IN the days when heads of state and film stars would wait patiently in line to shake the hand of Muhammad Ali, 'The Greatest' found time to visit a housing estate in Abingdon.

Chauffeur-driven cars were hardly a common sight in Saxton Road, but residents in this tough area of the town knew well enough why the world heavyweight champion's Rolls-Royce would be parked outside number 111.

On some 20 occasions, the most famous man on the planet journeyed to Abingdon to see the unemployed labourer, Paddy Monaghan, who he came to regard as one of his closest friends.

It was one of the most unlikely friendships in sport: Ali, a multi-millionaire superstar, and Paddy, a council house tenant diagnosed with epilepsy and always desperate for building site work to feed his growing family.

Yet it is a bond that has remained unbroken for almost 40 years.

Ali has gone from being the greatest of heavyweights to a shadow of his former lightning-quick, fast-talking self after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Paddy, now 64, still loves his boxing and is enjoying watching his grandchildren grow up.

But between them nothing seems to have changed since Ali first turned up on the Monaghans' doorstep in the early 1970s.

"A big, flash car was parked right outside the door and the only people in Abingdon who drove motors like that were officials on business, which meant trouble," Mr Monaghan recalled. "My heart sank at the thought of an eviction notice just before Christmas.

"For once in my life, I was completely lost for words. It was unbelievable. There he was, as large as life, standing on the step of my run-down little council house."

Mr Monaghan is known for a one-man campaign he launched to protest about the stripping of Ali's boxing licence in 1967, when the champion refused to be drafted into the American forces at the time of the Vietnam war.

But it appears that Mr Monaghan has another claim to fame.

For he has finally decided to let his guard down and tell all about his life as a bareknuckle fighter.

In his new autobiography, entitled Street Fighting Man, he sets out details of a bruising and bloody career that saw him fight and win 114 bareknuckle fights, some at horse fairs in the countryside and many in The Barn, a smoke-filled, rowdy venue in London that was favoured by London's celebrity criminal fraternity.

Perhaps the book's most jaw-dropping revelation is his claim to have been a world champion in his own right.

We are told that as well as setting a record of fight wins, he won the British bareknuckle boxing middleweight championship in 1972, before going on to become world champion in 1974, a title he held until his retirement in 1980.

Fear of getting himself and others into serious trouble meant his exploits against fighters from Hungary to Chicago had to remain a closely-guarded secret.

For him there were no headlines, no hysteria and no screaming crowds.

"I was BKB champion of the world," he told me. "The hardest thing was having to keep quiet about it and not tell anyone in Abingdon. Only a handful of people got to know who I was - just a few close friends who came to the fights.

"I got nothing out of becoming world champion. But, on second thoughts, that's not strictly true. Inside, I got a terrific buzz that is indescribable."

But everything is now to change.

He is to embark on a UK tour to promote his book, which carries a foreword by Muhammad Ali.

"Not only is Paddy my good friend," Ali writes, "he is my main man over there in Great Britain. From this man, from that little town in England, came the title 'The People's Champ'. Then it was a title that no one had heard of. Now it is known throughout the world.

"Some years ago, we were speaking together at my home and he told me he intended to write his autobiography and it would include the story of our friendship. Although I did not think it necessary, he said he would submit the manuscript to me for my approval before publishing it.

"I said to him, 'Paddy, I'll read it, but I don't need to until it's published. We are friends and I know that anything you say or write will be one hundred per cent the truth'."

Despite such an endorsement from the great man, Mr Monaghan, who has moved back to the village of Ederney in Northern Ireland where he was born, knows many will refuse to believe the stories of his bareknuckle exploits, especially as he is a man known to have 'kissed the Blarney Stone'.

"I know it will be hard for those who knew Paddy Monaghan to believe me and accept what I've achieved," he said. "People in America, Australia and New Zealand have heard of me. But there's that thing about not being recognised in your own home town. Even Ali was not welcomed back to Louisville."

But Mr Monaghan will return to Abingdon next month with a world championship belt presented to him by Sifu Samuel Kwok, the martial arts grand master who trained Bruce Lee.

Abingdon certainly proved a school of hard knocks for the young Monaghan, who was only five when he arrived from Ireland to live with his parents and five siblings, initially in one large room.

When he left school, he was illiterate and credits Ali with inspiring him to learn to read and write. He taught himself primarily so he could read boxing magazines and follow the career of the new boxing sensation.

He well remembers being ridiculed 40 years ago for his campaigning on behalf of Ali, when he would hitch to London with his placards to stand outside the American Embassy and speak at Hyde Park Corner.

He persuaded thousands to sign a petition and greeted two of the most fearsome fighters in history, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, at Heathrow airport with heckles and signs proclaiming Ali as the real champ.

"Smokin' Joe and his minders were particularly irritated and onlookers feared violence - but it was all to give Ali the psychological edge," he said. "I was young and a bit crazy then."

He had first met Ali at Heathrow, handing him a sack of letters from supporters. When he turned to leave, Ali called to him: "Goodbye? This is jes' the beginnin'."

The unemployed labourer, dressed in clothes bought at a jumble sale, found himself sitting with Ali in a chauffeur-driven car heading for the Royal Lancaster Hotel.

"I was 27 years old and, believe it or not, I'd never been inside a hotel before," he writes.

Ali later invited Mr Monaghan to his home in America. The Abingdon man would travel around in luxury and find himself sitting next to the likes of Mickey Rooney in America.

He readily joined in with Ali wind-ups, on one occasion managing to convince legendary fight promoter Don King that he was Ringo Starr. Yet when Mr Monaghan landed back home, he faced hitching back to Abingdon because he did not have the bus fare.

He was in the Ali corner during the bout with Al 'Blue' Lewis in Dublin and for Ali's second titanic battle with Frazier at Madison Square Garden.

Ali never missed the opportunity to visit Mr Monaghan and his wife Sandra when in England. Word would quickly spread and large crowds would gather.

Sometimes Ali would talk to "his people" from the Monaghans' doorstep.

Mr Monaghan recalled: "The people of Abingdon, my friends and all our neighbours were delighted - bless 'em."

In the small back garden, under the clothes line, Ali would entertain the crowds by shadow boxing with Mr Monaghan's son, Tyrone.

Tyrone is now working on a script about his father's life which the family hope will eventually be made into a film.

It is about ten years since Mr Monaghan last met Ali, although they still keep in touch by email. He has no doubt they will eventually meet again.

He reflected: "I often hear people saying how sorry they are to see him as he is today. All I can say is, 'don't feel sorry for him'. Parkinson's seems to bother them more than it does him. I can remember him joking about his illness, saying, 'it wasn't boxing that did this to me, it was all those autographs'."