It might seem an odd pairing, but Muhammad Ali and China had long history.
The boxing legend who passed away at the age of 74 on Friday night, was a global icon visiting countries that only his unique standing could access.
After Ali retired, he visited China three times, each time producing a great sensation throughout the country. He had great and lasting impact on Chinese sports development.
Ali, Deng find common ground
On Dec. 19, 1979, Ali visited China for the first time, but only stayed for 8 hours. He visited the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and met with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
But in those eight short hours he became the first foreign athlete to be jointly invited by the Chinese Olympic Committee and China Sports Federation.
In January 1979, China and the United States established formal diplomatic relations, and Ali was President Jimmy Carter's messenger of peace, with the mission of lobbying China to participate the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Boxing had been banned in China decades earlier. It was decreed as a bloody and brutal sport "that exploited working people" and symbolized capitalism.
In his meeting with Deng, Ali expressed an interest in reviving boxing in China. Deng responded by saying "as long as people like it, we will develop it." In March 1986, boxing officially returned to validity. Ali's meeting with Deng Xiaoping helped boxing to regain its status in China.
In 1985, Ali visited China again and the Chinese media documented his trip. In an interview with the China Sports Daily, Ali defended boxing's grace and overall safety, saying sports such as car racing and skiing are far more dangerous than boxing. This seminal point struck a chord with Chinese fans and continued to help boxing regain its popularity in China.
Ali's impact beyond borders
His third visit to China was in 1993, and for the first time in history, Beijing held an international boxing match. He also visited Shanghai and met students. Ali was devoted to promoting boxing in China, and restoring it to its former glory always was his main goal.
Ali might have represented boxing, but he also was a messenger of peace and a significant humanitarian to the Chinese. After retiring, most of his time outside the boxing ring devoted to the pursuit of peace. He visited more than 100 countries, representing himself and sometimes representing U.S. government.
Because of his image and charisma, Ali's impact went well beyond sport itself. There was no foreign athlete before or after Ali who could bring such a positive influence on the development of Chinese sports.
This article was translated from Tencent's QQSports.com, digital partner of ESPN in China.