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  Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 20:22 GMT
Ali: 'My black brother'
Ian Parsons
Ian Parsons "sparring" with Muhammad Ali in July 1986
London cabbie Ian Parsons tells BBC Sport Online of his unforgettable meetings with boxing hero Muhammad Ali.

I've been a fan of Ali's since I was a child.

Unlike other childhood heroes, Ali's stature has grown over the years and, as an adult, I appreciate him as a true hero: a social and political figure and force for good as well as a sporting icon.

I first met him on Friday 29 November 1974 at the New Victoria Theatre in London where he was appearing at a question-and-answer session.

Eighteen years old at the time, I was privileged to ask him the very first question that night.

The first question

It wasn't the most searching one he has ever faced, but I thought it was good.

"Muhammad," I said, "can I ask you, out of all of your fights, which one was the hardest?"

After momentarily scratching his head in mock concentration, Ali replied, "That was against my first wife."

As delighted as I was at finally making contact with the great man, I dreamed of meeting Ali on a one-to-one basis.

But, ever the accessible superstar, he is often mobbed by huge crowds of fans, making it almost impossible to meet him properly.

Ian with brothers Richard and Stephen and Ali
Ian with brothers Richard and Stephen and Ali

Or so I thought.

Coming home after a boring sales meeting 12 years later in July 1986, the phone rang.

"This is Muhammad Ali, three times heavyweight champion of the world and the greatest fighter of all times. Is that you, Ian?" said the voice on the other end.

Ali, who had been given my phone number by another fan who had met him in America, was visiting Britain to promote the forthcoming Bruno-Witherspoon fight.

After a brief conversation, Ali invited me to his hotel.

Two hours later, I was having coffee and sandwiches with the world's most famous sportsman, who entertained me with magic tricks.

We talked, watched TV and before we knew it, it was two in the morning.

Unforgettable evening

Knowing I'd driven a long way to meet him, Ali ordered a fold-up bed to be brought to his suite, which is where I spent the night.

The following morning we had a playful sparring match and, not wanting to outstay my welcome, I reluctantly left.

A day later I received a letter from Ali, who said that he hoped to meet me again.

A week later, we had lunch and, for the next two days, hung out together.

I also travelled as his guest, in a limousine arranged by him, to Wembley Stadium to see the Bruno fight.

Ali and my family

Walking out with the world's most famous sportsman, through the tunnel into the world's most famous outdoor arena will remain with me forever, as will the comments he made when he met my wife Anne and brothers, Richard and Stephen.

With Anne sitting on my knee, Ali asked her, "Are you in love?"

Ali with Ian and his wife Anne
Ali with Ian and his wife Anne

"I think he loves you, Muhammad, more than he loves me", replied my wife of just over a year.

Ali said nothing, just looked at me, pouted his lips and extended a limp wrist.

Then I sat with my brothers and Ali and, as the photograph was being taken, he pointed to me and said, "I'm your black brother."

After a gap of three years, Ali returned to London on a promotional visit with Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

I spent two days with Ali, once again I was back in this unreal world, surrounded by legends.

However, while with the three men, I made the mistake of saying: "Can I have my photograph taken with you three boys?" - "boy" being a derogatory term for an African-American man.

Ali immediately picked up on my error, reacting with mock anger while Foreman made a fist and Frazier pretended to grab my wallet.

Ian with Ali and George Foreman in 1989
Ian with Ali and George Foreman in 1989

In 1993, I helped Ali and his photographer friend Howard Bingham promote his new book at several book-signings.

More recently, I was there when Ali celebrated his 59th birthday at London's Hilton Hotel, once again just a fan.

My time with Muhammad Ali, and the warmth, generosity and friendship he extended to me, proved what has been said so many times.

Though he may no longer be world champion Ali remains, as always, the People's Champion.

BBC Sport Online reviews the life and career of Muhammad Ali at 60

Ali's birthday landmark

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