How Muhammad Ali helped land knockout blow to end China’s 20-year ban on boxing
Muhammad Ali, the American three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, whose death at the age of 74 was announced by his family on Saturday, will be remembered as a superstar in the ring – but also as cultural icon who touched the hearts of people around the world – including China.
Ali made two important visits to the mainland during this lifetime, which effectively helped to end the Communist Party’s two-decade-long ban on the sport of boxing.
The first of the trips to China came in 1979, after Ali passed through Hong Kong and then Guangzhou, before being invited to Beijing to meet “an important person” – Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader.
Ali’s visit followed the example set by the “Ping Pong Diplomacy” – in which a US table tennis team’s Beijing trip played an important role in the thawing of Sino-US diplomatic relations in the 1970s.
When he arrived, the Middle Kingdom was still widely regarded globally as a mysterious and isolated nation only three years after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Pictures of Ali shaking hands with Deng also sent a powerful signal, not only to Washington, but the rest of the world, about China’s willingness to engage.
It also quickly became clear that Ali’s sport of boxing could be a factor in generating a greater understanding and friendship between the Chinese and the American nations.
Boxing had been banned in China in 1959, when the committee of the first National Games, the mainland’s biggest domestic event, removed the sport from the list of its events after a number of boxers had suffered serious injuries in bouts. The government outlawed the sport in March that year.
Hong Fan, a scholar who specialises in China’s sporting history, said: “People believed that boxing was very brutal, very ruthless. So it was banned.”
Ali made a second, 10-day visit to China in 1985 when – greeted by a huge roar of approval from 500 students at Peking Sports Institute – he playfully accepted the challenge to “fight” a 20-year-old lightweight, Wang Wei, who called it the greatest day of his life.
During the trip Ali also prayed alongside 1,000 of his fellow Muslims at the Great Mosque of Xian, in Shaanxi province.
Ali wrote in the China Youth News: “Now that you are open to the world, never lose your culture, because others will try to give you their culture. It will be a great fight.”
Two years later, in May 1987, China’s first national boxing championships were held. The following month, the China Boxing Association was officially admitted into the International Amateur Boxing Association as the 159th member. From then on, China began to appear on the international boxing stage.
Ali also made a trip to Macau in 1994, where he visited residents at an old people’s home.
On Saturday, China’s two-time Olympic light flyweight champion boxer, Zou Shiming tearfully mourned the passing of Ali.
Zou also vowed to win a professional title to honour the legendary boxer.
“I planned to go visit to my idol, Muhammad Ali, after winning a professional bout,” the 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion wrote on his Twitter-like Weibo account. “But now, I can only pray he is at peace in heaven, and free from illness and pain.”
Zou added in a tearful interview: “I am grieving deeply at the passing of the legendary Ali, someone for whom I have great respect. He has been a great inspiration to me.”