They won, they lost, they were scorned or cheered, but they got in the ring with the champ. Muhammad Ali through the stories of 15 of his opponents — an incredible cross-section that reveals Ali as never before.
Every fighter who got into the ring with Ali shone brighter as a result; no life or career could be the same afterwards. Stephen Brunt, Canada’s most respected sports writer, has travelled to meet the men who fought Ali, opening a new perspective on the most famous man on the planet. They include great champions and “tomato cans”, no-hopers and a few men who beat Ali; by turns triumphant and tragic, hilarious, uplifting and angry, each tells a different story.
Brunt speaks to men like Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes, who remember their titanic bouts with Ali with love and rancour. In 1963 Henry Cooper’s perfect left hook floored Ali — but he was saved by the bell and some ringside shenanigans. Cooper’s moment still helped make “ ’Ammerin’ ’Enry” into Sir Henry Cooper, while the little-known Jurgen Blin returned from facing Ali in Zurich straight to his job at a sausage factory.
The men he fought can tell us about Ali the boxer as no-one else can. But they also saw Ali invent himself as a media personality before such a thing existed. They were there when Ali’s personality and courage, his controversial beliefs and his refusal to play the parts assigned to him, indelibly changed the United States and the world. Stephen Brunt has fashioned their stories into an engaging portrait of the man who remains a phenomenon.
“That night I could have beaten Godzilla. I was that sure of myself. And in that kind of shape, I could have fought for fifty rounds, easy. I was just so cocky at that point. I knew before the bell rang, in my head and in my camp, that I was going to win the fight. . . . After the decision was announced, I went right to Howard Cosell and said, ‘What do you say now, Howard?’” -- Ken Norton
“When Ali was down, I remember saying to my ringman Al Braverman, ‘Start the car, we’re going to the bank, we’re millionaires.’ And Al said, ‘You’d better turn around. Because he’s getting up, and he looks pissed off.’” -- Chuck Wepner
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
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 to perfection. 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
Stephen Brunt is Canada’s premier sports writer and commentator. He began to write for the sports section of The Globe and Mail in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. In 1991 he took his children to meet Muhammad Ali at the legendary fighter’s home, and was nominated for the National Newspaper Award for his account of that visit. Brunt is also the author of Mean Business: The Rise and Fall of Shawn O’Sullivan, Second to None: The Roberto Alomar Story, and Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, where he lives now with his family.close this panel
“... makes for riveting reading.” -- Kitchener-Waterloo Record
“Just when you thought there were no new angles to be mined with the Muhammad Ali story, one of Canada’s best sportswriters comes up with an idea that is so splendid in its simplicity -- what did Ali’s opponents think of him? -- that sportswriters everywhere are punching themselves for not thinking of it first. [Brunt] delves into the often brutish, punch-drunk worlds of Chuvalo, Cooper, Bugner, Norton et al to show how their lives were changed forever by entering the ring with Ali.” – Cleve Dheensaw, Times Colonist
“Brunt reveals a deep respect for the men who ply the bruising trade of prizefighting. [Facing Ali] is a winner.” -- The Kingston Whig-Standard
“In Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs In, Stephen Brunt has found a refreshing and revealing entrance into the storehouse of myth and lore that has grown up around The Champ. In examining the stories of 15 fighters who traded punches with the former Cassius Clay, Globe and Mail columnist Brunt goes the distance in a brand new direction, scoring a unanimous decision.” --The Toronto Star
“A fascinating, well-researched and sometimes deeply sad book. You needn’t be a boxing nut to enjoy this rogue’s gallery…. Facing Ali offers some swift, hard jabs by one of our country’s best sportswriters, one who knows boxing and, more importantly, the frailty that goes with human pride. Stephen Brunt takes us for a rare and sometimes painful sit in the loser’s corner, where, as all observers of tragedy know, the most revealing stories take place.” -- Andrew Pyper, Ottawa Citizen
“Mandatory reading, [for] any age: Stephen Brunt’s latest book, Facing Ali, [is] an eloquent and elegant journey through the lives of those who fought Muhammad Ali....” -- The Toronto Sun
