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Iconic Ali Interview Summed Up The Brilliance Of Michael Parkinson

Iconic Ali Interview Summed Up The Brilliance Of Michael Parkinson
By Eoin Harrington Updated
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The great British chat show host Michael Parkinson has sadly died at the age of 88 on Thursday.

Parkinson made a name for himself in the late 1960s, before hosting his own chat show, Parkinson, for the following 11 years on the BBC. During that time, he interviewed many of the biggest names in show business and sport and, after a 16-year hiatus, the show would be revived in 1998.

It ran for another nine years - even after moving to ITV in 2004 - before ultimately concluding in 2007.

Parkinson was a pioneer of the "chat show" format we have become so accustomed to today, and his ability to get great answers out of his guests meant that many of these celebrities had their finest moments in the spotlight while appearing on the show.

He interviewed just about every big name of the 20th century from the worlds of entertainment and sport, from the likes of Richard Burton, Madonna, and Tom Cruise, through George Best, David Beckham, and Paul McCartney.

But the interviews he will arguably be best remembered for - and rightly so - are his serious of four one-on-ones with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Looking back on those interviews in light of Thursday's sad news is a poignant reminder of the brilliance of both men in their respective fields.

RIP Michael Parkinson: Remembering his iconic interviews with Muhammad Ali

Michael Parkinson interviewed many remarkable men and women throughout his career - his one-on-one Paul McCartney interview from the late 1990s, complete with song requests, is one of the best hours of television you're likely to see - but he believed that the most remarkable man he ever had the pleasure of sitting down with was one Muhammad Ali.


Ali was a guest on Parkinson's show on multiple occasions, and it is one of the first of those interviews that we've taken a look back at today.

Fortunately, a 27-minute video of the interview has been uploaded to YouTube and, as well as showcasing what a remarkable, entertaining man Ali was, it also showcases what it was that set Michael Parkinson apart from his peers.



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By the early 1970s, Muhammad Ali had not only fought in the ring, but fought at the centre of controversy for his stance against the American establishment. He was stripped of his world titles for bravely refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, saying that the war went against his religious beliefs and protesting against America's continued involvement in the war.

Ali's explosive return to the ring in the 70s brought him further success and, by the time of his appearances with Michael Parkinson, he had once again established himself as the greatest active boxer. Many would still see Ali as the greatest athlete of all time, let alone boxer - not only for his exhilirating brilliance in the ring, but for his bravery, activism, and exuberant personality outside of it.


What made Parkinson's interview with Ali so memorable was how much it leaned in to that latter part of the legendary fighter's personality. You get the classic "Ali" moments, where he calls out his competitors, including a brilliant line on rival Joe Frazier:

You couldn't get Joe Frazier, no boxer on this show, and get an interesting subject like this. You'd have nothing to talk about!

Parkinson would comment years later that you never got what you expected from a Muhammad Ali interview, and that is apparent from the long-form interview shared to YouTube. Ali goes on tangent after tangent, weaving brilliant tales from his boxing career, and giving thoughtful - if somewhat eccentric - answers on his life in America.


The audience are regularly in stitches, even as Ali shares distressing stories of his experiences of discrimination in the USA, due to the size of the great man's character. The comedic highlight comes when Parkinson pushes Ali on his position as one of the world's "most attractive men," with Ali trying to evade the question before joking that he knows full well the esteem he is held in (around 6:00 in the above video).

One might think that pivoting now to focus on Michael Parkinson might mean we move away from thinking about his guest. But, in reality, that is what made Michael Parkinson such a uniquely special and brilliant chat show host. Parkinson, the show, was not about Michael Parkinson. It was always unfailingly about his guest.

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Take a look at the below clip from the interview, widely shared on social media in light of Thursday's news. Ali begins explaining his experience of growing up in white America, and his bemusement when he began to realise that many of the negative influences in his and his neighbours' lives were associated with the colour black.

Ali stood as a titan for his activism and civil rights work, as well as for his exploits in the ring. Though this monologue is far more comedic than some other speeches of the time, it remains relevant today, and Ali delivers it with gusto.

What shines through is the fact that he is allowed to speak completely uninterrupted, even with multiple prolonged pauses. The focus of the audience is entirely on Ali - who is, as always, teed up by exceptional questioning by Parkinson.


The key here, though, is to get out while you're winning. Once Parkinson has Ali talking, he takes a back seat and lets his guest speak for as long as they so please.

For a chat show host to be remembered with a famed clip of more than two minutes in length in which he does not speak once might seem unusual. But it is because Michael Parkinson understood that people were tuning in to hear what he could get from his guest, not to hear from him. It's a trait sorely missing from many modern chat show hosts, and epitomises what made Michael Parkinson such an exemplary broadcaster.

On top of his understanding of his role, Parkinson also knew exactly how to play the audience, to gather momentum through his interviews, and to get the very best out of his guests in the most riveting manner possible for a show of its understated nature.

There is at all times during a Parkinson broadcast a sense of anticipation. Between every answer, an excitement of what might come next. After every fit of laughter from the audience, a thought of what turn we might take with the next question.

It's not just there with Ali. It was there with McCartney, and Cruise, and Tony Blair, and Billy Connolly, and Eastwood, Attenborough, Bowie, et al. - just about every good, bad, and ugly guest that appeared on Parkinson during its near-30-year stay in the cultural zeitgeist in the UK and Ireland. That anticipation of what might come next.

Michael Parkinson. One of the best to ever do it.

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