Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs Inby Stephen Brunt
Muhammad Ali cast a blinding light on his sport, on the tumultuous times in which he reigned as champion, and on all the people who surrounded him, including the fighters brave enough to stand alone, across the ring from the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Ali's own story has been told repeatedly, but the stories of those who faced him have been mostly ignored. For each, the moments alone in the ring with Ali changed their lives. Facing Ali tells the stories, in the fighters' own words, of fifteen men from around the world, from famous names like Joe Frazier. George Foreman, and Henry Cooper, to lesser lights like Tunney Hunsaker and Jurgen Blin and George Chuvalo. Facing Ali offers a unique perspective on what it was like to fight Ali, and gives new insights into the character of a man who is arguably the most recognized celebrity on the planet.
- Knopf Canada
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- 5.77(w) x 8.78(h) x 1.06(d)
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SECONDS OUT: INTRODUCTION
Several years back, a former champion of the world began his comeback in humble surroundings. He certainly wasn't a great fighter -- more a creation of promotional and managerial smarts than anything else -- but still, he'd known better places than Lulu's, once, in an earlier life, a discount department store. Now it was billed as the world's biggest nightclub, an enormous place containing several different bars and featuring musical acts from the fringes of the nostalgic imagination. The mystery of whatever happened to so-and-so, a one-hit wonder from the mid-1960s, was often solved when his name appeared on the marquee.
But staging a fight at Lulu's was more of a risk than bringing in Mitch Ryder or Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and so even with a big name on the bill, the crowd was limited to a few hundred zealots, huddled together in one corner of the vast floor space. Those who were hip to the ways of boxing understood that a classic probably wasn't in the cards. Though the glamour boy's name was still worth money in the pugilistic economy, he needed a confidence builder. So his opponent would be chosen purely for his unthreatening nature, a career loser, a tomato can, an afterthought. His list of credits mattered not at all, since his role was entirely supporting. He would show up, act like a boxer, ideally put up a bit of a struggle and then be knocked out and forgotten -- on his way out of town before the star had even begun discussing his bright future with the attending sportswriters.
The opponent came from one of those places that seem to spawn them -- West Virginia, or Ohio, or Kentucky -- and he played his role toperfection. The ex-champion looked terrific, landing all his punches at will, while the man standing opposite him would get credit for bravery, and perhaps for masochism, until finally he surrendered. Then, just as the boys in the ringside-press section were wrapping up that neat, familiar little story, the man who had been working the opponent's corner, a friend from way back where, walked out and confronted them. "You're going to say he's a bum, aren't you? You're going to write that he's a stiff." The friend went on to tell the fighter's story, how he was a tough guy from a tough town, where he had grown up without advantages, who had fought because he had to, and always gave an honest effort, never taking an out-and-out dive. Before coming here, his wife had left him. Still, he got in the car for the long, long drive and the minuscule pay, all in the interests of the man standing opposite him in the ring, who had made the kind of money an "opponent" could only dream of.
"Just wanted you to know that," the friend, a true friend, said before he walked away.
This exchange drives home an important point that I have never forgotten. In boxing, in everything else, only one side of the story tends to be told. Occasionally two great fighters collide, each bringing with them some grist for the mill. But far more often, the script calls for a meeting of a star and a secondary character, the latter disposable unless he somehow achieves the impossible, unless he breaks out of his assigned role and makes a real fight out of it -- unless, by some miracle, he wins.
Without question, there has been no greater star in the history of the sport than Muhammad Ali. Even before he won the heavyweight championship of the world with an unthinkable upset of Sonny Liston in Miami Beach in 1964, he had shown that he had the makings of a very different kind of athletic celebrity, his act drawn in equal parts from Sugar Ray Robinson and the professional wrestler Gorgeous George. Once Ali proved that he could back up the talk, back up the boasts, with a unique and overwhelming talent, he stepped immediately to the forefront of boxing. Once he became a political figure, both by design and by accident, his fame outstripped that not just of any other fighter, but of any other athlete. Ali's celebrity stretched far beyond the boundaries of his game. He was for the better part of his career, and for some years after, the most famous human being on the planet, period.
Anyone who lived through even a portion of Ali's twenty years in the spotlight couldn't help but be entertained or enraged, insulted or inspired. The delineations, by and large, were generational. My father was born when Jess Willard (the man who beat Jack Johnson and would lose to Jack Dempsey) was the heavyweight champion of the world, and as a fight aficionado, idolized two of the greatest of all time: Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Each, in his own way, was every bit as revolutionary as Ali. Louis became the first African-American athlete to be regarded as a purely heroic figure by fans black and white. He achieved that status through his boxing skill and through a convergence of sporting and world events that culminated in his knockout victory over Max Schmeling, the symbol of Nazi Germany, in 1938. Louis joined the army, where he fought for benefits for the armed forces (and ironically, because of the taxes unpaid from those benefits, was driven to financial ruin by the same United States government that he'd served so well). When Ali arrived on the scene, at another moment when sports and world events would come together, many -- including my father -- couldn't help but compare him unfavourably with the man who had done his duty to his country, and who had said, "God is on our side."
Robinson was admired both because of his remarkable skills, and because of his style, his flamboyance, his panache. He travelled with an entourage, retired from boxing for a time to become a professional tap dancer, and owned businesses that filled an entire block in Harlem. There couldn't have been a Muhammad Ali if there hadn't been a Sugar Ray. But while he was a different, more modern breed of professional athlete, nothing about him shook the larger status quo. Those who lived for the Friday night fights could worship him without reservation.
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