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THE COLUMN: Muhammad Alí, 25 years later: from Atlanta to Havana and the new reality of boxing

Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta 96 / Reuters

Nico Ali Walsh, 21, is Muhammad Ali’s grandson and has already delivered two knockouts in his only appearances since he debuted in August.

“I am blessed to continue the legacy of my grandfather … I love this legacy that I continue.”

I wish Nico could also see himself in the Olympic ring, now that the doors are open to renters, and thus recall the world premiere of the then Cassius Clay in Rome 1960.

Hopefully at least he has the hands of his famous predecessor, who was fast and persistent with both, owner of a lethal hook with which he sought to knock out his rivals.

The hands of Muhammad Ali… Just 25 years ago I had his right on my chin, that same right with which he defied the Parkinson’s tremors to light the cauldron of the Olympic Games in that same 1996. The same right that impacted on the faces of Archie Moore, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Oscar Bonavena, Joe Frazier, Jimmy Ellis, Ken Norfton, George Foreman, Alfredo Evangelista, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and so many others.

Alí was also in Havana in the Atlanta Olympic year, where one day before the closing of the Games, Juan Antonio Samaranch gave him a replica of his 1960 gold medal that he won in the light heavyweight division, a missing medal that continues generating controversy: it is not known if the legendary boxer threw it into the river in protest at being discriminated against in a cafeteria in his town, or if he really lost it.

During his 21-year tenure as head of the IOC, Samaranch returned Olympic medals to athletes in ceremonies that he considered “acts of justice”, as happened in 1982 with another boxer, the Swede Ingemar Johansson.

The Scandinavian was awarded the silver medal that was denied due to his disqualification for alleged “lack of competitiveness” in the heavyweight final of the 1952 Helsinki Games.

Samaranch had witnessed this fight as a special envoy for a Spanish newspaper, and was also a follower of Johansson’s later and successful career in professional boxing, where he won world and European belts.

In 1996, Ali landed in Havana at the head of a humanitarian mission of the International Red Cross and with half a million dollars in medicine for hospitals.

Since he arrived at the airport and during the week of his stay, I followed him with my notebook on his tour of hospitals and gyms. On the last day of his first visit to Havana – in 1998 he also returned with another shipment of donations – he surprised me when he tried to extract a word from him.

In a loving, unexpected gesture, he pressed his left arm to my back as his impressive, threatening right fist brushed my jaw.

I had asked him what would have been the result of his fight against Cuban three-time Olympic champion Teófilo Stevenson, which began to be speculated just 45 years ago, when the Caribbean giant won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympic Games.

THE COLUMN: Muhammad Alí, 25 years later: from Atlanta to Havana and the new reality of boxing
Muhammad Ali, in Havana, together with Miguel Hernández, author of this article and specialized journalist for Around the Rings

Those in Canada were my first Olympic Games in sports journalism, and they were on the verge of not being them: an order from Havana was only expected – which luckily did not come – for Cuba to join the boycott of African countries.

While my hand was lost inside his in the greeting, Ali said something to me in a very low tone in that small room of the Havana hospital. I could barely hear.

“Tables, he says.”

It was Lonnie, his wife and spokesperson, who confirmed the champion’s chivalrous response to the so-called “Fight of the Century” against Stevenson, which never materialized. That would have been a draw, Ali said.

Stevenson died surprisingly at age 60, in June 2012, of a heart attack.

“It happened to him for not wanting to put on a pacemaker,” I heard from the veteran coach of the Cuban boxing team, Alcides Sagarra, at the Coliseum of the Ciudad Deportiva de La Habana. The pacemaker is a small device that is implanted in the body for when the heart beats very slowly.

With Ali in Cuba it happened to our generation as with the Beatles and their first film, “A Hard Day’s Night”, which we saw on the island almost 40 years after its premiere.

Ali’s fights were never exhibited in Cuba or commented on in the newspapers during the time that “The Greatest” reigned in the ring. In 1961, Fidel Castro had decreed the elimination of professionalism, a law aimed at baseball and boxing. Sixty years now.

In November 1992, in the context of a General Assembly of National Olympic Committees in Acapulco, the Mexican of Lebanese origin José Sulaimán, president for three decades of the World Boxing Council (WBC), told me that he wanted to travel to Havana to propose to him to Castro projects to help Cuban fighters.

Among his ideas, Sulaimán spoke of a world championship with the presence of champions from the various professional boxing organizations and monarchs of the Olympic Games.

Four months earlier, seven Cubans had won the gold medal in the boxing tournament of the Barcelona Olympic Games. Thanks to them, Cuba was fifth in the final medal table, after regrettable absences at the Los Angeles 84 and Seoul 88 Games.

But someone advised Sulaiman, who never got tickets to Havana.

THE COLUMN: Muhammad Alí, 25 years later: from Atlanta to Havana and the new reality of boxing
The President of the World Boxing Council (WBC), Mauricio Sulaimán. EFE / Sáshenka Gutiérrez / Archive

However, 29 years later, his son and successor in the WBC, Mauricio Sulaimán, transmitted a new message of cooperation to Cuba, and this time he apparently found receptive ears in the island’s boxing authorities.

The meeting with Sulaimán occurred during an unprecedented and friendly poster between Mexican professionals and selected Cuban Olympians held in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes a month before the Tokyo Olympics.

The island’s sports officials are not ruling out agreements with well-known professional organizations, according to slipped comments this year, something unthinkable in these past decades.

Will the day be near when some of those governing entities of rented boxing organize a show at the Havana Coliseum?

Will anyone think of projecting a program between boxers from the island and Cuban boxers established in the United States?

Would that idea of ​​the old Sulaiman still be valid?

Back in these days, I remember Muhammad Ali again, here in Atlanta, where for many people he is an idol and a myth. I remember him again 25 years later with his slow movements, his silence, his historic career in and out of the ring. And his big hand on my chin.

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