When Madras had Muhammad Ali in its corner

In 1980, Chennai’s boxing fans were entertained by an exhibition bout.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST

Published - January 17, 2015 12:00 am IST

As boxer Muhammad Ali turns 73 on January 17, not many know that it was only 35 years ago, in January 1980, that crowds thronged Chennai’s Nehru stadium to witness the legend in action.

Organised by Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing Association and Apeejay, the exhibition bout that saw Ali taking on former heavy weight champion Jimmy Ellis left boxing fans dizzy with excitement.

The run-up to the match itself saw The Hindu’s pages splashed with advertisements enticing spectators to the match. The tickets, priced at Rs. 100, 70, 50, 20, and 10, were sold at seven venues across the city. Connemara Hotel, which hosted the boxer in one of its luxury suites, also issued an advertisement with an accompanying sketch of the sportsman in deep sleep.

On arriving at Meenambakkam airport from Bombay, the boxer, dressed in a blue shirt and accompanied by his wife, said: “When I saw thousands turning up to the airport to meet me and greet me, it sent my spirits soaring and I am overwhelmed at the attention bestowed on me. In this short visit a bond has sprung up between us, and I shall treasure this all my life.” Driving to the hotel from the airport in an open air car, Ali was cheered by enthusiasts all the way.

In a dramatic twist to an otherwise smooth press meet, the pugilist faced off with a reporter who questioned his weakness on the left hook. Challenging the reporter to join him on the podium, he said, “Son, in my 49 fights I have knocked out 32 of my opponents and I haven’t suffered much punishment. You see my face? Do you see any scars or disfigurements? It looks nice and clean isn’t it? That’s it, that is why I am the greatest.”

The match itself left fans longing for more. According to The Hindu’s report dated Februrary 1, 1980, “The swift movements, cat-like reflexes, the shuffles and the lethal left jab were all there but were all too brief to savour in fullness.”

The programme, which included a session with local boxers and a bout between Ali and an aspiring young boxer, lasted for over an hour-and-a half, with the proceeds going to a boxing institute in the city.

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