The day Muhammad Ali met Robert Burns – a curious tale for Burns Night gatherings

The day Muhammad Ali met Robert Burns – a curious tale for Burns Night gatheringsWhisky, served in the kind of weighty lead-crystal glasses that billionaires prefer, will be flowing at Burns Suppers across the world tonight (25 January). Robert Burns’ most popular Scottish-dialect poems will be awkwardly garbled by many, a few drams in. But there is one Burns-related verse that is unlikely to be performed by anyone this evening – the one Muhammad Ali scribbled down during his little-known visit to Burns Cottage in Alloway, west Scotland, in 1965:

I’d heard of a man named Burns – supposed to be a poet;

Muhammad Ali is greeted by pipers from plane in Scotland

But, if he was, how come I didn’t know it?

They told me his work was very, very neat,

So I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?‘

 

– Muhammad Ali

Ali, who had just become heavyweight champion of the world, had touched down in Glasgow for a show fight with his friend Jimmy Ellis in Paisley, as part of an international tour. Scotland was so honoured by his visit, they sent the Braemar Ladies Pipe Band of Coatbridge in all their tartan finery to welcome him.

With a little bit of pre-fight downtime to kill, who knows why Ali ended up leaving the city for the hour’s drive to the historic county of Ayrshire, Burns’ birthplace, to the tiny museum containing the writer’s life’s work. Ali’s poem, perhaps, has the answer – Robert Burns, the handsome young ploughman-turned-literary-hero was hailed as Scotland’s ‘greatest’ even in his own lifetime, and, by then, Ali had made it a noun all his own. The sportsman, of course, was also a gifted linguist, while ‘poetry’ was another word Ali trailed in his wake.

The visit shimmered with symbolism. Roped off, a formidable velvet-seated wooden chair, made in 1858 from the printing press which produced the first edition of Robert Burns’ Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, is a museum highlight. On seeing it, Ali swiftly ducked under the red cord and geared up for his finest literary bout. The next moment is captured in the photograph above: a theatrically pensive Ali, pen and notebook in hand, regaling the mesmerised locals with his brazen tribute to their most famous son.

 

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