Nicknamed 'The Greatest', Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated figures of the 20th century and as one of the greatest boxers of all time. He was an American professional boxer, activist, entertainer, and philanthropist.
This magnificent heavyweight champion visited Bangladesh in February 1978, then only seven years old at the time, born of the deadly liberation war in 1971.
The day was February 19, 1978. Ali landed in Bangladesh on a 5-day trip after he had lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks, Ali journeyed to Bangladesh with his wife Veronica, his daughter, and parents.
In Bangladesh, Ali was seen as a world-class athlete. The live telecast of two of his fights (some of the earliest live transmissions in the new country) made him one of the first foreign celebrities to gain wide recognition in the country.
The popularity was visible during his visit. Some 2 million 'over the moon' fans greeted Ali's arrival at the airport and trailed him everywhere on his trip.
Ali was wearing dark sunglasses not only to protect himself from the sweltering Bengal heat but also to hide the swelling in his eyes - a brutal gift from Spinks. "He gave me a black eye! Can you imagine?" - Ali explained.
The documentary "Muhammad Ali Goes East: Bangladesh, I Love You" by Reginald Massey was made of Ali's trip.
During his stay in Bangladesh, Ali went to some of the country's most scenic areas, including the Sundarbans, a world-famous mangrove forest, tiger preserve, and Unesco World Heritage Site; the splendid Sylhet Tea Gardens; the beautiful lakeside town of Rangamati; and the coastal district of Cox's Bazar.
Mighty Ali also received Bangladeshi citizenship, courtesy of a passport making him the 'country's newest citizen'. The travelogue reveals Ali saying "So I am a citizen of Bangladesh?". And when he is assured that he is one of us now, he says "Thank you so much. Now, if they kick me out of America, I have another home. Thank you."
Ali was also awarded a plot of land in the aforementioned Cox's Bazaar and had a stadium named in his honor.
But, the highlight of Ali's visit occurred at Dhaka Stadium, where he staged a "boxing match" with a 12-year-old Bengali boy Mohammad Giasuddin who knocked him out to huge cheers and laughs. Giasuddin later became the country's three-time national champion.
Ali was originally supposed to fight with Abdul Halim, who was known as "Muhammad Ali of Bengal" but he refused to join a real fight and instead asked for a younger one for some "fun boxing". In came Giasuddin.
"I could not believe that I would share the same ring with Muhammad Ali but later I prepared quickly to get into the ring," Giasuddin cherished.
The state visit ended with a dinner where renowned Bengali singer Sabina Yasmin sang the special composition "Ali Ali" (later released as an album).
Business interests were clear in recognizing the branding opportunity. State-run Uttara Bank took out newspaper advertisements welcoming Ali, in Bengali and English.
Ali was greatly touched by the hospitality he received throughout his trip. He mentioned he felt like he was in Heaven while visiting Bangladesh. "We are in heaven over here. You want paradise, come to Bangladesh," Ali waxed rhapsodic.
It was not that Ali visited Bangladesh just because the country needed him, Ali needed Bangladesh too to revive him after the defeat to Spinks. Reginald Massey, the producer of the documentary had to persuade him that people on the other side of the world still loved 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 told Ali.
Ali's visit to Bangladesh during that period of time was of great importance for both Ali and Bangladesh. He not only left his footmarks on this country but became a reason for an experience of a lifetime for millions of Bangladeshis.