Being a child of the 1980s, I never lived through an Ali fight. By the time I was aware of such things, Muhammed Ali was already much like a Che Guevara or an Elvis Presley by which I mean the legendary persona was already starting to fall into place in our language and mindset in a way that was practically set in stone. Ali had already reached a level of an unquestioned place in our society that the myth of the great Ali was far more real to us than any factual account.
The story is simple; a speedy and tactical fighter he became the greatest boxer of all time, beating opponents with his brash wit, sharp tongue and cunning mind as much as he did with his fists, becoming a hero in boxing, a hero in terms of sheer personality and all within the background of the civil rights movement. Returning to the idea of Ali as an older, sceptical fight fan, I wanted to learn more and test the myth. Having already read the compelling, yet pretty wild and speculative take on Sonny Liston’s career in Nick Tosches’ “Night Train”, I wanted to find out how much of the myth was real. Ali called himself the Greatest but should we agree?
Reading “Facing Ali” surpassed my expectations about examining this myth by telling his story not from Ali’s camp’s perspective but through the eyes of his opponents. This is a “man-behind-the-curtain”, backstage look at boxing that discards the easy myths of the macho grudge matches and looks not only at the matchmaking decisions but also how the opponents viewed him. Boxing is not a league sport where every team can face every other team every season, the limited number of matches each boxer can have in their career means that boxing can be very political in who gets a shot and who does not. Fighters can’t just prove themselves the greatest; they have to campaign in both the war-like and political meanings of that word.
The book is very much about Ali’s decisions in who to fight and how to build the myth. This patchwork of opponent’s perspectives gives us the views of boxers who came in to fight Ali as equals, underdogs with bite and underdogs who were happy just to be in the ring with the champion. Ali’s camp, like any camp, had to play this game like a gambler; who to fight and when, how to mix in legitimate challengers with “rest” fights and how to enhance reputation with less risk before stepping in with the real challengers. This backstage glimpse at the political nature of boxing could sap the glory from the Ali story but if anything it enhances it. Ali made his name early with wins against Liston but having lost his heavyweight title and precious years of his prime to prison over the conscientious objection to Vietnam, he was forced to play catch-up for his career. It’s clear that playing against this disadvantage was an iron-clad drive to prove his claims.
Ali had made bold claims to get the shot against Liston for the title, to return to mediocrity was never acceptable. Ali’s skill and drive, his stinging rhymes and his constant tactical re-invention of his style as he got older provided one element of the myth but the toughness of his opponents provided the other part. Ali’s legend is the opposite of Mike Tyson’s. Tyson is seen as a limited but unstoppable fighter who destroyed everyone in his path until (depending on your opinion) he lost his hunger or he faced opponents with the skill to keep him at arm’s length. Ali conversely was a fighter who at times seemed vulnerable but usually won through on technique and the ability to vary that technique. Rather than being unstoppable, it was his opponents who were seen that way; namely Sonny Liston, George Forman, Joe Frazier and Earnie Shavers. Perhaps it is the difference between Ali’s career and others in that the great rivals of Ali’s era were legitimate legends in their own right. Perhaps tellingly, the only man who walks away from the Ali experience with a burning grudge is Joe Frazier, perhaps because there is no scientific measuring stick by which you could say that Ali’s career is better than Frazier’s (Ali beat Frazier 2-1 in their trilogy but the final fight was the brutal “Thrilla in Manila” during which Frazier’s corner beat Ali’s in the race to throw in the towel when both men were finished), except by the charisma and celebrity that one man earned and the other didn’t. Foreman feels no grudge towards Ali but scarcely needed to, having added to his legacy during his many comebacks during the next era of heavyweight boxing.
So yes, at times, Ali’s team sought to give Ali “easier” fights between the brutal, grinding performances against the power houses of the era (as almost all champions do) but the surprising element is how hard this was to do. Henry Cooper was outmatched but still managed to score a knock down with his famous left hook. Karl Mildenberger gave Ali stylistic trouble with his southpaw style and was able to land body shots. Ken Norton managed to beat Ali on a decision after breaking his jaw (albeit a loss twice avenged in rematches). Chuck Wepner’s brave loss was the real Rocky story, inspiring the film. What is clear that Ali’s reputation is not diminished by these difficulties but enhanced by them. You could never claim that Ali was able to dominate for lack of tough and skilled challengers; quite conversely Ali could not escape from tough matchups. Clearly the heavyweight division was swimming with all kind of sharks and (in Liston, Patterson, Foreman, Frazier and Shavers) some terrifying great whites.
The book interviews each of the opponents and how, with hindsight, so much of their years of hard work and culmination of their careers is filtered through the light of the Ali story. For the small-timers, their memories of fighting Ali make them local heroes with stories to dine out on forever. For others, fighting Ali is like a jewel in a crown, proof for those who are partially forgotten that once they were relevant, feared and respected. For some like Frazier and Norton, fighting Ali is a terrible “what if” moment. If they had only managed to come out on top of their respective trilogies, could they have had the fame that Ali had?
In interviewing these men, Brunt gets to the heart of boxing, which is the story of men so desperate to find a way to make money that they are willing to fight in the ring. Their stories are often tragic and handled with compassion, even as Brunt treats his dissections of their careers with a distanced, sometimes critical evaluation. The message is clear that these boxers pitted against each other share so much more in common with each other than they do anyone else, that there is no legend based on one man – they all fed into this legend and are all part of it. Then of course, the limelight fades and these men have to abandon thoughts of heroism and get on with the rest of their lives. Brunt is sympathetic to their post boxing lives, often business schemes aimed at recapturing some of that glory in some way, prolonging the fame or finding some other way to make money fast; the whole world still lived at the pace of a training camp and with an eye to a big prize.
So Ali was great – a great champion in a great era – but was he the greatest? Was he greater than Frazier? Was he greater than the champions of other eras? The point of the book is that at any given point all of these men worked hard to be dangerous. To truly understand boxing is to understand that you cannot freeze the best moments of one of them and say that this is the greatest and this is not. The craft of boxing we see in the ring is the tip of an iceberg of training and fighting across gyms and camps. Boxing is a series of encounters that are often chance and even when decisive are not necessarily definitive – and yet the record only records a win or a loss, not a near win or a good effort, just L or W.
Ali was indisputably iconic; the rhyming and sound bites, the islam, the conscientious objection, the dancing style. All of this grabbed the attention and the skills which made him the champion that he was backed up everything he said. In many sense, all those Ls and Ws do is to make a narrative and Ali was all about writing his own narratives, casting opponents as racists and bullies prior to a fight and offering them respect and kind words afterwards when the boxing record was set.
Most of Ali’s opponents see all too clearly was what mattered was the legend Ali was able to create in his own lifetime and the longer he continued to be at the top and the longer he won, the brighter it illuminated all of them and added to their own legends too. Yes, this was part skill and part character but it was magnificent. Such is clear by looking not directly at the man but also on the effect he had on how each of his opponents is remembered. So was Ali the greatest? Undoubtedly for that reason. Does that mean he was greater than Frazier, than Marciano, than Tyson, than Larry Holmes or Joe Louis? That’s a different question entirely and frankly, much less important.