The punch

When greatness is only a touch away…

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:10 am IST

Published - November 29, 2014 05:17 pm IST

In one of the sideshows during his visit to Chennai, Muhammad Ali is seen in action with a school boy.

In one of the sideshows during his visit to Chennai, Muhammad Ali is seen in action with a school boy.

I was a fan of Mohammed Ali from his Cassius Clay days and was excited to hear that he was visiting Madras in January 1980. I missed his arrival and a lovely photo op at the Meenambakkam airport where fans had gathered in large numbers to get his autograph.

So I went for the press meet though I was not assigned to be there. I waited for 15 minutes and Ali walked in with Jimmy Ellis, his sparring partner, and his dad. There was a momentary hush, heads turned to his direction, and the sound of the camera shutters broke the silence, followed by a babble of chatter. The reporters shot their questions and Ali answered them all in his flamboyant, cheeky and humorous style.

I started to shoot using a flash, and waited for one photograph that would capture the great man’s character. Then came a question from a reporter asking Ali on his weakness against the left hook. This provoked Ali; he put his hands up and struck a typical boxing pose and invited the reporter to have a go at him and I got my picture! The reporter quietly slunk away to a seat near the exit to make a hasty retreat in case Ali came for him after the press meet. Knowing Ali and his nature, it seemed to be a wise decision.

There was an exhibition bout the next evening between Ali and Ellis and I volunteered to cover it. The press photographers were given a position just below a raised stage. I used a 400ISO film as the day was overcast. Since we were shooting against the sky, I decided to shoot one stop over the exposure meter reading.

The evening started with a few rounds with local boxers, with whom Ali toyed. Then a 10-year-old boy, probably a promising talent, was hoisted into the ring. Ali was at his funniest best dancing around the kid, kneeling down to his height and asking him to hit his face. Ali swayed his head and stayed out of reach and I kept shooting. Ali then stood up, leaned back on the ropes and asked the kid to punch his stomach, which was what the kid could reach. This was the moment I was waiting for! I shot Ali leaning back with his hands spread out on the ropes and the boy on his toes punching away.

I suddenly felt a compelling urge to touch the greatest. As he came close to where I was standing, I put my hand inside the ring and touched him. My fingers twitch with excitement even today when I think of that. I still retain the press badge I used to cover the event, almost 34 years ago.

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