Review: 'Facing Ali' is entertaining boxing book

09.01.06 - by MIKE DUNN: I happened to come across the book "Facing Ali" at a neighborhood book store recently and purchased a copy. The book was written by Stephen Brunt in 2002 and published by The Lyons Press.

The premise of the book is what grabbed my attention. Brunt tracked down and interviewed 15 of Ali's opponents and shared what it was like to face the man and the legend in the ring. The result is quite entertaining.

Brunt presents his interviews in chronological order, starting with Ali's very first professional foe, Tunney Hunsaker of Fayetteville, West Virginia. The first five chapters are devoted to Ali's early career extending through his first reign as champion (1960-67). Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo, Brian London and Karl Mildenburger are subjects along with Hunsaker.

Chapters six to nine are devoted Ali's return from exile (1970-73) and include interviews with Joe Frazier, Jurgen Blin, Joe Bugner and Ken Norton..

After that, the chronology goes from George Foreman and beyond, concluding with Larry Holmes.

Brunt used the Ali angle to sell the book and he centered his interviews around the ring encounters that each of the men had with Ali, but Brunt also took the time to tell the story of each of the 15 fighters. It makes for very entertaining reading.

The most disappointing interview, from my perspective, was the one with Frazier. It was disappointing for Brunt, the author, as well because it was clear that Joe had still not gotten over the insults that Ali had hurled at him all those years ago. Bitterness came through in Joe's responses and made what could have been a truly pleasurable and insightful interview into an uncomfortable one. I had been very much looking forward to Joe sharing his thoughts about what it was like to be center stage with Ali in the 1970s in what may be the greatest heavyweight fight trilogy of all time. There were some golden nuggets contained in Brunt's interview, to be sure, but one came away with the feeling that Joe was hurting himself by not letting go. He had not forgiven his old-time rival nor had he forgotten the hurtful words that Ali had directected toward him.

For each of the 15 fighters, meeting Ali in the ring meant different things. All of them, without exception, were greatly impacted by the event (or events) and the media hype that always accompanied an Ali boxing extravaganza. Most of those interviewed are remembered more for trading punches with Ali than for anything else in their lives.

One is struck by the contrast in character and personality between British challengers Cooper and London, how Mildenburger's surprisingly good showing against Ali in September of 1966 transformed him into a national hero in Germany, and how Chuck Wepner's gutsy effort as challenger to Ali inspired Sylvester Stallone to create "Rocky."

Three of the more interesting of Brunt's interviews, I thought, were with Wepner, Ron Lyle and Jean-Pierre Coopman. These men all challenged Ali later in his career when the champ's great skills were declining. None of the three were considered a great draw at the box office, and Ali used different tactics to try and build the gate with each of them.

During a pre-fight interview on a TV talk show, Ali asked Wepner during a commercial break to bait him with a racial slur when they were back on the air as a way to whip up publicity for the bout. Wepner refused to do it. (There was never any actual animosity between the two.)

Ali predicted that he would knock out Lyle, the muscular ex-con, in the final 30 seconds of the eighth round. (Ali tried hard for the prescribed kayo, but couldn't do it; in fact, until Ali struck with lightning efficiency in the 11th round, it appeared that Lyle would upset the champ.)

Coopman, who was chosen as challenger because he was considered to be easy pickins' and an easy payday -- he was both -- and because he would draw fans in his native Belgium and the rest of Europe, was provided the fearsome nickname "Lion of Flanders" as a publicity gimmick shortly before the fight. Coopman actually bought into the hype and thought he had a chance to dethrone Ali and win the title ... that is, until the fight actually started.

With the notable exception of Frazier, all of the subjects in the book talked about Ali's warmth and humanity away from the ring and some of subsequent visits with the champ in the years since their ring encounters. While there is nothing particularly surprising or revealing in the interviews with former champs Foreman and Norton, the interviews make interesting reading. Both have only good things to say about Ali.

Holmes is the 15th and final chapter in the book. He is also a great heavyweight champion in his own right, but his entire professional career was lived under the long shadow of Ali's accomplishments. While Holmes doesn't come across as being bitter toward Ali, neither does he feel obliged to supply flowery praise in the pages of Brunt's book. Holmes is honest to a fault, sometimes brutally so. While Holmes has many fond memories of his years serving as Ali's sparring partner and says that he personally likes Ali, Holmes also frankly points out Ali's faults, such as his womanizing and lack of discipline.

All in all, this is a well-written and entertaining boxing book. While it sheds no new light on Ali or his image, it does provide fascinating insights from some of those who faced him man-to-man under the glorious glare of the world's spotlight between 1960 and 1980.

Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian living in Lake City, Mich.

Article posted on 09.01.2006

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