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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
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, getting even."