Two days before meeting Pele, the ‘Greatest One’ Muhammad Ali reclined on the ropes after being beaten by New York challenger Ernie Shavers. “Horrific, barbarically compelling,” the journalist Frank Keating would write. Lying there, beside him, in tears, lay Bundini Brown, Ali’s famed sidekick, the originator of the “float like butterfly, sting like bee” line and who would eventually fall out of the inner circle after having Ali’s champion belt to a hairdresser sold. for $500. 35-year-old Ali would come off the ropes and say, “I’m tired, I’m tired, that’s it: The End”. Still in the ring, he combed his hair on live television and shortly after washing up, Ali told reporters, “Well, $10 million might force me another fight.” Unfortunately, he would fight four more times, including the 1980 beating he took from Larry Holmes’ fist, which he believed caused brain damage.
Fortunately, another ‘Greatest’ Pele had decided to call it a day for good that week in New York. Ali would be there to meet him for the first time even as New York and the world say goodbye to Pele. Both had had underprivileged upbringings, two supreme black athletes, one an anti-establishment figurehead and the other the establishment figurehead, but that day the two stars drew closer to gawk at each other.
Pele had come to the US to play for Cosmos, as the story goes, persuaded by American politician Henry Kissinger. Actually, he needed the money.
“I remember the moment he [my accountant] entered the house like it was yesterday. He was sweating profusely. He was pale, he looked like he was about to pass out. I could tell something was wrong, so I joked: how many million do we have left?’. I almost 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 those around him.
British businessman Clive Toye, shareholder of the Cosmos club, had been trying to lure him to the US for years, but Pele politely denied. “I don’t play for any club other than Santos,” was the slogan. Now 34 and hadn’t played a competitive game in 8 months, he would run into Toye again in a hotel lobby. Toye offered him a $2.8 million contract; no sportsman in history had racked up such staggering numbers. 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 last day on a football field as an active player, Muhammad Ali watched as Pele was elated by the nearly 76,000-strong New York crowd as he chanted his name. The game was broadcast in 38 countries and had 650 journalists appearing.
Werner Roth of Cosmos presented Pele with a plaque that read, “To Pele the footballer and Edson do Nascimento, the man. Thank you’. Pele would give each member a silver medal, and it is said that his teammate Shep Messing, the goalkeeper, broke down.
Ali also entered the locker room and as the two legends embraced, a reporter asked Ali what he thought of Pele. “I don’t know if he’s a good player, but I’m definitely prettier than him!” As soon as the laughter subsided, Ali said, “Now there are two of the Greatest!”
Bobby Brown, a teammate of Pele, 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 a great moment because they had never met but they both wanted to meet. It was nice, you know”. Pele would kiss Ali on the cheek.
Before his last game, in October 1977 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, Pelé took the microphone in the middle of the field, his father and Muhammad Ali beside him, and urged a crowd of more than 75,000: “Say three times with me, for the children: Love! Love! Love!” 🇧🇷🐐👑 pic.twitter.com/fuDeUTXOMT
— Men In Blazers (@MenInBlazers) December 29, 2022
Shep Messing told ESPN: “In simple terms, Pele made football cool. Mick Jagger, Elton John, Robert Redford at the games. Muhammad Ali, he was there on the field for that last game, and at that point they were the two most recognizable people on the planet. Ali waves to the crowd, blows kisses, does the Muhammad Ali thing, and as soon as he walked into the locker room… he was like a kid. He looked up at Pele. It was so interesting to see his whole attitude change.”
Just before kick-off, Ali addressed the crowd.
“I believe love is the most important thing we can get out of life, because everything else passes. Say with me three times: Love! Love! Love!” And he’d have his right fist in the air. The crowd echoed his love, and he’d stand there, burying his face in his palms.
The Muhammad Ali Center would like to extend our condolences on the passing of football legend Pele. ⚽
In memory, we celebrate his special friendship with Muhammad and his impact on the sports world 💔 pic.twitter.com/gUYq468VQP
— Muhammad Ali Center (@AliCenter) December 29, 2022
At the end of the match, he was lifted onto the shoulders by Shep Messing as they circled 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 posted: “My friend, idol and hero. I wish him to rest with God… We have spent many moments together and we have always kept in touch during all these years”. Included with the message was a photo of the two of them from the day of his last soccer match: Pele kissing Ali’s cheek.