkinson managed to get the best out of Ali. Parkinson was able to extract the funny, the intelligent, the wise, the misguided and even the hateful side of Ali with his questions. All these years later and Parkinson is asked about no other guest of his show as much as he is about Ali. The interviews, the back and forth exchanges, simply have to be seen.

When he wasn’t angry or advocating his religious beliefs, Ali was just ‘plane’ funny (the segment where Ali speaks about his fear of flying being one particularly funny highlight). As great an entertainer, or raconteur as any sportsman you care to name, Ali’s stories and observations can bring you to tears of laughter. His mind and his tongue at their sharpest in the first, second and third interviews, Ali showed why he was such a shining star.

Today, Parkinson says Ali was “beautiful” and “a talk show host’s dream.”

That he was. If you don’t buy Parkinson’s book, at least check out the footage of his interviews with Ali on You Tube. If you haven’t watched them to the extent of knowing them by heart already!

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