Reporter Journal / Chen Weihua

'The Greatest' left a lasting impression among Chinese

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-06-07 11:05

'The Greatest' left a lasting impression among Chinese

Former three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Muhammad Ali visited China and gave a boxing class to Chinese fans in Beijing in 1985. He was already suff ering from Parkinson's disease. Peter Charlesworth / Lightrocket Via Getty Ges

People across the United States have been mourning the death on June 3 of Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight champion. However, few Americans may realize that Ali has also been a household name and a larger-than-life figure among the Chinese since the 1960s.

The relatively older generations of Chinese may have never watched any of Ali's bouts in the ring, but they knew him largely because of his fight as a warrior against racial discrimination in the US and for his stand against the Vietnam War.

Chinese leaders like Chairman Mao Zedong were sharp critics of racial discrimination in the US and supported anti-discrimination movements there. China also opposed the US invasion of Vietnam and lent strong support to North Vietnam, known in the US as the Viet Cong, in the war.

"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" said Ali in the 1960s.

His words resonated well in those days among the Chinese who saw themselves as once being oppressed and exploited by Western imperialism, just as African Americans lived under slavery and racial discrimination.

So when news of Ali's passing arrived in China on Saturday Beijing time, there was an outpouring of sadness in both news and social media. ran a headline saluting the once world heavyweight champ.

'The Greatest' left a lasting impression among Chinese

Many recalled his trips to China. While Ali only stayed for eight hours during his first visit to China on Dec 19, 1979, he visited the Forbidden City and Great Wall and met with then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The handshake photo looked like a meeting between two old friends. It was reported that Ali was the first foreign athlete invited by the Chinese Olympic Committee and All-China Sports Federation after China kicked off its reform and opening-up drive in 1978.

And 1979 was also the year China and the US formally established diplomatic ties. According to news report, Ali was sent by then US president Jimmy Carter as a "peace envoy" to lobby China to attend the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. That turned out to be the first Olympic Games attended by China in some 30 years.

Boxing, which was regarded as a brutal sport of capitalist society, was banned in China from the late 1950s, but Ali was said to appeal to Deng to let the sport resume in China.

"China should promote whatever the sport is as long as people like it," Deng was quoted in the media. Those words were regarded as instrumental to the return of boxing to China in 1986, a year after Ali made his second trip there in 1985.

During that visit, Ali continued to try to help dispel the Chinese prejudice against boxing. He visited the Beijing Sports Institute and practiced with Wang Shouxin, a boxer from the early years.

Ali made his third and last trip to China in 1993 when China hosted the Beijing International Professional Boxing Championships, the first pro event ever staged in China. He also visited Shanghai during that trip, including a visit to the Shanghai Sports Institute.

According to news reports, Ali held boxing training sessions during his visit and has been credited with helping to revive and develop the sport in China.

Zou Shiming, a Chinese Olympic boxer, expressed his regret and sadness over Ali's death on his Weibo account: "I planned to go visit my idol, Muhammad Ali, after winning a professional bout But now, I can only pray he is at peace in heaven, and free from illness and pain."

In a survey, more than 60 percent of respondents said they felt sorry to hear the passing of the world heavyweight boxing champion, while more than 20 percent said they were shocked by the news and some 7 percent said they were kind of prepared due to his poor health of late.

Chinese are almost equally divided when reflecting on Ali, remembering his bravery, speed and strength in the boxing ring, the iconic moment of his lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, his fight as a spokesman for African Americans and for being an all around great humanitarian and fearless senior.

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