Thursday, 5 June 2014

Boxing oddities: Ali and Ovaltine

Boxiana is a huge fan of the odd and the unusual recesses of boxing history. One such oddity which has always tickled me is Muhammad Ali's endorsement in the early 1970s of the malt-based beverage Ovaltine.

Although inexorably associated, in my mind at least, with British pensioners, pyjamas and bedtime, Ovaltine was actually a Swiss invention, and was also found on supermarket shelves in the USA. Ali's somewhat surreal endorsement of the product came about after his loss to Joe Frazier when a representative of the company visited him in New Jersey. After signing a deal to endorse the product, Ali conducted an 'autumn tour' in 1971 of various English towns.

The East Anglian Film Archive contains some fascinating footage of Ali's visit to Norwich to promote Ovaltine. At the Downsway supermarket on St Stephen's Street in the Norfolk town we see Ali signing cans of the drink powder for a huge group of fans, who seem to mainly, although not exclusively, consist of delighted and bespectacled old ladies.

"If it weren't for Ovaltine, I never would have seen these little country towns," Ali later comments. "Usually when I think of England ... all we think of is London ... [But] we've been to Birmingham and Manchester and a few more places ... I never would have had no reason to come here if it wasn't for working with Ovaltine and I'm glad of that because the next time I meet Joe Frazier I'll take the fight more serious, I'll train harder because I never realised how many people and followers of  all ages, all races, religions and creeds I had following me ... Excuse me while I drink some Ovaltine... how do you mix it? I never have to make it myself!"

There's a serious point behind this post though, which is that the Ovaltine tour amply represents just how hugely popular and transcendent a figure Ali was. Not only was he a great boxer and competitor, but he was a global icon who took the mantle of world champion seriously. By my count Ali fought in 13 different countries and territories during his career. Can any other World Heavyweight Champion match that astonishing figure? Even when he wasn't world champion he maintained his status as the people's champion.

Two final thoughts: firstly, are there any remaining cans of Ali-signed Ovaltine out there? And secondly, I'm interested in what other bizarre items of Ali-related merchandise or ephemera might exist which I've not yet come across. I've seen some bizarre Ali hand puppets and a can of Muhammad Ali shoe polish on sale on ebay before, but without doubt my favourite item of Ali memorabilia has to be DC Comics' 1978 comic book Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. Boxiana Volume 1, to be published later this year, will take an in-depth look at this landmark comic book.

Luke G. Williams

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