In May 1978, Moscow was preparing for 1980 Summer Olympics. The Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Dobrynin proposed to invite the famous athlete and world boxing champion Muhammad Ali, to the Soviet Union. Dobrynin’s proposal was supported and in June, 1978, Muhammad Ali arrived in Moscow, along with his wife, coach-manager and his lawyer.
Ali, who converted to the Muslim faith, expressed a desire to visit Uzbekistan; the Soviet republic, mostly populated by Muslims. Hospitable Uzbeks in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara greeted guests with an abundant tables filled with cherries, sherbets, appetizers, risotto local dishes and of course, with wine and brandy. Usually, Mohamed did not eat much, but this time he could not resist. Later, in Moscow, he admitted, that he gained over eight pounds of weight after his trip to Tashkent.
The guests returned to Moscow pretty tired, but Ali announced that he would like to meet with Soviet heavyweight boxers. The meeting was quickly organized and fights took place. The hype was enormous, but tickets were not sold, admission was by invitation only.
Then, Ali was invited to the Kremlin to meet Leonid Brezhnev. The meeting lasted around 15-20 minutes. Ali came out from the meeting with the gifted watches on his wrist and was holding “The Small Land” book in hand.
“I’m very impressed by a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev. I find it hard to find the words… I am a simple American boxer, but I was honored to meet Mr. Brezhnev. I used to hear that the Russians are always threatening Americans, but I am convinced that this is not true. Brezhnev is a supporter of world peace”. Leonid Brezhnev, who during the WW2 fought against Nazis, gave Ali the book “The small land”. Ali called this gift “the best in his life”. “I’ll ask my friend Soviet Ambassador to the USA Dobrynin to translate this book for me”, Ali told reporters.
At a press conference, Ali stated:
“It’s hard to believe, that such a peaceful country wants war. And Brezhnev, I never thought he was such a quiet and calm person. It is difficult to imagine that he can be the person who would start a war. I have not seen a hitchhiker on the road, and I have not seen a single beggar on the streets of Soviet Russia. I had never felt so safe: no risk of being robbed. I was told that there is no freedom of religion in the Soviet Union, but Muslims, Christians and Jews worship freely here. I think the relationship between our people is bad just because of false propaganda”.
American boxer showed to the audience the book autographed and presented to him by Leonid Brezhnev and watches, with a personalized inscription.
On June 21st, Ali returned to New York by “Aeroflot” airlines. At a press conference he said:
“I was a little nervous when I landed in Russia. I thought I’d see the country in ruins, with a crowd of gloomy people who think like robots, and intelligence agents, who would follow my every step. Instead, I saw a country populated by a hundred nationalities, who are living together in harmony. I saw only one policeman, who was carrying no weapons. There is no crime, no prostitutes and no homosexuals.”
– via dubikvit.livejournal.com More info: Charles Bierbauer, recalls Ali’s trip to Soviet Union. Bierbauer is a former national news correspondent & the current Dean of USC’s College of Mass Communication and Information Studies.