Story behind the photo: Muhammad Ali trains with two New Zealand teenagers

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One of two teenagers pictured training with boxing legend Muhammad Ali in a famous New Zealand Herald photography presented his story.

Muhammad Ali sparing himself with a couple of boys on Queen Street in 1979.
Photo: Geoff Dale

The world heavyweight champion was on a promotional tour in 1979 when he met the youngsters of Queen Street – one of whom also happened to have a distinguished sporting career.

The image featured on RNZ last week in a story about a Taranaki Hospice charity auction of 100 iconic examples of New Zealand photojournalism.

Now rugby league legend Dean Bell has come forward and revealed the ‘probable boys’ feuding with Ali were the former Kiwis star and his cousin Wayne Bell.

Dean Bell said he and Wayne – who died a few years ago – had just been at the Civic.

“We were coming out of a movie, I can’t even remember what it was, and we saw this big gathering of people across the road and we thought that as curious teenagers , we were going to be nosy and take a look at who he is and what’s going on and what’s all the fuss.

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“And that was the man himself and wow – to say we were impressed is an understatement.”

The meeting then took a turn.

“After a few minutes that big screaming voice said, ‘You two boys in front of me, I want to fight you’.

“So we ignored him, which probably wasn’t the right thing to do because right away he said, ‘You two boys!’ and he was looking us straight in the eye and he said ‘You two, I want to fight you’ and I was like why is that? ‘Because you perverted my wife’ – which we had to be fair.”

Dean Bell playing for the 1995 Warriors.

Dean Bell playing for the 1995 Warriors.
Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Bell said his 17-year-old self could tell the big man was joking and soon nearby reporters sensed an opportunity.

Ancient Herald photographer Geoff Dale, who had struggled to get a good shot all morning, was among them.

“Suddenly two young men came across the street and he shouted at them ‘Do you want to fight?’ So Ali yelled at these guys ‘Do you want to fight?’

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“And so when they came in, I walked around behind them, so I could see the town hall and Ali throwing punches. It made a much better picture than anything I had shot earlier and it was great.”

Dale admitted to being a little knocked out by the boxer as well.

“I was able to walk into his hotel the next day with a thumbprint and he signed it for me, so it’s a special memory for me of a great boxer.”

Although Ali had some issues with his name.

“He doesn’t know how to spell Geoff in English. He’s an American, so he said ‘What’s your name, man?’ and I said ‘It’s Geoff’ and he wrote JE double F instead of GEO double F.”

Dale was surprised to learn that the former Wigan rugby league star was one of the young men.

“So, Dean Bell – this is amazing. I need to see the print again. It has a whole new meaning, doesn’t it.”

Ancient New Zealand Herald illustration editor Rob Tucker is hosting the charity auction.

And Tucker is the one who sent Dale to work with Ali in 1979.

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He was blown away that one of the boys who appeared on the front page with the boxer was “Mean” Dean Bell.

“I think it’s amazing, you know. What I’m trying to remember is that Dean Bell was a dirty league player because he could learn his fighting technique from one of the greatest in the world.”

Meanwhile, Bell, who has a copy of the photo at home, has always ranked meeting Ali among her greatest experiences.

“I think back to some of the famous people I’ve met and I was lucky enough to meet the Queen herself at Buckingham Palace, but without a doubt the most famous sportsman and arguably the most famous sportsman in all time should be Muhammad Ali, so what are the odds…trillions to one I guess.”

The New Zealand Photojournalism Charity Auction will be held at the Plymouth International Hotel in New Plymouth in September.

The Dale’s Light on Water exhibition of photographs from the America’s Cup opens at the New Zealand Maritime Museum at the Viaduct Basin in Auckland on June 3 and runs until October 4.

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