Muhammad Ali’s first visit to India in 1980 proved to be life-changing for Rocky Brass, an upcoming boxer from Chennai (then Madras).
“Ali was in Chennai with American great Jimmy Ellis and I got an opportunity to box with him. The bout lasted less than a minute and his punch was enough to knock me out, but I lived my greatest moments in those 50-55 seconds,” Brass told HT.
“After the bout, Ali mentioned me in his speech and said I had potential. The words of appreciation changed my life and I was offered a job in the Railways,” he added.
The exhibition bout took place on January 31, and on April 7, Rocky was appointed a khalasi (peon) in Southern Railways. Currently, Brass works as a mail express guard at Perambur station in Chennai.
“The Nehru stadium was filled to capacity and everybody had bought tickets, which is unusual for a sport like boxing in India,” said Brass, whose official name is Rochester Cloves.
Ali visited Delhi, Bombay (Mumbai), Madras and Calcutta (Kolkata). “His visit was related to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics by America and he wanted India to join in,” said Brass, who runs a boxing club ‘Crusader’.
Brass became the Tamil Nadu state champion in 1978 and was one of the best amateurs when Ali visited the city. Initially, he was chosen for a bout with Ali’s sparring partner Ellis.
“As per the programme, Ali was to give tips to kids, but (then Tamil Nadu) Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, who was the chief guest, was keen to watch Ali box, so there was a change in the schedule and Jimmy had an exhibition fight with Ali. As I was wearing gloves, after the bout I asked Ali if I could fight him,” recalled Brass.
Randolf Peters, 63, was another boxer to share the ring with Ali in Chennai. “I was the best boxer in Tamil Nadu, and it was the two of us, Rocky and me, against him,” said Peters.
“When we met, he wanted to know how I felt about boxing. After that, I requested him if I could have a bout with him. He asked, ‘do you think you can fight me? If I put a left strap and hit you with the right, you will fly out of this stadium’.” Everyone laughed but he obliged.
“After the felicitation, he called me to the ring. I was scared; he was 6’4” and 109kg of muscle, while I was only 5’6”. He threw quarter punches, had he been bent on full contact, he would have broken my bones. It was an unforgettable day as I had never dreamt I’d get to share the ring with Muhammad Ali.”
Ali also visited India in 1989.