The night I saw a little girl of five floor Muhammad Ali

Julie Collins meets Muhammad Ali in 1977.
Julie Collins meets Muhammad Ali in 1977.
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Muhammad Ali’s superstar status meant that most people‘s experiences of his magnetic personality came via their TV screens or, if they were lucky, from ringside at one of his fights.

Leeds writer John Rimington, however, had the privilege of meeting Ali on numerous occasions as the Louisville Lip shook up the world.

Muhammad Ali and John Rimington.

Muhammad Ali and John Rimington.

Now retired and living in Rawdon, Mr Rimington spent 25 years as a Hollywood and Las Vegas correspondent for Fleet Street in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

He attended many of Ali’s fights, interviewing him and getting to know the man behind the supremely confident public image.

And yesterday he gave his thoughts on the death of the self-styled ‘greatest’ – a tag the 72-year-old grandfather says was well deserved.

Mr Rimington recalled the build-up to Ali’s infamous fight against Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1980, when he came out of retirement to suffer a beating many believe contributed to his later struggles with Parkinson’s disease.

Muhammad Ali and Pippa Midgley in 1980.

Muhammad Ali and Pippa Midgley in 1980.

“I watched Ali through a week of intensive training – every day an eight-mile run and 10 rounds of serious sparring,” the writer said. “Much of the tyre that had been hanging around his belly went and he weighed 223lb. He’d also taken off his moustache, telling me (at an appearance a few days before the fight) ‘Now I am trim and pretty again. This is the face the world knows and I want to bring the old Ali back again. Six weeks ago I was a fat man, but now you are seeing a miracle – the return of the greatest boxer of all time’.

“Ali then did some of his famous fancy footwork and everyone cheered, but when I followed him back to his dressing room he was slumped on a sofa and looked exhausted.”

Ali’s wife of the time, Veronica, told Mr Rimington: “I’ve tried to talk him out of it, but he’s made his decision and I suppose I must support him.”

During the run-up to the Holmes bout, Ali still found time to win the heart of a five-year-old girl from Horsforth in Leeds. Pippa Midgley was on holiday with her parents at Caesars Palace when he and Holmes arrived to promote the fight.

“Ali suddenly spotted Pippa sitting on her father’s shoulders above the crowd that had gathered,” said Mr Rimington. “He picked her up and announced ‘I’m the greatest, but you are the cutest. You are going to be my lucky charm’.

“Then up strode Holmes, who tried to snatch Pippa from Ali’s arms, shouting ‘Hey that’s my gal. She’s the champ’s sweetheart – and I’m the champ’.

“There then followed a mock fight between the two boxers before Pippa delivered her own punchline, saying ‘My teacher told me big boys shouldn’t fight over girls’. It brought the house down but that was the magic of Ali and that whole era – they were incredible times.”

Mr Rimington said: “I leave the boxing pundits to decide whether he was the best fighter of all time. But to me he really was, as he so often declared, the greatest sporting legend of the 20th century. He was also a sincere, charming man – he just cared about people, whatever their colour, creed or gender. It was an honour to meet and spend time with one of the icons of our age.”

Mr Rimington was there on the day a girl from Wrose, near Bradford, got a special insight into Ali’s generous nature.

Julie Collins, a 13-year-old spina bifida sufferer, came face to face with the champ during a sponsored trip with her mother to Las Vegas in 1977.

She was in the audience at the Aladdin Hotel for a tribute event where Ali was presented with a diamond studded gold ring inscribed with the words ‘Champion of Champions’.

Mr Rimington said: “As he left the stage, Ali suddenly spotted Julie and handed the ring to her, saying ‘You deserve this more than me. You are a true champion against adversity’.

“Then, as he signed her autograph book, he told her ‘Now, don’t you go and pawn that ring when you get back to England’, to which Julie replied ‘No chance – I will treasure it forever’.”

Julie died aged 32 in 1995 and on Saturday her mother, Renee Collins, described the meeting as “one of the best days of her life”. Mrs Collins, 79, said: “Ali made her the star that night, it was her autograph that everyone was queuing up to get! It was sad to hear the news that he has died but there are lots of wonderful memories of him.”

Following her daughter’s death, Mrs Collins donated the ‘Champion of Champions’ ring to the Variety Club of Great Britain charity so it could be auctioned off to raise money for other disabled children.