The farmer in him switches off, and Singh becomes the heavyweight boxer who, many summers ago, had a rather painful introduction to Ali’s greatness.
Kaur Singh, 63, says he is having a busy day. He is out in the sun monitoring work on his farm and dealing with government officials on a crop survey in his village in Sangrur. Over the phone, he doesn’t sound keen on a long conversation. Until he hears it’s about Muhammad Ali.
“Us de mukke bahut hi dumdar si (His punches had great power),” he says. The farmer in him switches off, and Singh becomes the heavyweight boxer who, many summers ago, had a rather painful introduction to Ali’s greatness.
Two years before he won the Asian Games gold in 1982, Singh had been in the ring with Ali for four rounds in an exhibition bout at Delhi’s National Stadium on January 27, 1980. Rajiv Gandhi, not yet active in politics, after learning about Ali’s stopover in Delhi, had convinced him to give an audience to the capital’s boxing fans. A crowd of more than 50,000 turned up to watch history’s greatest boxer. Ali, then 38, would retire a year later.
“I clearly remember that jab, his famous jab. It seemed to come out of nowhere. He used his right hand to block my punches, and his counter punch to hit me. His speed was amazing; not once during those four rounds did the speed drop,” recalls the old man.
By then, voices in the background can be heard begging for Singh’s attention. But no distraction can now tear away the boxer-turned-farmer from being the fanboy once again, reliving those magical moments of his boxing career.
“Everybody at the national camp had his posters in their rooms. We would try to ape his boxing stance. I remember the moment when I was informed that I would be actually fighting my hero. I was at this camp at Moti Bagh in Delhi when officials told me about the exhibition match. I couldn’t believe it. Before the match, I was nervous. I saw him train, I approached him, and we shook hands,” says the overwhelmed Singh.
For perspective, he reminds you that he wasn’t an impressionable rookie then — he was the national heavyweight when he fought Ali. “But he was the world heavyweight champion. Woh boxing ka shahenshah tha.” Norris Pritam, former sports journalist with The Indian Express, remembers seeing that fight as a young athlete.
“We were training at the National Stadium in Delhi when we heard about the fight. Of course, Ali was someone every boxer in the world admired. And he showed why in that fight against Kaur Singh. Although it was an exhibition match, people cheered for Ali, and Ali talked to schoolchildren even during the fight from the ring. It was a great treat for Indian fans,” Pritam said.