Muhammad Ali vs Zbigniew Pietrzykowski
Halina Pietrzykowska shares memories of her husband, Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, in particular his relationship with Muhammad Ali, whom he duelled for gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
The final match was held on 5 September 1960, and we watched the fight live on TV. We were one of the few families to actually own a set at the time. The first two rounds were close and Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) initially looked unsettled by Zbigniew’s style. But Ali managed to avoid trouble in the second round and finished big in the third, leaving Zbigniew on the ropes by the bell. The judges awarded Ali the victory on points. My husband immediately recognised Ali’s class and dedication, and knew that he had talent. He was only 18, eight years younger than Zbigniew, and was in better shape. Zbigniew didn’t like fitness training; in Poland he usually won by knockout or submission so he didn’t feel as though he had to focus on conditioning. But this shortcoming became apparent in a serious fight. Some people told my husband that he must have been disappointed that he didn’t win the gold, but he always replied that he was very happy with silver. He respected who he was fighting and followed Ali’s later fights. He always spoke highly of him.
We met 63 years ago. I was in 9th grade at the high school where Zbigniew’s mother worked, and he often visited his mother. One of my classmates knew Zbigniew and saw that he liked me so he introduced us. I just fell in love with him. We dated for over two years and married shortly after graduation. He was two years older than me – I wasn’t even 18! My family wanted me to put off the wedding and go to university, but his parents were very supportive and helpful. My father-in-law talked my father and sister into agreeing to the wedding. Although the boxing was brutal, he was delicate and sensitive. He was a gentle and good man.
When we met, he was training at the Stal Bielsko club. At the beginning his older brother didn’t want him to box. He said he was too puny and weak. But then he saw that Zbigniew actually had talent and told him to move to BBTS Bielsko because it was a better club. Zbigniew spent the rest of his career there. I don’t know why he specifically chose to box, but he used to say that had he not boxed, he would have played volleyball. After he retired in 1968, he worked as a coach for Bielsko,GKS Katowice and Wisła Kraków, where he coached for eight years. He was also a partner in a building materials company which I ran, and in a restaurant called Pavilion, which his friend ran.
Following a patriotic spurt, he became a member of the Sejm lower house of Polish Parliament in 1993. Like every Pole, he was interested in politics. He really enjoyed his term of office and served until 1997. It was a different parliament to today. People really wanted to fix things and to build a good country. After that, he sat on the board of the Polish Olympic Committee.
Ali and Zbigniew got on really well. In 1979 we were invited to Italy for the film festival of sport in Saint Vincent at Ali’s special request. We stayed there for over a week and Ali was really happy to see him. I only saw Ali briefly and said “hello”, but he and Zbigniew sat together in the jury of the festival and talked and joked a lot. Zbigniew really liked Ali and the feeling was mutual. In 1980, a US television channel invited Zbigniew on as a surprise to Ali, who was delighted to see him.
People often asked Zbigniew what his greatest achievement was, and he would always reply that it was his wife and two daughters, and later our four grandchildren. We were very close. Our grandchildren loved to listen to his stories and used to question him all the time about Rome and his career. And Ali remained with us, in a sense. When one of our daughters was very young, she said she wanted either a puppy or a piano, and we decided on a doberman puppy. Zbigniew insisted it was called Ali. Our beloved dog lived for 12 years. Later our grandson also wanted a dog and Zbigniew again insisted it must be a Doberman called Ali!
‘He used to say that had he not boxed, he would have played volleyball.’