KUALA LUMPUR: Veteran sports writer George Das remembers boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who died Friday aged 74, as a friendly sportsman who liked to take charge at his press conferences.
Recalling his coverage of Ali during his visit to Malaysia in June 1975 for a match against European champion, Joe Bugner, he said Ali was without a doubt, the greatest athlete of the century.
Das, 69, who was then working for English daily, The Star, described Ali as a ‘people’s champion’ for his close relationship with fans and as a person who had no qualms about mingling with them.
“I don’t think anyone can come close to him in terms of personality and professionalism as an athlete and, on top of that, as a human being. He was a magnificent sportsman and a showman,” he told Bernama.
Nicknamed ‘The Greatest’, Ali died in Phoenix, Arizona. Reports said the three-time world heavyweight champion was suffering from a respiratory illness, a condition that was complicated by Parkinson’s disease.
Elaborating, Das said that during Ali’s over a month-long stay in the country, the light-heavyweight gold medalist at the 1960 Rome Olympics never failed to impress journalists covering his events.
“Sometimes, there was no need to ask questions because Ali would come up with all kind of things. He was so fast with words, very articulate,” he said, noting that Ali would also recite poems.
“Usually at normal press conferences, the team managers would talk a lot, but not with Ali. He would take charge of and bring excitement to press conferences,” he added.
Ali, he said, had also planted a rambutan tree in the vicinity of Masjid Negara, besides rubbing shoulders with Malaysian royalties and dignitaries, including having an audience with Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, who was the Yang di-Pertuan Agong then.
Das recalled that the boxing match held at the Merdeka Stadium was an electrifying affair, as Malaysians, some of whom did not even like boxing, got to see Ali’s scintillating performance in the ring.
Another journalist, A. Subramaniam, 58, expressed sadness over Ali’s passing, saying that the American boxer had left an indelible impression for many Malaysians.
“I was just a 17-year-old student then. What I remember most was that all the roads in Kuala Lumpur were empty because people went to watch his match at the stadium, as well as on television.
“That kind of environment had never happened or been felt before,” he said.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in Louisville, Kentucky on Jan 17 1942.
He was remembered for, among others, his resistance to the American war effort in Vietnam, besides his speed and punishing punches among an array of skills that led to the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” catchphrase.
In his 61-fight career, Ali won 56, with 37 wins by KO. --BERNAMA