Two days before he met Pele, the ‘Greatest One’ Muhammad Ali leaned back on the ropes after being pounded by the challenger Ernie Shavers in New York. ’Gruesome, Barbarically-riveting,’ the journalist Frank Keating would write. As he lay there, beside him, in tears, was Bundini Brown, Ali’s famous sidekick, the originator of ‘float like butterfly, sting like bee’ line and who would eventually fall out of inner circle after he sold Ali’s championship belt to a barber for 500$. The 35-year old Ali would stir from the ropes to say, “I am tired, I am tired, that’s it: The End”. Still in the ring, he would comb his hair on live television and shortly after washing up, Ali would tell reporters: ‘Well, 10 million dollars might force me out for one more fight”. Unfortunately, he would fight four more times, including the 1980 battering he took from the fist of Larry Holmes believed to have caused him brain damage.
Luckily that week in New York, another ‘Greatest’ Pele had decided to call it a day for good. Ali would be there to meet him for the first time, even as New York and the world bid goodbye to Pele. Both had come from deprived upbringing, two supreme black athletes, one a poster boy for anti-establishment, and the other for the establishment, but that day, the two stars drifted close to gape at each other.
Pele had come to play in the US for Cosmos, as the story goes, coaxed by the American politician Henry Kissinger. In truth, he needed the money.
“I remember the moment he [my accountant] entered the house as if it were yesterday. He was sweating profusely. He was pale, he looked like he was about to faint. I could tell something was wrong so I made a little joke: How many million have we still got?’. I nearly had to call the doctor when he replied: ‘Look, this is very difficult…’”. Pele would find out that he was broke and bankrupt after a series of bad investments by the people around him.
The British businessman Clive Toye, a shareholder in the Cosmos club, had been for years trying to lure him to the US but Pele would politely deny. “I won’t play for any other club than Santos,” was the cry. Now, 34 and not played a competitive game in 8 months, he would run into Toye again at the lobby of a hotel. Toye offered him a contract of 2.8 million dollars; no sportsman in history had bagged such dizzying figures. Toye would also coax him with: “You can go to Spain, to Italy, and win a title, but you can come to the Cosmos and win a country.” Three seasons with Cosmos saved him from financial ruin.
And so, on October 1, on his final day on a football field as an active player, Muhammad Ali stood and watched Pele being raved by the nearly 76000 strong New York crowd, chanting his name. The game was broadcast in 38 countries, 650 journalists had turned up to cover.
Cosmos’s Werner Roth presented Pele with a plaque that read: ‘To Pele the soccer player and Edson do Nascimento, the man. Thank you’. Pele would give each member a silver medal, and it’s said that his team-mate Shep Messing, the goalkeeper, broke down.
Ali too came 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 is a good player, but I am definitely prettier than him!” Once the laughter subsided, Ali would say, “Now, there are two of the Greatest!”
A team-mate of Pele, Bobby Brown is quoted by the author Gavin Newsham in his book ‘Once in a Lifetime: the incredible story of the New York Cosmos’ as saying: “It was an awesome moment because they had never met each other but they both wanted to meet each other. It was beautiful, you know”. Pele would kiss Ali on the cheek.
Before his final game, in Oct 1977 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Pelé took the microphone at the center of the field, his father and Muhammad Ali beside him, and exhorted a crowd of more than 75,000 “Say with me three times, for the kids: Love! Love! Love!” 🇧🇷🐐👑 pic.twitter.com/fuDeUTXOMT
— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) December 29, 2022
Shep Messing told ESPN: “In simple terms, Pele made soccer cool. Mick Jagger, Elton John, Robert Redford at the games. Muhammad Ali, he was there on the field for that final game, and at that time, the two most recognizable people on the planet were the two of them. Ali’s waving to the crowd, blowing kisses, doing the Muhammad Ali thing, and as soon as he walked into the locker room … he was like a child. He looked up to Pele. It was so interesting to see his whole attitude change.”
Just before kickoff, Ali would address the crowd.
“I believe that love is the most important thing we can take from life, because everything else passes. Say with me three times: Love! Love! Love!” And he would have his right fist up in the air. The crowd echoed back his love, and he would stand there, his face buried in his palms.
The Muhammad Ali Center would like to share our condolences on the passing of soccer legend, Pele. ⚽
In remembrance, we celebrate his special friendship with Muhammad and his impact on the sporting world 💔 pic.twitter.com/gUYq468VQP
— Muhammad Ali Center (@AliCenter) December 29, 2022
At the end of the game, he would be lifted by Shep Messing on the shoulders as they went around for a victory lap. At the end of the emotional walk, Messing says Pele whispered to him, “one more time, please!”.
After Ali’s death in 2016, Pele would post: “my friend, idol and hero. I wish him to rest with God … We spent many moments together and we always kept in touch during all these years”. Accompanying the message, was a photograph of the two from the day of his last football game: Pele kissing Ali’s cheek.