Precious McKenzie singing, Muhammad Ali dancing - weightlifter recalls special times

By Gia Garrick

Precious McKenzie says he owes his fame to his first meeting with Muhammad Ali. Photos / Martin Sykes, AP
Precious McKenzie says he owes his fame to his first meeting with Muhammad Ali. Photos / Martin Sykes, AP

A New Zealand Weightlifter has remembered a time he sang, and Muhammad Ali danced, at a restaurant he worked at in Henderson, Auckland.

It was the third time Precious McKenzie spent time with the late boxer.

McKenzie says he owes his fame to his first meeting with Ali, when he was invited to speak alongside him, and English heavyweight Henry Cooper, at a fundraiser for the Crippled Children's Society in London in 1974.

He said Ali was late, and the media was eagerly awaiting his arrival.

"The moment he walked in he grabbed Henry Cooper's fist and put it in his face, like punching him, in a pose - and the media went wild with that."

One of the photographers, tongue in cheek, then asked McKenzie if he'd be able to lift Ali - who was nearly double the 150 centimetre weightlifter's weight.

"He's got a really good sense of hearing, and so he looks down at me - because he's got no idea who the hell I was. And he says 'you think you could lift me up?' He said this three times, and the third time he said it, I said 'well open your legs and I'll show you.' The media just loved it - I went straight between his legs and lifted him up in the air," said McKenzie.

"He shouted 'put me down, put me down!' And the media said, 'come on Precious, hold him for one more shot!"'

McKenzie said there was two pictures, one with both their hands in the air, and the other where Ali had his hands on his knees. Both were all over British media the next day.

Heavyweight Champion of the World boxer Muhammad Ali sits on the shoulders of Commonwealth weightlifting Champion Precious McKenzie in London in 1974. Photo / Supplied
Heavyweight Champion of the World boxer Muhammad Ali sits on the shoulders of Commonwealth weightlifting Champion Precious McKenzie in London in 1974. Photo / Supplied

But McKenzie said he remembers his second meeting with Muhammad Ali, when he came to New Zealand in 1979, just as clearly.

Ali loved the fact that he could walk down the street here, and nobody knew who he was.

So McKenzie said he decided he'd go to the hotel Ali was staying at, and see if he could catch up with him.

He said the hotel was quite confused when he walked in and asked if he could see Ali, clutching his biography, in which he had the photo of Ali sitting on his shoulders from five years earlier.

1979: Two boys shadow box with Muhammad Ali on his walk in Central Auckland. Photo / NZ Herald
1979: Two boys shadow box with Muhammad Ali on his walk in Central Auckland. Photo / NZ Herald

"So they rang him up in his room. And he said 'alright, tell Mr McKenzie to come up and see me.'"

When McKenzie got to his room, he said Ali had a big smile on his face, and told him he remembered him from the photo.

McKenzie had his son with him, and he told Ali his shy son wanted to be a boxer. Ali proceeded to put his fists up, and pose with him, pretending to box his son.

During that same visit, McKenzie invited him to come and dine at the restaurant he worked at in Henderson. He was singing there regularly to pay off his second mortgage.

"He said yes, so later I went to the hotel and told him to come with me, his entourage followed my car to the Palomino Restaurant," said McKenzie.

They closed down the restaurant to the public while Ali and his entourage were there, and McKenzie sang, like he'd been doing for three years at the Henderson restaurant.

"He enjoyed my singing so much, that he picked up his wife and danced on the dancing floor."

McKenzie says it's a memory he'll hold close. He said Ali was extremely bright, and extremely witty.

"My brother was also a boxer, with a similar style to Muhammad Ali. He was fast. We both thought so highly of him, and honoured Muhammad Ali so much."

Muhammad Ali passed away after a long battle with Parkinson's disease on Saturday afternoon, aged 74.

- Newstalk ZB

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