Sunday, September 15, 2013


By Mansor Puteh

How do you like to be in the same elevator with the then three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali? It happened to be, but by accident.

I was attached to Gaya Filem in Kuala Lumpur during the second semester break when I was studying at the school of mass communications of Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM) or Mara Institute of Technology in Shahalam, now known as the Mara University of Technology.

And while at Gaya, I was put at the different departments for the whole of one and a half months.

It was already an exciting experience to be placed at this film company also produced films and provided post-production services at their studios in Jalan Ceylon.

One day, an officer from the company asked me to join him to go to a location of an advertisement they were producing.

The place was at the Paddock, a bar on the topmost floor of the then Kuala Lumpur Hilton Hotel, an beside it was the race course; and hence, the name Paddock was chosen by the hotel for the bar, which in normal times would not be a place I would go to.

I walked through the lobby on the ground floor and headed to the elevator or lift with the Gaya officer, and waited for the elevator door to open, so we could enter it to go to the Paddock.

At that time everybody knew legendary heavyweight boxer, Muhammad Ali was in town to box British ‘white hope’ Joe Bugner, who was staying in another hotel, the Equatorial Hotel.

Of course when Muhammad Ali and his entourage arrived at the Subang International Airport at least fifteen thousand people had gone there to greet him and to see him arrive for the first time in Malaysia. That was in June, 1975.

Joe Bugner arrived the next day, but the crowd was smaller.

Of course, there were people milling outside of the two hotels to catch a glimpse of the two boxers, who appeared and returned to their hotels where they were to stay at for one month to prepare for the fight in Stadium Merdeka or Independence Stadium.

The other reason was for them to be fully acclimatize for the fight which would be held in the morning, so that the live broadcast could be held for the viewers in America, who would see it at night the day earlier as there is a twenty-four time difference between that of Malaysia and America.

I did not plan to see Muhammad Ali and had forgotten about him staying at the Hilton. But I had to go to the hotel to do some chore, which would take me out of the Gaya Filem studios, where I had been holed in the whole day.

It was always fun and a relief to be able to go out of the studios to go anywhere and certainly to be able to go to the Hilton then would be more fun.

And the least of all was to be able to see Muhammad Ali and his small coterie of supporters which included his personal trainers, and younger brother, Rahman.

The hotel staff had blocked the elevator which they were going to take. But somehow he allowed me and the Gaya Filem officer to enter the same elevator even though we had to squeeze in it as Muhammad Ali and his buddies are already four, all of whom were larger than me.

I looked at Muhammad Ali who was standing so close to me and I was surprised that he did not appear to be too tall or large. He was six feet two inches and I was five feet and nine inches.

So the difference in our height was not so crucial that I had to look up to see him face to face.

And he also did not realize that I am also Muslim like he is, as Muslims in Malaysia who are mostly Melayu do not really have the typical Muslim face; we have Oriental looks, more so me, who looked more Chinese than Melayu.

To most American Muslims, Muslims looked like Arabs.

But I did not expect Muhammad Ali or any of his buddies to strike a conversation with any of us who were also with them in the same elevator.

In fact, the four of them did not say a word and just wanted to get to the floor where their suites were, which was one floor below the Paddock.

However, I managed to speak on the phone with Rahman Ali, and he asked me to come to the hotel to see him, but I did not as I did not have the time. 

The elevator stopped after a while and they got off to go to their suites, while I had to wait for the door of the elevator to close to take us to the next floor, where the Paddock was.

And at the Paddock some filming was being held for an advertisement of a brand of toothpaste. So they had a young woman with nice and white teeth to film.

I did not care too much about Muhammad Ali and the earlier episode in the elevator. My mind was already elsewhere and not even in the Paddock.

I wanted to find out if I could finally manage to get a place in a university in New York City to do my master’s degree in film. This is more important than the Paddock, Hilton or Muhammad Ali…

But I did watch the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner which was shown live on Malaysian television as well, and in black-and-white.

The match went through to all the rounds, so those who had paid the money to buy the tickets must have been fully entertained.

But Stadium Merdeka itself was not full. The price of the tickets were so expensive, with the ring seats at RM1,000 or US$250 then, and the other seats at RM100 or US$25.

And since the match was a non-title bout and it was going to be shown live on Malaysian television, what use was there for the ordinary Malaysians to flock into the stadium.

Not surprisingly, despite there having fifteen thousand Malaysians who had come to the airport to greet Muhammad Ali and to see him at such a far distance from the airport to the plane from where he had to walk on the tarmac to the airport building, so few of them bothered to see him box in the stadium.

Muhammad Ali won. He went on to box, while Joe Bugner who was floored disappeared from the scene.

Unfortunately, and ironically, it was not any boxer who had floored Muhammad Ali but Parkinson’s Disease which he has been suffering from for many years, which has left him almost disabled, and mostly unable to speak.

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