Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs In

Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs In

by 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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Brunt provides penetrating and honest profiles of 15 fighters from around the world who faced Muhammad Ali, and he produces a book that should become one of the essential works for understanding the legendary fighter. Brunt's subjects range in chronological order from Tunney Hunsaker, the first man to fight Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) as a professional, to Larry Holmes, whose crushing victory in Ali's fourth comeback showed that the champion's career was truly finished. In between, Brunt (columnist for Toronto's Globe and Mail) offers bracing new looks at Ali's well-known opponents, including Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman. Some of Brunt's best portraits, however, bring to life those "extremely unlikely tales, longshots, no-hopers, fighters lifted out of obscurity for their date with the most famous man on earth," such as Germany's Jurgen Blin, who fought Ali and the next day "was back at work at the sausage factory." Although each story varies, Brunt is amazingly sensitive to and respectful of each fighter's own words, no matter how factually wrong or self-serving they might be. He deftly illustrates how all the fighters to some degree believe that, as Jean Pierre Coopman says, "The Ali fight was the defining moment of my career," although this feeling is ironic for some, such as George Chuvalo, who despite his winning record became better known in his native Canada for going the distance with Ali and losing. Others are bitter, such as Joe Frazier, who views Ali's current Parkinson's disease unsympathetically; as Brunt cannily observes, "on the cosmic scale, [Frazier's] getting even." (May) Forecast: Facing Ali should be as coveted as other recent popular works on Ali to which it compares favorably, such as David Remnick's King of the World and Mark Kram's Ghosts of Manila. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
"Brunt knows the sport of boxing cold and has given a voice to those whose customary mode of expression is their fists."--Quill & Quire, Canada's Magazine of Book News and Reviews
Library Journal
In the never-ending saga of Muhammad Ali, it has been the fate of those who faced him in the ring, even those who had claims to greatness themselves, to be relegated to the role of foil. Here Canadian sportswriter Brunt speaks in depth with 15 of Ali's opponents. There are the big names (Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Norton) and, ultimately more interesting, lesser lights from Cooper and Shavers on down to Coopman and Hunsaker. Brunt does an excellent job of bringing his subjects out of the shadow of the Greatest, recounting their often poignant tales of life before and after their dates with the champ. In the end, of course, we learn more about Ali. His foes offer some purely technical observations, e.g., he was not above employing less than ethical tactics in the ring, and his hand speed did not equal that of Floyd Patterson. Yet with a couple of not surprising exceptions, what stands out is their almost unanimous expression of affection for Ali. A worthy addition to any boxing collection.-Jim Burns, Jacksonville P.L., FL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Canadian sportswriter Brunt fills in the background as boxers tell of their experiences in the ring with Muhammad Ali. "In boxing, as in everything else, only one side of the story tends to be told," writes Brunt, and when that story involved Ali, one voice was certainly heard above the others. So the journalist takes it as his task to tell Ali's opponents' stories: how they felt about facing him, and how these fights altered the course of their careers. The writing is hard and ungussied, much like the men. Some of them, like dementia-afflicted Tunney Hunsaker, can't speak much, and other significant opponents have been permanently silenced. (Readers will regret the absence of Sonny Liston, whose death left two unanswered questions that nag at every fight fan: What was on his gloves that blinded Ali? And did he dive in their second fight?) But Sir Henry Cooper makes some bright quips, and Joe Frazier vivifies his antipathy to Ali: "Lord . . . I want you to help me kill that scamboogah," Frazier would pray. More than one boxer knew he was in way over his head. Brian London says, "I gave me best for two or three rounds. But then I realized that I was going to get one hell of a hiding." According to Jean-Pierre Coopman, "It was never a question of winning or losing. Just surviving." Chuck Wepner, later immortalized as Rocky, tells the funniest story. He had bought his wife a negligee the day of the fight, announcing with swagger, "tonight you're going to be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world." When he shuffled in after the pulping he received, she asked, "Do I go to Ali's room? Or does he come to mine?" George Foreman, always the canny operator, understood well that he andmost of the other guys were financially and professionally lucky just to step into the ring with the Champ. Makes it clear that boxing sure could use an Ali today-or any day. (Photos)

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.77(w) x 8.78(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt


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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