Touched by greatness

Ali’s visit had lasting impact

A young Cline Glidden, far right, and Darnol Kelly look on as Loxley Banks questions Muhammad Ali in 1984.

As a young amateur boxer who had grown up training with a punching bag made from coconut sacks filled with sand and hung from a Logwood tree, Denward Ebanks remembers better than most the glamour of Muhammad Ali’s visit to the Cayman Islands.

“We followed him everywhere,” recalls Mr. Ebanks. He was featured in a 1984 Compass photograph, republished on Monday, shadow boxing with Ali, fixed in the glare of the champ, during an appearance at West Bay Town Hall.

Though he does not recall the picture being taken, Mr. Ebanks, who was 21 at the time, remembers the visit well. He had cause to reminisce on those moments again this week when he gathered for a family reunion at the Cayman Islands boxing gym, just days after the death of Ali, the former World Heavyweight champion, widely believed to be the greatest of all time.

“We had a moment of silence and prayer and we rang the bell at the gym 10 times in his honor,” said Mr. Ebanks, whose cousin Donie Anglin is a coach at the gym.

As young men, Mr. Ebanks remembers, the cousins were obsessed with boxing, and with Ali in particular.

“I remember walking down the dock at Rum Point, bringing fish to the beach for the tourists with my dad (Captain Marvin), and thinking to myself, I want to meet Muhammad Ali. My mind was captivated with it. I wanted to be as good a boxer and as popular as he was. I think at that time that is what I wanted more than anything in the world.”

When Ali did visit the Cayman Islands in March 1984, Mr. Ebanks was at the airport to meet him and was at every public event Ali attended. The visit lived up to his expectations.

“We met him at the airport and followed him all around Cayman and back to the airport again,” said Mr. Ebanks, now skipper of a water sports tour company.

Darnol Kelly shadow boxes with Muhammad Ali at Pappagallo’s restaurant in 1984.
Darnol Kelly shadow boxes with Muhammad Ali at Pappagallo’s restaurant in 1984.

“Ali was such a great guy, but full of humbleness,” he said. “He just wanted to be among the people. He loved the crowd, he loved to be admired, but at the same time he was so accommodating with everyone. He felt like part of the family in Cayman.”

At the time, Darnol Kelly, now the owner of Hardware Express in West Bay, was just 9 years old and a talented junior boxer. He remembers being pulled out of school for a meeting with the champ.

“The teacher told me, ‘Comb your hair because Muhammad Ali wants to meet you,’” he remembered this week.

When Ali, during his visit, suggested “the future champion just could come from your island,” it was Kelly he had in mind.

“I always said I was going to be Cayman’s first professional boxer. I think they had high hopes for me,” said Mr. Kelly, who sparred with Ali on several occasions during his visit.

“It had a huge impact on me, just to meet him,” he said.

“It meant even more when I got older and I realized just how big he was and how he stood up to racism and spoke his mind.”

Cline Glidden, who went on to become a member of the Legislative Assembly, was 18 when Ali came to town. He was already heavily involved in the community and was given the job of driving Ali around in his Lincoln Continental.

“For me, it was great to see a legend and spend time with him,” Mr. Glidden said. “I actually got to spend quite a lot of private time with him and hear his views on the world and what was going on in Cayman. He loved it here, he loved the people. He did his public appearances and he would come and hang out.”

Mr. Glidden was asked to help out by the organizers of the visit, Peter Fidele, a developer who built Pappagallo’s restaurant, and Dalmain Ebanks, founder of the Cayman Islands Boxing Association.

He said Ali was down to earth and very keen to help the young local boxers develop.

Mr. Glidden describes Ali as a “giant of a man” on the world stage, who deserves all the accolades that came his way.

Ali visited Cayman on March 22, 1984, and attended a slate of boxing matches featuring fighters from Cayman and Barbados the following night. He returned days later for a press conference to announce that a title fight featuring Eddie Mustafa Muhammad would be held later in the year in Cayman. He said the return visit and announcement was intended as a “compliment to the people of the Cayman Islands who extended such a warm and friendly welcome.”