CAMP CASEY, South Korea -- When three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali died last month at age 74, admirers the world over looked back on the career of "The Greatest" and some of his most memorable fights.
There was his 1964 upset victory over Sonny Liston, giving him his first heavyweight title; later, The Fight of the Century, The Rumble in the Jungle, The Thrilla in Manila. But for Soldiers who were stationed here in Warrior Country 40 years ago, news of Ali's death may well have stirred anew their memories of an event that over the years has been all but forgotten: Ali's visit with the Soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division on Camp Casey in Dongducheon on Sunday, June 29, 1976. Ali was 34.
The visit was part of a three-day trip Ali made to Korea. Upon his arrival earlier that day, according to wire service accounts, adoring crowds thronged his three-mile motorcade route from Kimpo Airport to Seoul's City Hall plaza. Before heading to Dongducheon, Ali spoke at a news conference in Seoul.
"I've many American brothers over here, black and white, who fight for the freedom of the world and are doing a job we can't pay them for," Ali told reporters, according to a United Press International report on the visit. "I am a fighter myself, and I realize how lonely it is when you're in combat, how lonely you are in training."
After the news conference, Ali was driven north to Camp Casey, 12 miles below the Demilitarized Zone that still today divides Korea.
For Ali's visit, the division gathered 2,500 Soldiers at the post's Schoonover Bowl stadium. Waiting with them for Ali's arrival was the division's then-Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Morris J. Brady. But Ali was delayed by more than an hour because of his exuberant welcome in Seoul, according to an Associated Press account of the visit.
Once at Camp Casey, Ali gave a 20-minute speech. Then came the exhibition rounds, according to the AP report.
The day before, he'd fought a controversial 15-round match in Tokyo with a professional Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki. Ali got $6 million for the match, and he had thrown about six punches.
"One million dollars a punch," Ali told the troops at Schoonover Bowl, according to the AP report. "And you are going to see hundreds of punches for nothing."
"All right, fellows," he then said. "Do you have any boxers out here?"
A 202-pound Soldier, Specialist Fourth Class Gerald Noble, 28, came forward. He'd been a Michigan State heavyweight champion in 1967, the AP story said.
They'd do a five-minute round.
According to the AP, "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." The crowd booed.
At one point, Ali forced Noble into a corner, then with his right fist patted Noble on the seat of the pants, the AP story said. After the fight Ali said Noble was one of the best men he'd fought.
Next up to challenge Ali was a welterweight, 149-pound Pfc. Larry D. Rice, 20.
Ali, according to the AP account, "faked being knocked down twice in a five-minute round...drawing big cheers from the crowd. In the end, however, it was Rice who became exhausted and gave up."
After the fight, the division commander gave Ali a division souvenir sweater, the AP reported.
The AP story noted that "Second to None" is the division's motto, and quoted one enlisted Soldier as saying, "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."
Soldiers who today currently serve at Camp Casey voiced surprise on hearing of Ali's long-ago visit.
"It's a little shocking," said Pfc. Ruben Valentin, 22, a military police officer with the 55th Military Police Company. "Because someone like that, you wouldn't expect that he would be able to come here."
"I would feel like that's a huge morale booster. Especially being here, away from family and like that. So, I can only imagine. He inspired a lot of people. He was a lot of people's idol."
Pvt. Alexis Harris, 20, an air defense artillery crew member with Battery E, 6th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, had a similar reaction. "I would never have thought he'd come here. A big name. Muhammad Ali? He's a legend. He's like one of the great boxers to have lived. That would have been something really nice to see."