05/06/2016 14:04 BST | Updated 05/06/2017 06:12 BST

The War Reporter Who Traded Velvet-Glove Punches With Muhammad Ali

And so we say farewell to Cassius Marcellus Clay, better known of course as Muhammad Ali, the most famous heavyweight boxing champion of all time. "It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am" he once said. Probably more than once in fact. He also said: "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up."

Although I remember as a teenager listening to some of his fights on the "wireless" as we called it back then, in the early hours, I never met him, either in (thankfully) or out (regrettably) of the ring. But I did get to know Henry Cooper, the amiable British boxer who famously floored Ali with a left hook ("enry's 'ammer") in their first fight, when Ali was arguably saved from a sensational defeat by the bell. Later Ali - still called Cassius Clay back then - said Cooper had hit him so hard that his "ancestors in Africa felt it".

No, we never met, but one of my very closest friends did meet Ali. And in the ring, no less.

"I was sorry to hear about his death" said Peter Hardy, sometime war reporter (fittingly) with the Daily Express, who was a sent to interview him - circa 1981 - for a "Rumble in Victoria" at a London boxing club.

The great man's career was all but over - he fought one last time on December 11 that year in Nassau against Trevor Berbick, losing a ten-round decision.

Almost inevitably, the still effervescent figure invited the slightly terrified Hardy into the ring for a pretend scrap while the Daily Express photographer snapped away.

"I was in dark blue suit and tie as was the norm back then" says Hardy, who boxed a little at Eton with limited success. "Ali was wearing normal clothes. But he insisted we climb into the ring and supposedly throw punches at each other as part of the interview which, to be honest, was pretty incoherent. I did land a couple of pretend punches but of course he let me.

"My photographer took pictures, and gave me a couple of prints which I back to a friend's cottage in Buckinghamshire that night.

"I left the photos on the floor by the fireplace and my friend's dog chewed them to bits during the night - and possibly even ate them! So sadly I have no record of my heroic fisticuffs with the greatest boxer of all time."

Luckily, war reporter or not, Hardy had no illusions about inflicting any real damage on Ali, who once said to opponents: "If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize."

These days Hardy has long-since stopped covering wars and has made a name for himself as a prominent ski journalist and editor - who really does "float like butterfly" on skis (I can vouch for this!). But he will never forget the day he tried to sting the great Muhammad Ali like a bee.

"Ironically" he says, "the dog which deprived me of a rather special souvenir of my one-and-only semi-professional fight in the ring was...a Boxer".