Fighting “The Greatest:” Five Men Recall Their Time In The Ring With The One And Only Muhammad Ali

By James Slater: In the third and final of my “in the ring with” articles (see previous pieces on fighters who met Tyson and Foreman), I pay tribute to the man who is perhaps the greatest heavyweight of them all: three-time king Muhammad Ali.

Fortunate enough to have spoken, at one time or another, with five big names who shared a ring with Ali on at least one occasion (one of the warriors who makes up part of this article fought Ali no less than three times, in a savage, unforgettable series), these great fighters kindly recalled their time in the ring with Ali for me.

From the blindingly fast Ali of the mid 1960’s to the cagey veteran Ali of the late 1970’s, the following five men each met a different version of “The Greatest.”

1: Brian London: Ali WKO3 - August 1966, London.

Making the fifth defence of the world title he’d sensationally won from the “invincible” Sonny Liston, a 24-year-old Ali met Blackpool’s Brian London. Following on from his repeat win over another British fighter, in the form of national hero Henry Cooper, Ali was unfortunately given no test at all from the 32-year-old former British and Commonwealth champ - as London himself readily admits today.

“In all honesty, I never tried in that fight,” a brutally honest London told me a while back. “I knew I couldn’t win and I decided I wasn’t going to get myself hurt. That was a terrible fight. I decided not to get knocked to bits and I just turned it in. Ali was so fast. He wasn’t as fast as Floyd Patterson (who London had lost to in a 1959 world title challenge, being stopped in the 11th), and neither punched all that hard. But Ali was just so quick!”

2: Joe Frazier: Frazier WU15 1971, Ali WU12 1974, Ali WRTD14 1975 - New York, New York, Manila.

As fans know, Frazier and Ali took each other to hell and back three times: in fights one and three especially. Becoming the first man to beat Ali when the two met as unbeaten co-reigning heavyweight champions in March of 1971, “Smokin’” Joe naturally recalls his first meeting with Ali most fondly.

“My trainer and up close and personal friend, Yank Durham, told me, along with Eddie Futch, that if I beat Muhammad, the rest of my life would be paved for me,” Joe told me over the phone a few months back. “Yank was right. I had no problems with the world after I closed down “The Butterfly’s” lips in ’71. Ali was a guy who was shooting everybody down, disrespecting other fighters. I was busy staying in shape so I could whup his butt! But today, I have nothing against him. I ain’t mad at Eddie [Futch], either [for stopping the Thrilla after that brutal 14th-round]. Eddie was looking out for me. I feel good and I feel like I’ve been blessed. The good man above wants us all to live together, and there’s no hate between me and Ali at all.”

3: Chuck Wepner: Ali WTKO15 - March 1975, Ohio.

A legend was born the night “Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner - a 36-year-old journeyman with terribly cut-prone skin - challenged Ali in March of ’75. Watching at home, soon-to-be-famous movie actor/writer Sly Stallone watched Chuck’s gutsy effort and was moved to write “Rocky.” Becoming the first challenger during Ali’s second right as king, Wepner fought his heart out.

“Those fifteen rounds with Ali, they mean more to me than anything,” Wepner said earlier this year. “They mean ever more to me than the whole Rocky thing. Going fifteen rounds with Ali is the proudest moment of my life, what else can I say? I even had him down (in the 9th). Also, that fight was the only time in my whole career where I had the proper amount of time to train. I was in great shape!”

4: Ron Lyle: Ali WTKO11 - May 1975, Las Vegas.

In his very next fight after dealing with “Great White Hope” Wepner, the 33-year-old Ali met former convict and huge puncher Ron Lyle. The 34-year-old challenger had never been stopped and his ability had been proven with wins over the likes of Oscar Bonavena and Buster Mathis. Lyle went on to give Ali a torrid time, picking up a lead on two of the judges’ cards.

“First of all, Ali was a great fighter,” Ron told me from his gym. “All due respect to him. Skill-wise, I think I matched up to him well. I was the underdog and did I rise above that? I think I did. The Ali fight was me at my very best. Ali set the pace back then and we all had to keep up with him. I could see all his punches coming and move around them. I will always cherish that fight. (but Ron was controversially stopped by the ref in the 11th, when ahead on those two cards - does he feel the stoppage was fair?) It all boils down to opinion. The ref is there to protect the fighters. I was pinned in a corner but slipping a lot of shots. My legs were okay. Maybe the ref saved me for today, though. Maybe he saved me from taking more punishment.”

5: Earnie Shavers: Ali WU15 - September 1977, New York.

Ali was nearing the end and everyone knew it. Thus many people were somewhat alarmed when it was announced Ali, then aged 35, would be facing the lethal-hitting Shavers in what would be the tenth defence of his second reign. The alarm bells proved to be warranted, as Ali ate some serious leather in the battle. The decision was somewhat controversial, but Ali had held onto his crown yet again.

“Ali was so clever,” Shavers told me this year. “It was a fair decision [by the three judges]. He outsmarted me. It was a close fight, but he won. Ali was the best fighter I ever faced, hands down. I’m just grateful I had the chance to fight him. I realise I was part of a golden era.”

Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest” - 56-5(37). Heavyweight king from 1964-1967, 1974-1978, 1978-1979.

Article posted on 02.08.2011

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