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Why Asians Felt a Kinship to the Late Muhammad Ali

Muhammed Ali v Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila in 1975
Muhammed Ali v Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila in 1975

By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent

From the classic Thrilla in Manila in 1975 to his visit to South Korea to his worldwide charisma and courage to stand up in opposition to the Vietnam War and oppression of the underclass, Muhammad Ali, 74, had a deep impact on Asians worldwide, including those in America.

As word of his death in Phoenix spread Friday night, the tributes began pouring in. The boxing legend died after being hospitalized for respiratory issues and a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

The height of his career arguably occurred in Manila in 1975 when he beat Joe Frazier in one of the most memorable championship fights in boxing history–the Thrilla to Manila.

The fight put Manila on the worldwide map and today there is a mall named after Ali in the Philippines. The Ali Mall in Quezon City opened a year after the Thrilla in Manila and was the first major shopping mall in the country. According to Wikipedia, the mall was built to honor Ali’s victory.

Ali  also had a big impact on Asians in sports and two of the biggest quickly reacted to Ali’s death.

In the Philippines, Ali’s legend is surpassed perhaps only by Manny Pacquiao.

Tiger Woods whose mother is Thai, called Ali a champion “in so many ways.”

Muhammad Ali visits South Korea in 1976
Muhammad Ali visits South Korea in 1976

A year after the fight in Manila, Ali visited American troops in South Korea. Thousands of Koreans lined the streets in honor of the boxing champ as he drove in from the airport in Seoul.


Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942 but changed his name in 1964 when he joined the Nation of Islam. Citing his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967 and his religious beliefs, he refused to be drafted into the military and eventually was stripped of his boxing titles. His conviction on draft evasion was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court four years later.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said about his resistance to the draft. “Shoot them for what? They never called me ni*ger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Sudip Bhattacharya, a PhD candidate from Rutgers University and a staff writer for AsAmNews, recalled on his personal blog  when he was just 7 how he channeled Ali’s courage to take on bullies and racists in his neighborhood in Queens.

“I remember staying where I was and telling them “Yea, I’m Ali and I’ll knock you out,” wrote Bhattacharya.  “They paused. We didn’t fight and they moved on. I already could associate images of Ali and stories of him as examples of someone who didn’t shy away from what he believed in. He was a proud Black man, and even though I didn’t understand race back then, or why exactly these White people kept bothering us, I had this image of Ali beside me too, not fighting for the sake of fighting, but believing strongly that as folks of color, you can be defiant, and free. ‪#‎ripAli‬”

Rajan Zed, President of Universal Society of Hinduism in Nevada, said that with Ali’s death, the “world had lost someone unique and brave; a humanitarian who challenged the status quo.” Zed called Ali a “global ambassador for cross-cultural understanding; who stood up for many and who symbolized the victory of the human spirit.”

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