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Shoe shopping with Ali in Zurich

2016-06-08 13:32
muhammad ali, getty images, boxing
Muhammad Ali (Getty Images)

Geneva - Nearly half a century ago, a 1.91-metre black man walked into a shoe store in the overwhelmingly white Swiss city Zurich and asked for size-47 boots.

The shopkeeper at the Schoebachler store looked baffled, as an amazed crowd built outside to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary customer.

It was Muhammad Ali, who needed new boots after his old pair got drenched while training in the snow on Zurich's Uetliberg mountain.

The man who drove Ali to the shoe store was Swiss photographer Eric Bachmann, who followed the man he repeatedly called "The Champ" ahead of his December 26, 1971 victory over Germany's Jurgen Blin.

In a telephone interview from his Zurich home, Bachmann described a series of entirely spontaneous events that led Ali to the Shoebachler.

That was typical of the boxing legend, who died on Friday aged 74, and whose openness including with reporters through his career was stunning, especially compared the guarded approach of today's top athletes.

Zurich was transfixed by Ali - and race played a role in that fascination, recalled Bachmann, who photographed the visit for Ringier magazine.

At one point, a tram had to stop its route because the crowd of autograph-seekers had swelled from the sidewalk onto the tracks, in a rare disruption for Swiss public transport, the photographer said.

Bachmann skipped Ali's landing in Zurich because all the Swiss news agencies were at the airport, leaving no chance of getting exclusive material.

The next day, December 17, Bachmann went to the Atlantis hotel, hoping to capture the fighter having breakfast.

The brash and provocative heavyweight was nearly two years removed from his suspension from boxing, which was linked to his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

Ali entered the lobby in his training gear, spotted Bachmann taking pictures and asked the photographer if he could recommend a place to run.

"I said 'no problem, follow me. I will show you a nice place where you can run,'" Bachmann recalled telling the fighter, whom many call "The Greatest."

They headed to the Uetliberg mountain overlooking Zurich.

Bachmann's pictures of Ali training that morning -- assembled in a book called "Muhammad Ali, Zurich" -- show a youthful man with a wide smile striding down a mountain path, surrounded by leaveless trees with light snow on the slopes.

In one of Bachmann's shots, Ali is gliding past two elderly white men headed up hill.

The photographer said that while he witnessed no racist incidents, the sight of a 220 lb. (100 kilo-gram) African-American running down the Uetliberg certainly drew attention in 1971.

There was "the shock of the people which were wondering...(who is) this black man," Bachmann told AFP, speaking in English.

"They looked and they said, 'ah, this is Muhammad Ali."

During the run, Ali asked "is this the highest mountain of Switzerland?" Bachmann recalled.

He repled to the Louisville, Kentucky native that Mont Blanc in the south was in fact the Alpine nation's highest peak.

"And then he said, 'I am the greatest and I would like to climb the hightest mountain in the world," Bachmann remembered.

Not sure if Ali was joking, Bachmman suggested he make plans to climb Everest.

A hole in Ali's boots, combined with the wet mountain terrain, left him in need of new footwear.

He wanted to know where the well-shod Swiss men on Uetliberg had gotten their boots.

"I told the champ, 'Oh, if you want I can show you afterwards where you can buy (them)," he said.

They got back to the hotel and found Ali's driver unavailable.

Ali, his celebrated trainer Angelo Dundee and Bachmann then piled into the photographer's tiny car and headed to Schoebachler in Zurich's Langstrasse.

"This was an old traditional family store at they didn't at first know who it is," Bachmann said.

Ali "was lucky because one pair of (size) 47 was left," he added.

Nine days later, he knocked Blin out in the seventh round at Zurich's Hallenstadion, his third straight win in a comeback that ultimately saw him reclaim the world heavyweight title.

Read more on:    muhammad ali  |  boxing

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