JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Champion U.S. female boxer Laila Ali said on Tuesday that 88-year-old anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela had reminded her of her father Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time.
“He is a very humble man and there is a lot of energy in the room and I could feel his spirit,” Ali said in Johannesburg, where she is due to fight a title match next month.
“...when I am holding his hand, he is walking on his cane he reminds me so much of my own father. That same energy that I get from him. So he is like family so I am very honoured to be here today,” she told reporters after meeting Mandela.
The former South African president, himself an ex-boxer, appeared frail but exhibited his usual charm and humour, embracing Laila Ali before the cameras and teasing a photographer about his grey hair.
Asked if he gave her any boxing tips for her world super-middleweight title fight against Guyanan Gwendolyn O’Neil on February 3, the liberation hero said the ring had changed since he unlaced his gloves.
“Look I cannot advise present fighters because I was a fighter many, many, many years ago and the rules have differed so it’s better for me to keep quiet,” he said.
Muhammed Ali, 65, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the 1980s after which his motor functions declined. In a 21-year ring career, the self-proclaimed “Greatest” regained the World Championship more than 10 years after he first held it.
But Ali’s impact and influence transcended boxing. For millions of blacks and oppressed people, in the United States and around the globe, Ali came to symbolise their struggle.
Ali showed her father’s trademark confidence, saying she landed in South Africa with a winning spirit. Mandela, who is known affectionately in South Africa by his clan name “Madiba”, had given her extra inspiration, she said.
“I have already gotten the Madiba magic just being around him,” she said.
Mandela’s appearances have become increasingly rare after his announcement in 2004 that he was retiring from public life.
But the famous statesman, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his fight against apartheid, said at moments like Laila Ali’s upcoming match, he still felt like a contender.
“I will be in the fight,” he said as he slowly walked back to his office.