Sunday, June 19, 2016

When The Greatest Came To Mallorca

Mallorca cannot count on having a long roll call of famous boxers. There was, though, Young Martí, born Gregori Vidal Vidal in Palma in 1908. By the age of 18 he was fighting in London, and three years later fought for the world bantamweight crown in New York, unluckily losing because he was impeded by an injury to his nose that he had suffered in his previous fight. In 1932 he became Spanish bantamweight champion by beating Carlos Flix in what was a fierce fight.

He took his name from one José Martí, who had a boxing gym in Marseille, and it was there that Young Martí was to learn all about boxing. So, there hadn't really been a boxing tradition on the island at that time. It wasn't to truly emerge until the second half of the century, and a principal reason for a rise in its popularity was the opening of the Gimnasio Baleares by a businessman, Jaume Planas Ferrer, in 1945.

This gym was to produce amateur champions at national level, some of whom were to turn professional. Some key names included Martin Antich and Jim Oliver. Despite his name, the latter of these was Mallorcan (his name was in fact Jaume). He fought at the 1948 Olympics but had no success as a professional and so turned instead to wrestling, becoming a Spanish champion in 1951.

Regular Tuesday evening boxing events were staged at the Teatro Balear, while a German promoter, Hans Hesse, put on boxing contests at the Fronton Balear, once upon a time considered to have been one of the finest of sporting venues (it had been opened in 1935). It was to be the venue for the Spanish amateur championships in 1968.

Boxing, by the seventies therefore, was pretty popular in Mallorca, but it was to be a boxer who came to only fight an exhibition who was to provide what were arguably the greatest moments in Mallorca's boxing history. Who else could it have been than The Greatest himself: Muhammad Ali.

It was 12 June, 1979 when Ali arrived at Palma's Son Sant Joan airport. He stayed at the Hotel Valparaíso, then and now one of Palma's finest establishments. It was the year after he had regained the WBA title from Leon Spinks and the year before Larry Holmes defeated him in his penultimate professional fight. It was also a time when Ali had his share of financial problems. One solution to these was to take part in promotional tours.

And so a group of Mallorcan businessmen hit on the idea of Ali being among the attractions (being the main attraction) for the opening of the Casino Sporting Club (the Casino as was in Sol de Mallorca). Its restaurant - the Gala Mallorca - was to be the venue for a spectacular dinner and show on behalf of the Spanish Association for the Fight Against Cancer. Ali topped a bill which otherwise contained names that were not greatly known: Freddy's Angels Ballet, for example. They were appearing in what brought the night to a close, a performance of the musical "Over The Rainbow". Among celebrities that night was the former Wimbledon champion, Manuel Santana.

The promotion for this event was intriguing to say the least. One advert said that you could be witness to the final combat in the history of Muhammad Ali: there was a boxing exhibition of five two-minute rounds against Jimmy Ellis, who was a couple of years older than Ali, had retired in 1975 and wore a headguard for their bout. The first three rounds were, journalists reported, something of a parody, though Ali was to show greater aggression in the final two.

The visit to Mallorca was notable for what was to be the advance announcement of his retirement. At the press conference in the Valparaíso, in addition to playing the drums and the piano, he announced that it was "goodbye to the world". He said that old age and death come to all men and that for an athlete of 37 years of age, there is a time to realise that things are not like they once were. That announcement was to be made official two weeks later in Los Angeles. Fifteen months later, he was back in the ring against Larry Holmes.

For his appearance, it was said that Ali was paid four and a half million pesetas (something over 27,000 euros).

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