Muhammad Ali: The Farewell Tour

On the 7th June 1979 two thousand people from Birmingham flocked to the Odeon Cinema, New Street, to listen to Muhammad Ali whisper in the dark, and say goodbye to the Greatest.

But the event nearly didn’t happen at all. First, the British Boxing Board of Control, and then a fire, threatened to floor plans to bring the heavyweight king to town.

Ali was in the middle of a 20-day European tour. The UK leg including stops in Birmingham and London. A Farewell Tour – Ali constantly trailed his own retirement.

“I want to be remembered as the greatest. I am 37 years old, 3 times world
champion – my record will never be beaten. I could make another defence but
it would be risky. I am going to get out while I’m unscathed, while I’m still

Muhammad Ali, Birmingham, 7th June 1979

He was desperate to finish on top.

But the man who earnt millions in the ring had almost nothing left after years of exploitation. A new management team – IMG – was instructed to set up deals and make some money. They landed Ali TV roles, endorsements and the Farewell Tour.

Even cornerman ‘Bundini’ Brown conned himself a seat on the Concorde, hauling suitcases full of unofficial merchandise to hawk at sold out venues.

Birmingham fixer Ian Townsend made sure the schedule was stacked.

“There will be a Press conference on the morning of his visit after which he will
go on a walk-about through the City centre. He will then attend a charity
luncheon organised by the Variety Club of Great Britain at the Mayfair Suite. In
the afternoon he will visit various Birmingham-based companies before resting
in preparation for the evening’s entertainment.”

Ian Townsend, Sports Argus, 21st April 1979

The evening entertainment at the Odeon was set to include two hours of Ali magic; showbiz
personalities, a 5-round sparring exhibition with stable-mate Jimmy Ellis and an audience Q&A. Ali would finish the night with a live screening and talk-over of his new film: ‘The Best 15 Rounds of Ali’.

The Sports Argus hyped the build-up all the way and the pink paper teased readers with a
competition for tickets yet to be announced.

“Sports Argus readers will have ringside seats to see Muhammad Ali when the
world heavyweight champion boxes in Birmingham on June 7 th . We have
booked two ringside seats at £25 each and four at £10 each and they will be
given away in a FREE competition. Watch the Argus for details.”

Sports Argus, 21st April 1979

A spot the difference quiz was printed a month later. Readers were challenged to find ten
differences between two versions of the same crudely drawn picture of Ali reciting a poem in the middle of a packed-out of Bullring Centre. You Birming-ham folks sure is fine – Ali’s speech bubble rhyme – I guess I’d like to spend more time.

Entries were to be cut out of the paper above a report on the Cradley dogs and sent to Argus HQ at Colmore Circus. The first correct entry examined won the £25 tickets. The next two got the cheap seats.

But the British Boxing Board of Control had something to say about who the lucky punters would be watching Ali spar.

Ellis won and lost a world title during Ali’s exiled years, but by the time he retired aged 35 he was half blind in his left eye – enough for the Board to pull his licence to box.

Hackney slogger John L. Gardner boxed the London leg instead.

“We have had to alter our plans for London because of the Board of Control,
but as far as I am concerned when Ali arrives in Birmingham he will box five
rounds with Ellis. This is not the Boxing Board of Control’s show. It is my show
and I will decide who Ali is to face.”

Co-promoter Robert Bourne, The Birmingham Post, 16th May 1979

Then fire threatened to derail the event.

On 26 th May the Mayfair Suite was burnt to crisp. 120 firemen were deployed to the Bullring
ballroom set to host Ali and the Variety Club’s charity lunch, in less than two weeks-time. The blaze cost two million pounds and General Manager Jim Murray some sleepless nights.

The suite had neither sprinklers nor smoke detectors.

So, 900 people packed into the Night Out Theatre Restaurant instead. But not before Ali and the Birmingham masses caused chaos at the Bull Ring.

“There was pandemonium when Ali, surrounded by policeman, staged his walk-
about around the Bull Ring shopping centre where he met fellow boxer John
Conteh. Two people were taken to hospital, one with a dislocated knee, after
an escalator moved about four feet under the weight of the crowd trying to get
a grandstand view of Ali.

Shortly afterwards Ali and his entourage cut the walk-about short and made
their getaway from the surging crowd downstairs to the basement. ‘If we had
gone on, somebody might have got killed,’ said one of the organisers.”

The Birmingham Post, 8th June 1979

The charity lunch raised more than £5000 for children’s charities with punters paying £15 to attend, and £250 to take a photo and a pot-shot at the famous chin.

Ali was exhausted, subdued and spoke in barely a whisper.

And at 2 stones overweight – scaling 18 stone – some who turned out to see the exhibition spar questioned Ali’s motivation. His opponent, nursing a detached retina, unable to offer a meaningful challenge. Ellis did floor his opponent once. But Ali was only fooling around to script.

Flabby Ali headlines abound.

“The memory of the Greatest will linger on. But the man himself, the champion
of all world champions, Muhammad Ali, smudged a huge blot on his legend
with a farcical five-round exhibition bout with his old sparring partner, Jimmy
Ellis, at the Odeon in New Street, Birmingham last night.”

The Birmingham Post, 8th June 1979

Ali signed autographs, took questions from the floor, and boxed a ‘draw’ with Dudley comic Lenny Henry.

The event was shambolic. Organisers failed to signpost the climax of the evening and Ali was allowed to walk off the stage unnoticed, and into the night, without applause or accolade from the oblivious crowd.

“I love meeting people. Many of you have never seen me in living colour: I
wanted the people of Europe to see me while I was still champion.”

Muhammad Ali, Birmingham, 7th June 1979

He fought twice more in the ring and for a lifetime after. Holmes in 1980 and Berbick in 1981. Brutal beatings both.

Ali’s new management team were livid. Terrified for his health and reputation. In their eyes, his Farewell Tour a sham.

But Ali never could say no.

And, briefly, Birmingham was richer for it.

MBC has republished this article with the permission of the author. To read the original article click here

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