My high life with Monte Fresco

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SHOWDOWN: Fresco’s picture of Ali and Norton before the fight, New York, 1976

ROBIN McGIBBON remembers his old friend, the legendary Daily Mirror photographer Monte Fresco

One of my daughters, Ali — no mean snapper herself — was admiring that evocative photo of late-night Shaftesbury Avenue, by legendary Fleet Street smudger Monte Fresco, when she asked if I'd known him.

I certainly had. We became friends after I invited him to the launch of my publishing company's official biography of England's World Cup captain Bobby Moore, in 1976.  And we met up again later that year, in New York, when I was on one of my regular business trips, and he was there, covering Muhammad Ali's second world championship fight with Ken Norton, for the Daily Mirror.

We bumped into each other at a mad scramble of a Press Conference, high up in Essex House Hotel, the day before the fight, and agreed to meet that evening after I'd kept an appointment with Daily Mail boxing correspondent Peter Moss.

At the end of our meeting, Peter told me he'd been invited to a Press preview of a new movie, due to be released in the New Year, but he didn't fancy it. "Why don't you go?" he said, handing me the invitation to a small theatre on the Upper West Side

To be honest, I feared the movie would be yet another lightweight boxing drama and I wasn't sure I wanted to traipse across town to see it — particularly on my own, in driving rain. But when I teamed up with Monte he said he had the same invitation, and was definitely going, with Evening Standard boxing writer Michael Hart.

"Come on," Monte enthused in his usual ebullient way. "Let's all go. It might be crap. But, then, it might not."

Well, the movie wasn't crap; it was brilliant. And at the end, the 60 or so in the audience stood up and clapped for the entire length of the credits.

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I'll always be grateful to dear Monte, pictured right, for encouraging me to go with him and Michael that rainy Monday night. For the movie was the first Rocky — and we were privileged to see it long before anyone in the UK had even heard of it.   

The next time I saw Monte was the following afternoon, at New York's Yankee Stadium, the venue for the fight. I'd paid a scalper well over the odds for a ticket and had gone there, four hours or so before the start, hoping to do a deal for a better seat.

Security was virtually non-existent and I was wandering around, savouring my first visit to the iconic stadium, when I heard someone call my name. I looked around, but saw no one I recognised.

"Over here, Rob," the voice called out.

I turned and saw Monte waving from the photographers' gantry, high above the seating area, 30 yards or so from the ring.

"Come on up," he said. "I'll need some help."

So I climbed up an impossibly steep ladder and joined him, expecting, any minute, to hear a gruff New York accent demanding to know why I was there. But none came, and I watched the fight with the most glorious, uninterrupted view.

Not that Monte didn't make me work for such a privileged position. He handed me gawd knows how many reels of film and told me to take them out of their boxes and have them ready for him at the end of every round. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it exciting: it was a world heavyweight title fight at Yankee Stadium, for heavens' sake!

And the thrill didn't end there. As Ali's arm was raised in triumph at the end of the 12th Round, Monte handed me one of his bags. "Put that on your shoulder and keep close to me," he said. "We're going down to the dressing rooms."

Again, no one questioned my presence, much less ask for credentials, and for the next forty minutes or so I listened  — in some awe, I must confess — to Ali, then Norton, tell the world's Press what they thought of their encounter.

Thank you, dear Monte, for an unforgettable experience, and one I've treasured for 44 years.

*Monte Fresco died in 2013 aged 77 — Ed

FAMILY MAN: Muhammad Ali cuddling his daughters Laila, left, and Hana in London, 19th December 1978. Photo by Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

 MONTE’S ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS


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