THE man dubbed “The Greatest” was well accustomed to the bright lights of Las Vegas, but 30 years ago Muhammad Ali schmoozed and charmed fight fans in Bas Vegas instead.

The boxing legend made the unlikely day trip to south Essex during the build-up for American fighter Tim Witherspoon’s world heavyweight title bout against Frank Bruno.

Witherspoon used Basildon’s Crest Hotel, now the Holiday Inn on the modern-day Festival Leisure Park, as his base ahead of the fight at Wembley Stadium.

Convincing the reigning heavyweight champion to come to Basildon was a huge coup and had been negotiated by Basildon Council’s head of public relations Peter Lucas, who used his contacts to get in touch with fight promoter Don King.

David Harrison, who was chairman of the council in 1986, recalls: “Peter used his contacts to persuade Don King to use the former Crest Hotel as Tim Witherspoon’s base for his fight with Frank Bruno – although he did not train there, his training camp was in Herongate.”

“In 1986, the Festival Leisure Park did not exist – it was just the Crest Hotel on a piece of land off Cranes Farm Road. Bas Vegas wasn’t thought of. Ali arrived in the same car as Don King and his son Carl, and was met by Peter Lucas.

“I was hosting a small dinner at the hotel for guests from Heiligenhaus – Basildon’s twin town in Germany – and we watched from the hotel as Ali arrived.

“Our dinner was delayed and we were served endless sorbets as we waited.

“Then Ali came into the room.He walked across to us and pointed to the chairman’s badge (which in those days looked like a very small silver medal) and asked who I was.”

Ali had no understanding of the concept of chairman of the council, and insisted on referring to David as “Mr Mayor” for the rest of the evening.

“There followed a classic Ali moment of high humour laced with gallantry: He asked my wife if I was good to her, telling her that if I wasn’t, he would deal with me. He then put his fist against the side of my face!”

Ali went on to ask questions about Basildon and about David’s family. He wound up the conversation by inviting David and his wife back to the hotel the following day.

Muhammad Ali meets council chairman David Harrison

“He was an absolute gentleman, apologising for delaying our meal. He showed no signs of the confusion or vagueness to which some have referred.”

Accepting the invitation, David and his wife returned the next day.

“We met Ali, along with Tim Witherspoon, Don King and Don’s son Carl. It was then that I took the opportunity to try and get a donation for my charity of that year, St Luke’s Hospice.”

Ali agreed unhesitatingly. “Don King called over Carl and said ‘get the man a cheque for $1,000’.”

'ALI INSPIRED ME TO GREATNESS'

A FUTURE kick-boxing champion credits a childhood meeting with Muhammad Ali as an inspiration for his future fighting career.

Scott Cameron was just five when he was picked up by boxing’s greatest at Basildon’s Festival Hall, in July 1986.

The meeting led Scott to his own greatness as, at 18, he became a kick-boxing world champion.

Scott, of Havengore, Pitsea, said: “I remember the whole thing as clear as day. We went to the hall because my family are huge boxing fans and Ali picked me up twice during the afternoon. It was amazing – a moment I have never forgotten.”

Scott was at the hall, which was on the site of the present Festival Leisure Park, with his dad and grandad when Ali picked him up.

Tony Smith, of The Meads, Basildon, managed to capture the moment on his camera and brought it to the Echo in 2012 in the hope of tracking down Scott and giving him the picture as a gift.

Scott added: “We got some photos, but they are not as good as this one. I want to say a huge thank-you to Tony. It’s a great memento.”

Soon after meeting Ali, Scott started kickboxing classes. At 13, he became a southern area champion.

Scott said: “After meeting Ali it really inspired me to do well in sport. When Ali was holding me my grandad said ‘that is a champion holding a future champion’.”

'WE'RE GETTING OLD'

BASILDON karate and table tennis champ Stan Dyson was working as the Echo’s credit manager when Muhammad Ali came to town.

“Along with a friend, I managed to get a seat to watch Tim Witherspoon training for the Bruno fight,” he recalls.

Suddenly, Muhammad Ali walked in.

“He was escorted by two large minders and they seated him just around the adjacent corner to where we were seated.

“I said to Steve: ‘Shall we chance our arm and walk round there to him?’ He said, ‘No way, with those two guarding him.’”

A few moments later, Stan glanced towards Ali and noticed the minders had both hurried off to attend to an incident in the crowd. He said to Steve, ‘I’m off – coming?’ He replied, ‘No way!’ “As I reached the great man, I introduced myself with: “Hi Muhammad, my name’s Stan and I’m your greatest English fan.’ “He slowly turned his head and looked me straight in the eye.

“I then said: ‘I got up at the early hours of the morning to watch all of your championship fights. I got up at 2am to listen to the live radio broadcast when you beat Liston in February 1964.”

Ali’s response was to smile and say: “Stan, we’re getting old.”

A TREASURED PHOTO

PETER Tibbs was aged ten when he was taken to the Crest Hotel by his sister and brother-in-law to see the build-up to the big fight.

He said: “I was very interested in boxing, and still am,. I wanted to be a boxer, but I had an eye defect which meant that I couldn’t take part in contact sports. The visit was a consolation, but none of us had any idea that one of the world’s greatest sportsmen was going to be there.”

Once inside the hotel, Ali began to sign autographs. Peter, however, was unlucky.

“He thought he’d signed his autograph for me, but you couldn’t read it properly. I think it was the Parkinson’s disease at work. He was definitely a bit vague, though nothing like he became later.”

There was a compensation, however – a freelance photographer discovered what had happened. Ali had agreed to pose for a photograph with a local boy, and Peter was selected.

“Afterwards, the photographer got Ali to sign the photograph of the two of us together, and then brought it round to our house,” says Peter. “It’s on my wall still. It just seems incredible that it happened. Almost like a sort of dream. But the signed photo is there to prove that it really did.”