This Day in History: When Muhammad Ali Came to China

By Ned Kelly, May 20, 2021

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You may recognize Xiong Wei – he refereed at several Brawl on the Bund events in Shanghai. But did you know Xiong once sparred with The Greatest?

On May 20, 1985, Muhammad Ali visited Shanghai Jingwu Gymnasium (above with Xiong), ‘the birthplace of Chinese boxing.' 

“He looked quite well, and I could feel he was a very kind person,” said Xiong, who sadly passed away in 2015. “He had his own personality and was independent-minded, very friendly to the Chinese athletes.”

201805/XiongWei-1-.JPGXiong Wei at a White Collar Boxing event in Shanghai.

We've also unearthed an Associated Press piece written just one day later, as Ali's trip came to an end, which offers insights into his visit, includes the fact that the highlight of the trip for the Muslim convert was praying at the Great Mosque of Xi'an:

It was like the old days for Muhammad Ali. He drew big crowds, sparred playfully with all comers, and put on the Ali shuffle in the ring.

But he said the most moving experience of his 10-day tour of China was praying with 1,000 fellow Moslems in the great mosque of Xian, which dates from 742 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty.

''To be there with my brothers, people so different and from so far away, was unforgettable.''

It was Ali's second visit to China, and by official invitation by the Chinese government:

Invited by the Communist government and hailed in the press as ''the king of boxing'' and ''a 20th century legend,'' the former heavyweight champion was making his second visit to China.

His first in 1979 helped revive boxing in China, banned as too dangerous two decades earlier because of a death in the ring. China now hopes to train Olympic boxers.

Ali and Deng Xiaoping
Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping greets Muhammad Ali back in 1979

Ali disagreed with the Communist view in 1959 that good comrades should not hit each other, and those that still felt the sport was too violent:

''If we stopped all the things that caused accidents, cars would be first. Airplanes would be second,'' he said, calling for better referees and ringside physicians and evenly matched bouts.

''If I had to do it all over again, I would do everything the same way,'' he declared.

Ali was well recognized and was mobbed by fans wherever his limousine arrived for an engagement, including one at the Peking Sports Institute:

To roars of approval from 500 students at Peking Sports Institute, 20-year-old lightweight Wang Wei sparred with the champ in a makeshift ring and said it was the greatest day of his life.

Another amateur at the session disclosed that his coach told him to aim for the stomach as Ali was not in good health.

Ali, who took off his suit coat and tie for the one-minute bouts, resembled his old self when he donned a pair of boxing gloves.

He swung his right in circles for uppercuts that were not meant to land, danced away from opponents and faked a knockdown at the hands of one small foe.

''They've got great potential,'' he said of boxers in Peking and Shanghai. They're not big, but they can take a punch and they are determined and courageous. I hope to come back with a program to train Chinese boxers.''

Ali offered messages to his fans through the Chinese media:

The English-language China Daily printed his greeting: ''Thank you for the good things you say about me. I love you very much.''

To the China Youth News, he wrote: ''Now that you are open to the world, never lose your culture, because others will try to give you their culture. It will be a great fight.''

You can read the full article here.

READ MORE: When Muhammad Ali Fought a Japanese Wrestler


For more This Day in History stories, click here.

This article was originally published in June of 2014.

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