Dhaka, Bangladesh (October 16, 2023) - In February 1978, just seven years after its birth in the flames of the liberation war in 1971, Bangladesh had the honor of hosting one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century - Muhammad Ali, also known as 'The Greatest.' Muhammad Ali, renowned not only as a legendary Top Heavyweight Boxing Champion but also as an activist, entertainer, and philanthropist, embarked on a historic journey to Bangladesh, marking a significant chapter in the country's history.
Ali, accompanied by his wife Veronica, their daughter, and his parents, arrived in Bangladesh on February 19, 1978. This visit came shortly after Ali's loss of the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks. Although Ali had recently faced a setback in his boxing career, he undertook this trip, recognizing the importance of the occasion.
In the eyes of Bangladeshis, Muhammad Ali was a world-class athlete. Live telecasts of his fights, some of the earliest live broadcasts in the country, had already made him one of the first foreign celebrities to capture the hearts of the people in this newly independent nation. His popularity was evident from the moment he landed in Bangladesh.
Approximately two million ecstatic fans greeted Ali at the airport, and he was accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd wherever he travelled in the country. His ability to draw such a massive following highlighted his special place in the hearts of the Bangladeshi people.
During his visit, Ali was often seen wearing dark sunglasses. While these sunglasses provided some respite from the sweltering Bengali heat, they also concealed the evidence of a brutal gift from Leon Spinks - a black eye. "He gave me a black eye! Can you imagine?" Ali humorously explained.
Ali's visit to Bangladesh was commemorated in the documentary "Muhammad Ali Goes East: Bangladesh, I Love You," produced by Reginald Massey. This documentary showcased the journey of the boxing legend through various scenic regions of Bangladesh.
Throughout his stay, Ali explored the beauty of Bangladesh, visiting extraordinary places such as the Sundarbans, a world-famous mangrove forest, tiger preserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. He also toured the stunning Sylhet Tea Gardens, the picturesque lakeside town of Rangamati, and the coastal district of Cox's Bazar.
As a token of appreciation for his visit, Ali was granted Bangladeshi citizenship, with a passport officially recognizing him as the country's newest citizen. Expressing his gratitude, Ali remarked, "So I am a citizen of Bangladesh? Thank you so much. Now, if they kick me out of America, I have another home. Thank you."
During this visit, Ali was also awarded a plot of land in Cox's Bazar, a region known for its scenic beauty, and had a stadium named in his honor. However, one of the most memorable moments of Ali's trip occurred at Dhaka Stadium.
In a lighthearted event, Ali took part in a "boxing match" with a 12-year-old Bengali boy named Mohammad Giasuddin. To the delight of the audience, the young Giasuddin managed to "knock out" the heavyweight legend, a moment that brought immense joy and laughter. Remarkably, Giasuddin would go on to become the country's three-time national champion in boxing.
Originally, Ali was slated to spar with Abdul Halim, often referred to as the "Muhammad Ali of Bengal." However, Halim preferred a less intense bout and suggested a "fun boxing" match. This is when young Giasuddin was invited to the ring, marking a moment he would cherish forever.
Ali's visit was further highlighted with a special dinner where the renowned Bengali singer Sabina Yasmin performed a unique composition titled "Ali Ali," which was later released as an album.
Business interests also recognized the branding opportunity Ali's visit presented. State-run Uttara Bank ran newspaper advertisements in both Bengali and English to welcome Ali to Bangladesh.
Ali was deeply moved by the hospitality and warmth he received throughout his journey. He expressed his feelings, saying, "We are in heaven over here. You want paradise, come to Bangladesh." Ali's visit not only touched the hearts of the people of Bangladesh but also rejuvenated the legend himself.
Ali's journey to Bangladesh was a pivotal moment for both him and the country. It was a testament to the enduring love and admiration people had for "The Greatest." Reginald Massey, the producer of the documentary, played a vital role in convincing Ali that his fans on the other side of the world still adored him.
"They still love you as The Greatest. The whole of Bangladesh, from the president to the lowest peasant, is waiting for you. You must believe me," Massey assured Ali.
Muhammad Ali's visit to Bangladesh left an indelible mark on the country and provided millions of Bangladeshis with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a moment when the people of Bangladesh celebrated the greatness of the top heavyweight boxer, and Ali, in turn, found solace and appreciation in the heart of this young nation.