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‘I said no’: Why Wayne Carey turned down a meeting with Muhammad Ali

So, you’d think when given the opportunity to meet the man known as ‘The Greatest’, I’d jump at the chance. Unfortunately, that wasn’t how it panned out.

It was 1998, and we were preparing for the grand final against Adelaide. On the Friday we had the parade before a group of us went for a late lunch at Don Camillo, a restaurant owned by Sam Greco, on Victoria Street in West Melbourne. We’d done the same thing before the 1996 grand final when we beat Sydney, so it only seemed right we did it again. I wasn’t overly superstitious, but this was one of those moments when we thought experience counted. We’d been there, done that, so to speak.

To this day my answer is one of great regret. I said no.

Wayne Carey on twice turning down a chance to meet Muhammad Ali

It wasn’t long after I got home that I got a call out of the blue saying Ali was in town and his people wanted to know if we’d like to meet. He was in Melbourne at the invitation of businessman Anthony Pratt, the son of wealthy Carlton backer Richard Pratt.

To this day my answer is one of great regret. I said no.

Firstly, it was late notice on the night before the grand final, a night I knew I should spend resting up and preparing for the biggest game of the year. If I went out, what time would I get home? There’d surely be some sort of promotional photo taken, and what would that say about me if I came out and played poorly the next day?

The greatest: Muhammad Ali completed a lap of honour on grand final day at the MCG in 1998.

The greatest: Muhammad Ali completed a lap of honour on grand final day at the MCG in 1998.Credit:Joe Armao

All of those questions were running through my head even before I thought about our coach, Denis Pagan. Before every game Denis was big on controlling what you could control. We wouldn’t have won our premierships without him, but he was a hard taskmaster who always pressed on us the little things.

Denis, for instance, wouldn’t let any North Melbourne player wear sunglasses during the grand final parade, because he thought it sent the wrong message. “You’re footballers, not movie stars,” he’d tell us. He’d use the same principles when running his eye over our opposition. If they had a bit much swagger, or dared wear sunglasses coming off the team bus, he’d often say ‘that’s a good sign for us’.

So, with that, I turned Ali down – and not for the last time.

Unfortunately, my quiet night in didn’t translate into another premiership. Even after more than 20 years, rarely a day goes by that I don’t think of that match. It’s the one loss that will stick with me forever. We kicked 6.15 to half-time and should have put the game to bed. Instead, the Crows ran away with a 35-point victory for their second straight flag.

We’d gone into the match as red hot favourites and I truly believe, eight times out of 10 we’d beat that Adelaide team. When it mattered though, it wasn’t to be.

After the match we went through the usual grand final post-mortem with a function for all of our loyal supporters. As skipper I got up and said something along the lines of, ‘I promise we’ll be back here again next year, and the result will be very different’. It was a bold statement, but, in truth, I was hurting.

At that stage, I thought it was just about the worst day of my life, made even more painful by the fact I’d passed up the chance to meet my hero, who also happened to be at the MCG as one of 94,000 fans.

Anyway, as you do, we drowned our sorrows into the early hours.

Then, on the Sunday morning before we headed into the club, I got another phone call. Ali’s people had been in contact again and wanted to see if this was a more convenient time for a chat.
While my initial reaction was yes, I quickly realised I was in no state for that type of meeting. It simply would have been unprofessional. And, for me, there was no third time lucky.

But while I never did see Muhammad Ali, I did eventually meet the man who is possibly the second-best heavyweight boxer of all-time in Mike Tyson. He was well into retirement when we caught up in a Las Vegas café in a meeting organised by boxing great Jeff Fenech. Aussie tennis star Mark Philippoussis was also there.

Tyson had a real aura about him, so I can only imagine what being face-to-face with Ali would have been like, if I’d made a different decision on that Friday night in ’98.

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