When Ali came to India

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Perhaps it is your aunt or uncle; perhaps a parent or grandparent; perhaps a neighbour or school friend. Perchance, it could even be you.

There will be dozens of people in India this weekend looking through long-forgotten albums, drawers or cupboards to see if they can still find their own personal link -- a scribbled autograph, a newspaper clipping, or perhaps even a dog-eared old photograph - harking back to 1980, when Muhammad Ali first visited India.

Were you one of those airport officials who checked his paperwork and stamped his passport, one of the Indian Airlines flight attendants who served him a meal, or one of the hotel staff members who garlanded him when he arrived in your lobby?

Maybe you were a VIP, a politician or local administrator who shook his hand and now wish that you had a photograph to prove to others that you met the man who, long before sportsmen and women had psychologists and PR teams as the backbone of their entourages, told us he was quite simply The Greatest.

It was a different world back then.

It was pre-digital. No selfies. No YouTube. No Instagram, no Twitter, no texting, no Facebook, nor any form of social media. Think about it for a moment; that was actually the pre-internet era when a simple calculator watch was just about the height of visible tech.

Yet Ali was big news in India, due in part to our insatiable appetite for news, views and reviews both at home and abroad.

Coverage of Ali's deeds in the ring, as well as his strident views outside it, came to us by agonisingly slow media osmosis, basically on the broadsheet pages of a newspaper, or in the form of flickering, low-quality newsreels that ran as curtain-raisers to movies.

Sport wasn't the commercial juggernaut then that it has now dramatically morphed into. Live television coverage was non-existent in India and even radio commentary, as good as it was, had stifling logistical restrictions and was mainly restricted to cricket or Olympic hockey.

So why, in such a milieu, did Ali have such a dedicated fan base in India, a country with little interest or substantial history in boxing? In the late Seventies and early Eighties, you could probably have displayed a poster of him in almost any school in India and the students would have recognised him.

To understand the appeal of a world figure, one must truly examine the accompanying overall milieu. Ali was the Olympic champion who threw his gold medal into a river. Ali was the man who abandoned his original name - Cassius Clay - and took on one that reflected his conversion to Islam. Ali was the man who was controversial, brash and so very polarising.

He was a strident voice of defiance during the civil rights movement. Perhaps it was that willingness to stand up and speak his mind - no matter what the consequences were - that endeared him to so many in the Sixties around the world who did not have a voice in an era when only those in governance defined political and social paths.

In Vietnam-era 1967, he refused to be drafted into the US military and paid a heavy price. His world title went down the gurgler, not lost to an opponent but taken from him instead by the establishment. Even his boxing licence was rescinded and it was not until 1971 that he returned to the ring.

He was the first fighter to legitimise trash talk and deliver it in doggerel. He walked the walk and yes, he talked the talk. He really was the Full Monty for the sport of boxing - not just a great fighter, but someone who constantly grabbed other headlines as well for being outspoken. Almost single-handedly, he catapulted his sport to a higher level of international consciousness.

Back in his youth, before he changed his name, "yond Cassius" had the Shakespearean lean and hungry look of a stripling who would shape his own destiny. He once told a neighbour that he would become the heavyweight champion of the world and the neighbour asked him if he had lost his mind.

Then there was the person who knew him in his schooldays, who said that every morning the youngster used to run to the park where he trained, then run home, change for school and wait for the school bus. But while the other kids got on the bus, he never did. Instead, he would run beside the bus, all the way to school. Why? Because "he ran everywhere".

But how we who were raised in India saw him and remember him and judge him was often defined - ponder this for a minute - by the varied portrayals of him through the lenses and perception of others who reported on his deeds.

If you, like me, grew up in India and are in your mid-to-late fifties, your memories of him are visual, based on how he was portrayed in newspapers and magazines of the day. So you literally see him mainly in the black and white images that play through your head when you think of him, right?

But if you are in your forties, perhaps you remember the coverage (still black and white, both in newspapers and TV) that accompanied both his visits to India. Or if you are in your late twenties or early thirties, you see him in colour, from the dramatic live-TV moment at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when, tremulously, he lit the flame at the opening ceremony.

No matter how you sort and view the images your mind has retained of Ali, remember that colour television (yes, it's true) only came to India with the 1982 Asian Games. Also from that era, perhaps you remember a weekly magazine called Sunday, edited by a fearless young journalist called MJ Akbar.

I am proud to say I was a cadet on that magazine and at a time when its covers were mainly devoted to politicians, social issues or - occasionally - film stars, Ali graced the magazine's cover not once but twice. In my time with the masthead, there was no other non-Indian sportsman (and hey, probably no Indian sportsmen either) who featured on the Sunday cover.

Has there yet been another boxer who captured world headlines like Ali? No, to tell the truth. Many wanted to be like him, and while they wanted to float like a butterfly, surely they knew deep down that when compared to him, they only had the ability to sting like a B-grade pugilist.

David McMahon is a Walkley Award-nominated journalist who is also a novelist and photographer.