One of the side benefits of having US military servicemembers stationed in Korea is that many famous celebrities have come to visit the troops there over the years. However, there probably hasn’t been a celebrity more famous to visit Korea than arguably one of the greatest athletes ever Muhammad Ali.
Ali stopped by to visit US troops stationed at Camp Casey in June 1976 after participating in a exhibition match in Tokyo against professional Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. In the exhibition match Ali threw only six punches and made a total of $6 million for the appearance; that comes out to $1 million a punch. Fortunately for USFK leadership Muhammad Ali came to Korea throwing punches for free.
When Ali landed at Kimpo International Airport he was driven through Seoul on a three mile parade route where he was greeted by hundreds of thousands of onlookers who crowded the streets to get a glimpse of the world famous boxer. The motorcade had to be stopped three times as authorities had to clear the road of well wishers who wanted to shake the hand of the boxing legend.
I wonder if there are any celebrities today that could draw the crowds that Muhammad Ali drew in Korea back in 1976?
After driving through Seoul the motorcade headed north to Dongducheon where Camp Casey the main US military installation along the Korean Demilitarized Zone is located. Here the bulk of the combat power for the US Army’s 2nd Infantry Division is housed. At the time of Ali’s visit few would have guessed that these same soldiers would two months later almost be engaged in a war with North Korea in the aftermath of the DMZ axe murder incident that led to Operation Paul Bunyan. However, war was far from the mind’s of the soldiers at Camp Casey when the champ visited the post. Ali was taken to the Shoonover Bowl outdoor stadium where 2,500 soldiers awaited his arrival. Here Ali conducted an exhibition boxing match against a US soldier:
The soldiers, including division commander Maj. Gen. Morris J. Brady, had to wait more than an hour at the theater for Ali’s arrival, delayed by the downtown Seoul welcoming activities.
After a 20-minute speech, the soldiers wanted to see some action.
“All right, fellows. Do you have any boxers out here?” Ali asked.
Specialist Fourth Class Gerald Noble, 28, stepped out. The 202-pound soldier was a Michigan State heavyweight champion in 1967.
They agreed to a five-minute round, in which Noble tried hard but was no match for Ali. The champion danced in and away and landed scores of accurate but soft punches on the soldier-boxer.
After the fight, in which Ali patted Noble on the seat of the pants with his right fist after forcing him into a corner, the champ declared the soldier one of the best men he has fought.
The soldiers booed, and a 149-pounder volunteered to “put up a better fight, if not knock you out.”
The challenger was Private First Class Larry D. Rice, 20.
Ali faked being knocked down twice in a five-minute round with the welterweight, drawing big cheers from the crowd. In the end, however, it was Rice who became exhausted and gave up.
“Ali is a great fighter but today he turned out to be a greater entertainer, too. We love him in this remote area. He must be second to none in every sense,” an enlisted man said. “Second to None” is the slogan of the division.
After the fight, the division commander presented the division souvenir sweater for Ali’s hour of entertainment. [Stars & Stripes]
As Muhammad Ali met and joked around with the soldiers at Camp Casey I can’t help but wonder what the 2ID commanding general MG Morris Brady thought about Muhammad Ali considering that nearly a decade earlier avoided being drafted into the military due to his opposition to the war in Vietnam. General Brady was a combat veteran of both World War II and Vietnam and many other soldiers in the division would have been combat veterans of the Vietnam War as well. I would think that some of them would have had mixed feelings about Ali, but I think everyone would have appreciated Ali going so far out of his way to visit with US troops at Camp Casey.
More pictures from Ali’s visit to Camp Casey can be viewed at the Stars & Stripes picture archive.
Interestingly enough I could not find any other visit by Ali to South Korea besides his 1976 trip, however I did find out that he visited North Korea in 1995. Ali joined a contingent of professional wrestlers that put on a show in Pyongyang. This has to be one of the strangest events ever held in North Korea because 1995 was the height of the famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people in North Korea and here the Kim Jong-il regime was using resources to host the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) to execute the event they called “The Collision In Korea“.
What must the crowd have been thinking seeing these enormous wrestlers flying around the ring? The wrestlers put on two shows over two nights that drew an estimated audience of 380,000 spectators. The only picture of Muhammad Ali that I could find from his 1995 visit to North Korea was from the Myspace page of professional wrester Scott Norton who was on the trip with Ali to North Korea:
Professional wrestler “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair was one of the people who traveled to North Korea on this wrestling tour and he had an exhibition match against Antonio Inoki, the same professional wrestler from Japan that Ali scrimmaged against before traveling to Korea in 1976. This match drew 190,000 people and is believed to be the largest crowd to witness a professional wrestling event ever. In his autobiography Ric Flair recounts his trip to Pyongyang as being extremely eerie. Here is an excerpt from his book that recounts that despite having Parkinson’s disease Muhammad Ali still hadn’t lost his wit:
Because of the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, it was difficult to understand Muhammad Ali when he spoke. But at one function, we were sitting at a big, round table with a group of North Korean luminaries when one of the guys started rambling on about the moral superiority of North Korea, and how they could take out the United States or Japan any time they wanted. Suddenly, Ali piped up, clear as a bell, “No wonder we hate these motherf*ckers.”
My hair practically stood up on my head. “Oh, sh*t,” I whispered, “don’t start talking now.”
Muhammad Ali was famous for speaking his mind and this has to be one of the best stories about when Ali spoke up publicly what many people were thinking. Despite only visiting the Korean peninsula twice Muhammad Ali definitely left an impression that probably no other celebrity to visit the peninsula has ever made.