Hong Kong – So Po Sang was born more than a decade after Muhammad Ali retired from professional boxing.
Yet the rising Hong Kong boxing star recites Ali’s quotations from memory, and says the American legend influenced him.
“Ali’s lifestyle inspires me,” said So, at a boxing gym in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay neighbourhood, just before a training session in a red, white and blue training ring.
“You need to learn discipline and work hard – no excuses.”
So, 23, is one of many boxers in Hong Kong and mainland China who are mourning the death of Ali, whose funeral is scheduled for Friday in Louisville, Kentucky.
The depth of their response highlights Ali’s lasting influence on a country that he first visited 37 years ago.
Ali only spent a few hours in Beijing, China’s capital, after passing through the then British colony, Hong Kong, and the southern city of Guangzhou in December 1979. But the visit was politically symbolic because China and the United States had only normalised relations in January of that year.
A period of estrangement
After Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to Beijing, unofficial US-Sino relations developed “in a hesitant and somewhat turbulent manner” for the next five years, according to the book A Fragile Relationship: The United States and China Since 1972 by Harry Harding, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Obstacles included a reluctance by some Chinese leaders to expose their citizens to Western culture, and an American refusal to allow a Chinese performing arts troupe to sing about “liberating” Taiwan.
Yet by 1977, Harding writes, around 15,000 Americans and 1,000 Chinese, including artists, journalists, and table tennis players, had made the trip in a display of “people-to-people” diplomacy.
In 1979, Ali became the first foreign athlete to visit China at the invitation of the Chinese Olympic Committee and the China Sports Federation. He also played a direct role in reviving the sport’s Chinese footprint.
Boxing regains popularity in China
China’s ruling Communist Party had banned boxing in 1959 after a death in the ring raised safety concerns. However, in a meeting with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Ali reportedly raised the prospect of bringing it back.
“As long as people like it, we will develop it,” Deng replied, according to ESPN.
Ali returned in 1985 and received a rock star’s welcome as he staged boxing sessions with up-and-coming Chinese boxers.
A photograph from the trip shows a rail-thin boxer, Xiong Wei, reaching to the sky to jab Ali at a Shanghai gymnasium. Ali, in dark trousers and a white dress shirt, covers his face with his gloves in self-defence.
“Back then, China was still isolated from the outside world and at a point where boxing was forbidden in the country – enthusiasts could only practise in secrecy,” Xiong’s son, Xiong Xin, now a Shanghai boxing champion in his own right, told Al Jazeera.
“Muhammad Ali has not only given them guidance on technique, but also restored the hope and faith that inspired the boxers to be determined and committed [to the sport],” he added.
China’s boxing ban was lifted in 1986, and Chinese boxers competed in the 1992 Olympics.
Today the country’s best boxers, such as two-time Olympic gold medallist Zou Shiming, are household names.
In the hours and days after Ali’s death, condolences poured in through Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, with many users posting candle emojis.
“I planned to go to visit my idol Mr Muhammad Ali after winning a professional bout,” wrote boxer Zou Shiming, who will fight in the US on Saturday for the first time. “But now, I can only pray he is at peace in heaven, and free from illness and pain.”
An inspiration inside and outside the ring
On Monday evening at Everlast Fight & Fitness Hong Kong, the boxing gym where So Po Sang is a fixture, a manager pointed to a glass case beside the training ring that displays a red Everlast glove with Ali’s spidery signature – a shrine of sorts for the gym’s boxing faithful.
Upstairs, in a windowless training room with punching bags hanging from the ceiling, three Hong Kong boxers in their 20s said they had learned about Ali partly from their trainers and corporate advertisements, but also through Google and YouTube searches.
For all of them, Ali’s story was an influence inside and outside the ring.
Carlos So, 22, a Muay Thai fighter with a shaggy fringe and a toothy grin, said he admired Ali’s skills as a fighter and his fight for racial equality in the US.
Another boxer, Tyson Ng, 26, said he respected Ali’s psychological composure, but also his political activism – specifically Ali’s 1967 refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.
For that, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison, but the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1971.
“He had the guts to say what he believed,” Ng said.
So Po Sang, whose amateur boxing record is 5-2, said Ali’s long battle with Parkinson’s disease raised questions for him about the possible health risks of his own nascent career.
“When Ali was very young, he was very energetic,” So explained. “But when he got older, he got quiet.”
“Was that because of his boxing? I’m afraid.”
But So said he plans to turn professional next year anyway, in the welterweight category, and that he trains for six to eight hours a day. He begins with pre-dawn jogging and wind sprints, just as Ali did in videos that he watches on YouTube.
So said he is prepared to face the risk of boxing-induced health consequences if it means becoming a champion.
“In the end, it’s worth it,” he said.