When Muhammad Ali visited the UAE

Muhammad Ali quietly came to the UAE in 1982 for exhibition bouts in Dubai. Last summer, Gary Meenaghan wrote about the visit, and, following Ali's death on Friday evening, we are republishing an excerpt.
Photo Courtesy: What's On Magazine Archives
Photo Courtesy: What's On Magazine Archives

Late Friday night in the US, the legendary boxer, cultural and political figure Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74. Tributes have poured in the world over for the towering, beloved figure.

Ali fought in locales as varied as the Philippines, DR Congo (then Zaire) and (less famously) London, Tokyo, Dublin and Jakarta. He performed Haj in 1972. Either physically or figuratively, given his international renown, Ali seemed to touch every corner of the globe.

That, somewhat quietly, included even the UAE, where he briefly stopped a number of times, in particular in 1982 for an exhibition series after the end of his fight career. Last summer, Gary Meenaghan wrote about this visit for The National. Below, we are republishing an excerpt:

FOR THE FULL STORY:

*** The ‘Greatest’ came and his age showed: When Muhammad Ali visited UAE in 1982 ***

“ ‘You can go to Japan, China, all the European, African, Arab, and South American countries and, man, they know me,’ Ali said. ‘I can’t name a country where they don’t know me. If another fighter’s goin’ to be that big, he’s goin’ to have to be a Muslim, or else he won’t get to nations like Indonesia, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey — those are all countries that don’t usually follow boxing.’

Ali never name-checked the United Arab Emirates, but he might as well have. Boxing was not a commonly followed sport in the UAE, but its greatest exponent reportedly visited the then-Trucial States in 1969 and would do so again at least three more times before 1986, including an eight-day trip that involved three exhibition fights.

While countless biographies, documentaries and movies have been written about the life of the man born Cassius Clay, details of his UAE appearances remain largely unchronicled. We know his first visit was during an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and we know he stopped by Abu Dhabi and witnessed first-hand his popularity in the city. But we know this only because two rare photographs of this visit were published by The National in 2009.

Abdullah Kaddas Al Rumaithi was an agricultural engineer in 1969 and hosted Ali during his stay in Abu Dhabi. In one photo, Ali can be seen surrounded by eager residents as he visits Al Rumaithi’s vegetable farm on Saadiyat Island. The other photo shows the two men sat next to each other: Ali learning how to write his name in Arabic, Al Rumaithi wearing a jacket and proud grin.”

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“Perhaps it was the obvious adoration that convinced events promoter Juma Ghanem to bring the ageing, ailing Ali back four years later for a series of exhibition fights. In 1982, having last fought competitively 12 months earlier — a 10-round defeat to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas — the three-time world heavyweight champion embarked on a UAE tour that included three exhibition bouts against American Jimmy Ellis and rising West German boxer Reiner Hartmann.

Although rumours had suggested Ali, a month shy of his 41st birthday, was in need of money, the purpose of the exhibition bouts in the Emirates, he told United Press International, was to raise US$2.5 million (Dh9.18m) to help build mosques in the United States. That figure, based on historical currency and inflation rates, equates to $6.25m.

‘We are building the first in Chicago. It has already cost us $5m and we need $2.5m more. I will be doing these exhibitions to raise monies to help spread Islam and this is my dream. To help spread the faith in America,’ Ali said.

The tour was promoted with posters splashed all over the Dubai Creek road and radio adverts urging listeners to take the chance to see The Greatest ‘right before your eyes’.

Things, however, did not go entirely to plan.”

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“Fairservice did not attend the fight, but did secure the country’s only sit-down interview with Ali during his stay in the UAE. Meeting at a coffee shop in Dubai’s International Hotel, close to the airport, Fairservice noted his subject’s “blurred eyes’ and a voice that was ‘barely audible or intelligible’.

The resultant What’s On story pulled no punches, calling the UAE tour ‘a travelling pantomime’ and ‘a tragic vaudeville of lost direction’. It also suggested Ali’s brain might be damaged and blamed poor ticket sales on people taking ‘no pleasure in watching an out-of-condition, overweight man ... negate everything that had gone before’.

Fairservice waved Ali off towards the airport, where the circus was heading to sold-out shows in Pakistan.”

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Published: June 4, 2016 04:00 AM

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