Arsenal veteran Ken recalls Ali’s Highbury fight 50 years on
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima
Last week veteran Arsenal director Ken Friar OBE returned to Highbury, Arsenal’s former home, to lay a wreath in honour of a man who lit up the world-famous stadium 50 years ago.
The wreath wasn’t laid in honour of such club legends as George Graham or Frank McLintock, as you might expect: the man Ken was remembering was Muhammad Ali.
“Awesome, in a word,” is Ken’s assessment of the enigmatic American.
“It was probably one of the most momentous evenings ever.
“Certainly, I learned more in the six weeks’ preparation for that fight than I’d learned in the rest of my life.”
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Ken, now in his 80s, was 31 when Ali visited Highbury for his second fight with home-grown hero Henry Cooper. Their first bout had been at Wembley three years earlier, stopped in the fifth round due to the damage Cooper had sustained to his eye.
But the earlier fight also stood out for being the first in which the silver-tongued Ali, then named Cassius Clay, had ever been knocked down, with Cooper knocking him off his feet at the end of the fourth round. All the same, after eventually beating Cooper, Ali went on to win the world title the next year, meaning their rematch was to be a title match.
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Islington, and indeed the rest of the world, was at fever pitch, with the Gazette reporting at the time how “Highbury was a hive of activity”. The front page from May 20 also tells the story of how people in nearby flats were gearing up for their free sneak peak at the fight, with locals “equipped with glass in one hand and binoculars in the other”.
“It was an electric night,” said Ken, whose job it was to ensure the stadium was ready for the fight.
“The pitch had to be totally boarded in; we then had to import thousands of seats; the ring had to be brought in; putting television cables underneath the boarding; making sure the pitch was protected. There was an awful lot to do, but it was a most exciting time.”
The majority of the 40,000 strong crowd were, of course, supporting local lad Henry Cooper. Cooper had been an Arsenal fan all his life, and was given the home dressing room for the world title fight.
But Ali’s 1966 visit also marked a change in the British public perception of him. When he had fought Cooper three years earlier many saw him as brash, a disrespectful loudmouth who told press: “Henry Cooper is nothing to me! If this bum goes over five rounds, I won’t return to the United States for 30 days, and that’s final!”
For his second fight, however, much had changed in the world’s most famous boxer. He was no longer the arrogant, brazen Cassius Clay who had visited the UK three years earlier. He was now Muhammad Ali, the principled World Heavyweight Champion who had eloquently lent his voice to the Civil Rights movement. The British people had sympathy with him, and what was more, he was relatable. He visited children’s homes and spoke to the British people, with his razor sharp wit endearing him to the nation.
The fight itself was ended in the sixth round, the referee again putting a stop to it due to the injuries Cooper had sustained to his eye.
But the lasting legacy of Ali’s visit to Highbury still lives long with many, including Ken.
“He had charisma beyond belief, and everything about him exuded fame,” he said. “He was an all-time great. I think no one deserves it more. I felt very emotional laying that wreath.”