I am not at all Sad Now. MUHammad Ali is eternal. He was born not to die but remain forever in the hearts of the people.
That was the reaction of West Bengal amateur State Boxing Federation president Mr. Asit Banerjee when we caught up with him after Parkinson’s disease got better of Muhammad Ali’s mortal life. Banerjee is one of the luckiest Indians on this planet to encounter with one of the rarest personalities this world has ever seen and that also not once, but twice.
The story begins in 1980. Indira Gandhi just scripted a huge comeback after a humiliating defeat post emergency. In this very year, Lord Swaraj Paul, a London based NRI, master-minded a Muhammad Ali visit to India. The tour was being called ‘The Greatest to the Greatest”, of course the latter greatest tag being referred to the newly elected prime minister of India.
Ali had a doubt about Indians and their interest in boxing. Indians being Indians, proved him wrong and showered the champion with rains of love through out his time in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. The three-times World Heavyweight Boxing Champion had some exhibition bouts against Jimmy Ellies through out this period. This is the usual part of the story, but as always, this is not the whole. You may be wondering now, why not Kolkata? Why deprive the country’s one time capital of his silky butterfly moves and leave the city of joy in utter despair?
Here comes Banerjee’s part of the story. A young Bengali boxer, in his 30’s, was dreaming to meet his idol once he got the news of Ali visiting India. He chalked out plans with administration and Apeejay Surrendra Group (The Park Hotel) decided to sponsor the Kolkata trip. Yes, Ali was supposed to come to Kolkata and the program was set. Banerjee, who was running a brand new format of West Bengal Boxing League then, was really counting days to meet his hero. Three years after Pele visited Kolkata, the city was ready to greet a legend again. Then came the news that some sudden assignments compelled Muhammad Ali to return to United States and the city couldn’t witness what it was destined to be.
Now, exactly why did Ali cut his tour short and return to his country? In Chennai, Ali urged black players to ban Moscow Olympics due to Russian invasion in Afghnistan. Some popular theories suggest that due to India’s much-talked about allegiance to Russia, the Goverment didn’t take Ali’s ban appeal in good terms. And, it needed some political intervention to shorten the tenure. The official version is that United States president Carter called Ali back for some diplomatic assignments. Okay, let’s not get too deep inside the holes of America-Soviet cold war and keep our story flowing.
The plans got shattered but Banerjee didn’t lose a pinch of hope and continued his persuasion. In 1983, Ali was visiting Pakistan and Banerjee desperately made his way to Karachi to fulfil his dream. What followed at Karachi airport was the best ten minutes of his entire life.
“Ali was not walking, he was like a 6’3” stout figure flying in air”, that’s what the youth felt at his first glance at his idol. Still mesmerised, a little hesitant Banerjee greeted Ali by saying him ‘The Greatest’ as all the world had been saying it for years.
Then came the shock, Ali’s reply in anger was-
“I am not the Greatest. Man is not the greatest, Allah is the greatest.”
The surprise didn’t end there. Ali chose Jack Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion, to be the greatest in boxing. His second was Joe Louis and he put himself in the third.
Banerjee was shell-shocked to hear this from someone who was always claiming himself to be the greatest since the very start. It was a rare bit of modesty from the all time champion. Ali cleared his surprise at once –
“What I said outside the boxing ring was simple publicity gimmick. Inside the ring, I had one opponent. Outside the ring, I was alone fighting against the White people and my vocabulary is the only weapon there.”
“I respect women, that’s why I have so many female fans”, Ali was real clear when asked the obvious question.
Be it religion or boxing, everything Ali said was crystal clear and there was something in his voice that Banerjee could not forget until this very day, who is now in his seventies.
A Kolkata boy could make his dream come true but the city could not until the Christmas of 1990. This time, Mohammedan Sporting Club officials invited Muhammad Ali to the city for some religious consignments. The Legend set his foot in India for the second time and this time, it was only Kolkata in his itinerary. Pele was here, so was Ali.
It was a two days three nights trip for the 48 year old Muhammad Ali. He didn’t meet many people during this time and was rumoured to be shooting some religious film and training some Yoga tricks inside the Mohammedan community. The closed-door tour couldn’t shut the doors for Banerjee though.
The veteran boxing administrator again found a way to meet the Louisville Lip. In Banerjee’s words, it was not the same Ali he saw seven years ago. The Parkinson’s disease started to get in him, he looked weak and more pale than those glory days. Banerjee presented him a rare childhood picture from his collection and Ali was all in tears and kisses after seeing the picture. It was like an emotional child being cut loose from a veteran war-horse.
25th December, 1990 – it was the only full day Ali spent at Kolkata and went to Kalighat temple among many places visited. The city got its wishes fulfilled but not like the way they would have wanted it to be.
Now that we have lost our beloved legend, we sought some opinion from Banerjee comparing the present situation of boxing to the past. He was clear in saying that there will never be an Ali again, the boxing lost its art and it’s more like power-boxing now. It was all about poetry when Ali was in the ring. Those butterfly dodges with some crafty footwork looked more enchanting than the fierce punches. Today’s boxing completely lack that.
We want to sign off with a story that started the fight of a black child against the white. Once, in his teens, Ali was returning from school walking after his bike was stolen. On his way, he saw some people celebrating a goal madly in front of a television. He stood around and asked them the reason behind this madness. The crowd replied that a black man had scored against eleven white people and that’s why they were feeling elated. From that day, he had the perception that he can lead the fight of the black people from inside the ring, as rightly put together by Banerjee:
Ali’s boxing ring was not twenty feet by twenty feet, it was twenty LEagues by twenty leagues, the whole world.
We express our sincere thanks to Mr. Asit Banerjee for his precious time. If you liked this article and want to share one of your favourite Muhammad Ali quotes, comment below.