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Muhammad Ali and China: How the Champ’s Visit Brought Boxing Back to the Middle Kingdom

Muhammad Ali meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1979 (AP)

Muhammad Ali meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1979 (AP)

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali shook up the world, and the world was truly shaken to hear the news of his passing at the age of 74. The man known to many as the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) had a profound impact not only inside the ring, but also outside.

Ali’s impact was also felt in China as he proved to be the catalyst in boxing’s resurrection in the country after it had been under a long-term ban.

Since becoming heavyweight champion of the world with his win over Sonny Liston in 1964, and making his first visit to Africa and other countries afterwards, it was only a matter of time when Ali would grace his presence in China. And no time was better than in December 1979 when he made his first visit on the invitation of late leader Deng Xiaoping.

The visit by the three-time champion would prove to be crucial as China was still in the midst of opening itself up to the rest of the world. To have an iconic man such as Ali pay a short trip to the country in that year would not only help to show that China was serious about engaging with the rest of the world, but it also saw the return of boxing to the country after its ban in 1959.

“Boxing can also be a bridge which enhances mutual understanding and friendship between Chinese and American people,” Deng told Ali in their 1979 meeting.

And with that the ban on boxing was lifted.

It may have been slow going out of the gate at first, but Chinese boxers have been starting to rise up the ranks in recent years, with Zou Shiming being among the first to grab an Olympic medal for China at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and following that up with gold medals at the games in Beijing and London respectively.

Xiong Chaozhong would go on to make further history for Chinese boxing as he became the country’s first world champion by winning the WBC minimum-weight title in 2012. Cai Zongju, 24, won the IBF women’s mini flyweight title last month.

The news of Ali’s passing is not only a blow to many in the United States, but it is also being felt in China where many boxers have seen him as an inspiration. Zou, who aspires to win a world title, expressed how much of an influence he has been to his career in a tear-filled video on his Weibo page.

“I am deeply grieving over the passing of the legend Mr. Ali, for whom I have great respect. He has been a great inspiration to me,” he said.

Muhammad Ali has truly been an inspiration to millions, and the next generation of Chinese boxers will certainly benefit from what he contributed to the sport and its return to prominence in China.

Perhaps the most important thing that we all have learned from Ali is that we all have a bit of greatness in ourselves. We just need the confidence and self-belief to know it.

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