When boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who passed away on Saturday aged 74, visited India in January 1980 and fought in an exhibition bout in New Delhi he repeatedly termed his opponent "here is a sexy boxer", watched by a packed National Stadium.
This was disclosed by OP Bharadwaj, a former chief coach with the Indian team, who also said that he served as the corner for Muhammad Ali in that bout.
"Muhammad Ali infused life into boxing. His footwork and punching technique was one of the best in the world. During his exhibition bout with Bakshish Singh, an Arjuna Award-winning boxer and national champion, Ali repeatedly told him 'here is a sexy boxer'. I was his corner during the exhibition bout," Bharadwaj told Outlook.
"It was an evening bout. A ring was specially erected in the middle of the National Stadium, which was packed with spectators. We had national camp going on at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala when Ali visited Delhi. The entire team was shifted to Delhi for two-three days to provide boxers for the exhibition bouts with Ali," recalled Bharadwaj, now 76.
Bharadwaj said all the Indian boxers were introduced to Ali. "He advised the Indian boxers to throw powerful straight punches and with speed. He told them to try and score more and points with straight punches. He advised against going for the hook and the upper cut. NIS presented him with memento, which was made in Delhi," he informed.
GS Sandhu, another national coach, said he was impressed by Muhammad Ali's down-to-earth disposition when he met him 20 years ago.
"I was very distressed to hear the news [of Ali's demise]. With him, an era has ended. Muhammad Ali was the boxing history's greatest pillar; he is now gone. I met him in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games; it was a by-chance meeting," Sandhu told Outlook.
"He had come as a visitor to the boxing arena. When I spoke to him, I found that he was a very down-to-earth man. He would talk to anybody. His speech was not very clear at the time, but he expressed himself in his own ways. He was a very nice human being. For a person like me, it was my good fortune that I got a chance to just meet him. We were together for about six-seven minutes!" he said. "When I told him that I was a coach, he expressed a bit more affection for me, though I don't know how much of what I said he grasped. Similarly, I can't say how much I grasped what he said."
Asked if Muhammad Ali said anything about Indian boxers, Sandhu said: "He only said 'good India, good boxers'. He probably meant to say that the Indian boxing will come up. It's possible that he had seen some Indian boxer earlier."
According to the initial programme, Muhammad Ali was to travel to Calcutta and Madras also, besides Delhi. But eventually Calcutta was dropped after a sponsor pulled out, informed Ashok Gangopadhyay, then a joint secretary with the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, and who was trying to organise the bout in the Bengal capital.
"I tried organising a bout with Muhammad Ali in Calcutta, but it could not take place. The initial programme to have bouts in Calcutta, Delhi and Chennai, but ultimately Calcutta was dropped," Gangopadhyay told Outlook.
Muhammad Ali, in India along with his wife Veronica, met then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi and had another exhibition bout in Madras, now Chennai.
In Madras, Ali had a bout with his sparring partner and former heavy weight champion Jimmy Ellis, and a school boy. The bouts were organised by the Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing Association.
"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," The Hindu newspaper quoted Ali as saying.
Ali, the showman, often met several Indian celebrities outside India. In 1979, when renowned playback singer Mohammed Rafi was touring the USA, he expressed his desire to meet Ali. When the word reached Ali, he agreed to meet the Indian. The meeting took place in Kentucky.
In 1980s, Amitabh Bachchan , along with his brother Ajitabh and film maker Prakash Mehra, had met Ali in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.