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‘Ali was like a child’ When Pele kissed Muhammad Ali

Two days before he met Pele, the “Greatest One” Muhammad Ali leaned back on the ropes after the challenger Ernie Shavers beat him up in New York. Frank Keating, a journalist, would write things like “Gruesome and barbarically riveting.” As he lay there, Ali’s famous sidekick Bundini Brown, who came up with the phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was crying next to him. Brown would eventually lose his place in Ali’s inner circle after selling Ali’s championship belt to a barber for $500. Ali, who was 35 at the time, would say, “I’m tired, I’m tired, that’s it: The End.” Still in the ring, he would comb his hair on live TV, and after washing up, he would tell reporters, “Well, 10 million dollars might force me out for one more fight.” Unfortunately, he fought four more times, including a fight in 1980 with Larry Holmes that is thought to have hurt his brain.

Luckily, in New York that same week, another “Greatest,” Pele, had decided to stop playing for good. Even though New York and the rest of the world were saying goodbye to Pele, Ali would be there to meet him for the first time. Two of the best black athletes had both come from poor backgrounds. One was a poster boy for the anti-establishment movement, and the other was a poster boy for the establishment. But on that day, the two stars drifted close enough to stare at each other.

The story goes that Henry Kissinger, an American politician, got Pele to come to the US to play for Cosmos. He really did need the money.


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“I remember as if it were yesterday when he [my accountant] walked into the house. He was dripping with sweat. He was so pale that he looked like he might pass out. I knew something was wrong, so I asked, “How many millions do we still have?” When he said, “Look, this is hard…,” I almost had to call the doctor. Pele would find out that he was broke and bankrupt after people around him made a series of bad investments.

Clive Toye, a British businessman who owned shares in the Cosmos Club, had tried for years to get Pele to come to the US, but Pele always politely turned him down. The cry was, “I won’t play for any other team but Santos.” Now that he is 34 and hasn’t played a competitive game in 8 months, he would see Toye again in a hotel lobby. Toye offered him a contract worth $2.8 million. No athlete in history had ever made so much money in a sport. Toye would also tell him, “You can go to Spain or Italy and win a title, but you can come to the Cosmos and win a country.” Three seasons on Cosmos kept him from losing all of his money.

So, on October 1, Muhammad Ali’s last day as a football player, he stood on the field and watched the crowd of almost 76,000 people in New York cheer for Pele and chant his name. The game was shown in 38 countries, and 650 reporters were there to cover it.

Werner Roth, the owner of Cosmos, gave Pele a plaque that said, “To Pele, the soccer player, and Edson do Nascimento, the man. Thank you’. Pele would give each player a silver medal, and his teammate, goalkeeper Shep Messing, is said to have cried.

Ali also walked into the locker room, and as the two legends hugged, a reporter asked Ali what he thought of Pele. “I don’t know if he’s a good player or not, but he’s not as pretty as me!” Ali would say, “Now there are two of the Greatest!” after the laughter stopped.

In his book “Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos,” Gavin Newsham quotes Pele’s teammate Bobby Brown as saying, “It was a great moment because they had never met before, but they both wanted to meet. It was very pretty, you know.” Ali would get a kiss on the cheek from Pele.

Shep Messing told ESPN, “Pele made soccer cool, period. Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, and Elton John were all at the games. Muhammad Ali was on the field for that last game. At that time, he and Michael Jordan were the two most well-known people in the world. Ali is waving and blowing kisses to the crowd and doing the Muhammad Ali thing. When he went into the locker room, he was like a child. He was impressed by Pele. It was so interesting to see how he changed completely.”

Pele would talk to the crowd right before the game began.

“I think love is the most important thing in life, since everything else is temporary. Say “Love, Love, Love” with me three times. And his right fist would be in the air. The crowd would repeat how much they loved him, and he would stand there with his face in his hands.

At the end of the game, Shep Messing would put him on his shoulders and carry him on a victory lap. Messing says that at the end of the emotional walk, Pele whispered, “One more time, please!”

After Ali died in 2016, Pele wrote on his Facebook page, “My friend, hero, and idol. I hope he is at peace with God… We spent a lot of time together, and we’ve always stayed in touch over the years.” With the message was a picture of the two of them from the day of Ali’s last football game. In the picture, Pele was kissing Ali on the cheek.


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