“In his book Facing Ali, Stephen Brunt’s method of revealing the human story is as rich as it is simple. By interviewing 15 prize fighters who entered the ring against Muhammad Ali, Brunt illuminates how these people were affected, and paints a composite portrait of the man at the centre of it all. The 15 stories in Facing Ali are elicited with a respect and appreciation that is simply too rare in sports reporting these days. Boxing desperately needs more coverage that combines Brunt’s technical knowledge with his writerly interest in those human stories upon which all prize fighting is based.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Stephen Brunt, besides being one of the best sportswriters out there, is absolutely at the top of his game when it comes to boxing…. What’s better than a week of Brunt writing on boxing could only be a book, and here’s his Facing Ali…. Facing Ali is fresh; there’s much here that’s new.… For a deadly dose of Ali, his times, his travails, Facing Ali is a KO.” -- The Hamilton Spectator
“The real appeal of this book…is in learning how these men have coped with life’s travails outside the squared circle…. Brunt reveals a deep respect for the men who ply the bruising trade of prizefighting…. It tolls a 10-count over the hoary stereotype of boxers as crude, one-dimensional louts. It is a winner.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)
“Among the many admirable qualities of Stephen Brunt’s Facing Ali is its concept…. Facing Ali is rich in boxing lore and is often laugh-out-loud funny…. Facing Ali is a work of wit and insight. It goes the distance.” -- The Vancouver Sun
"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." -- Library Journal
"Between the perspectives on Ali and the witty, elegant retelling of the 15 fighters' lives, this is a must for boxing fans." -- Booklist, starred review
"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 is amazingly sensitive to and respectful of each fighter's own words, no matter how factually wrong or self-serving they might be. 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." -- Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A compelling read.... As with Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe, barely a year can now go by without a new biography of the boxer Muhammed Ali. Thankfully, Canadian journalist Stephen Brunt comes at the subject from a new angle, providing pen portraits and testimonies from 15 of the professionals who fought him." -- Sunday Telegraph
"Stephen Brunt…has been astute enough to realise that the testimony of these 15 brave souls offers a truer picture of Ali than any biographer ever could. All of their lives were changed as a result of meeting Ali, for the better mostly, and for the worse. Some have told their stories many times, as a way of extending their own celebrity, and some, until now, have been waiting for the chance. An enthralling read." -- Birmingham Post
Advance Praise for Facing Ali:
“History is written by the winners. It’s one of the truisms of war, commerce, and sports. But what is made clear in … Facing Ali, is that the stories of the losers are often just as compelling, sometimes more so…. Brunt knows the sport of boxing cold [and] has given a voice to those whose customary mode of expression is their fists…. There is little that is sweet about the so-called Sweet Science -- it’s more like a 15-round car accident. But try as we might, many of us just can’t resist taking a peek at the carnage. Facing Ali is equally hard to turn away from.” -- Quill & Quire
“Stephen Brunt is one of the very best chroniclers of the sweet science. Facing Ali offers a fresh and original look at one of sport’s great icons through the eyes of his adversaries -worthy and otherwise. Going fifteen rounds with Brunt and his incredible cast of characters makes this book a top contender amidst the vast Ali library.” -- Chris Cuthbert, author of The Rink
“Nine-tenths of sporting history (like all human history) is the annals of forgotten stars, also-rans, and never-weres -- journeymen and women. In this affecting book, Stephen Brunt allows some of these receding figures to step forward and fill in the gaps. The result captivates through the full fifteen chapters.” -- Steven Heighton, author of The Shadow Boxer
“Just when you think that everything about Muhammad Ali and his career has been written, re-written and overwritten, along comes Stephen Brunt to give us a valuable new perspective to the Ali story in this extraordinary look at the parties of the second part: his opponents. Facing Ali has ‘winner’ written all over it. And through it.” -- Bert Sugar, co-author of Sting Like a Bee and former editor and publisher of Ring Magazine
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel