Muhammad Ali. Legend. Loudmouth. Poet. Phony. Sinner. Saint.

He was all of these things and none of them. Millions of words have been written about the boxer, and yet for all we know about his career, his women, his arrogance, and his illness, he will always be something of a mythic figure: we’ll never really know the true measure of the man.

There was a time when – even when he was far from being the champ – he was easily the most famous boxer in the world, possibly the most famous man in the world. He was a poor black kid from Louisville, Kentucky who became a global superstar and attained a status that none of his peers could only aspire to.

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The bare bones of Ali’s life and personality can be summed up in a few lines. He surrounded himself with an adoring entourage that at times had the air of a sideshow; he wrote doggerel, partly to amuse himself, mostly to upset other fighters; he toyed with journalists and arguably beat the media at its own game; he would do anything to unsettle his opponents (including race-baiting them); he famously refused to go to Vietnam and suffered personally and financially because of it.

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He defeated George Foreman in one of the most famous boxing matches in history, an event as widely known as much for the circus-like lead up to it as the fight itself; he lived out the last twenty years a tragic prisoner of his body, shaky and slow where he once moved like a butterfly, gentle, puzzled, smiling where he once stung like a bee.

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Yet even those few lines don’t do justice to the man, and the premise of Stephen Brunt’s brilliant Facing Ali is that there are a handful of men who have an insight into him that nobody else can: the men who squared off against the man in the ring. The book (written in 2002) – and the later documentary film – fills a gap in the Ali legend by giving voice to those boxers, many of whom otherwise would be mere footnotes in a biography of the man. Some, like George Foreman and Henry Cooper, have carved out a piece of celebrity of their own and are famous outside the world of boxing. Others, like Karl Mildenberger and Jean-Pierre Coopman, are names forgotten by all except by trivia-obsessed fight fans.

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The book contains fifteen chapters (15 rounds), one for each of fifteen men who fought Ali between 1960 (when he was still Cassius Clay) and 1980. The one boxer conspicuously absent is Sonny Liston, who fought Cassius Clay twice, both controversially and who died of a drug overdose in 1971. Many of the fights covered were forgettable, especially the later ones when Ali was arguably too old: these were laboured, brutal affairs ended early because a boxer had been cut too bad. One or two are etched in memory because Ali was put down: In 1963 Henry Cooper landed a left that floored him, and although Cooper lost the fight, it’s still remembered as one of the greatest moments in British boxing history.

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At times, Facing Ali makes for salutary reading, and there is a certain dull and sad aspect to the lives of some of these ex-boxers. Several of the fighters Brunt interviews are in rough shape (physically or financially, or both). They stayed too long in the fight game or they came out of retirement because they needed the money. They had bad or crooked management. They were from poor backgrounds and never learned to save money. They had unhappy marriages and drink and drug problems.

Several are quite open about the fact that they weren’t very good boxers to begin with, that they were only drawn against Ali simply because he needed some easy wins. One, Philadelphia fighter Chuck Wepner, claims his fight against Ai was the inspiration for Rocky.

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Ali vs Wepner

Wepner tells a remarkable story about the lengths Ali would go to drum up ticket sales for a fight. The two were on The Mike Douglas Show prior to the fight. During a commercial break, Ali leaned over to Wepner and said, “when they come back onstage, call me ‘a f***ing nigger’.” Wepner refused. When the host returned to the stage, Ali started screaming “do you know what he just called me?!”

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In reading the book what strikes you is how genuinely fond of Ali some of these guys are (now, years later, after the bruises have healed and the egos have settled). Several talk of how they sometimes met up with him at charity events and joke about the old days.

All of them feel sorry for him.

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Ali vs Frazier

All except one. All heroes need a villain to conquer, and for Ali that vilain was Joe Frazier. Frazier never hid his hatred of Ali. When Ali lit the cauldron at the 1996 Olympics, Frazier commented that it was a pity he didn’t fall in to the flames. Years after their bouts, he still felt he was unfairly treated by Ali and the media. Ali taunted him as ‘the White Man’s Champion’, as ‘Uncle Tom’, and as ‘Ugly’ (Ali, of course, was possessed of the most beautiful body in the world). Frazier was hurt by these taunts, couldn’t ignore them for the obvious carny promotional shtick that they were.

Unfortunately for Frazier’s image, he chose the wrong time to reveal unkind truths about Ali: after he was struck with Parkinson’s and around the time he was approaching sainthood. He never forgave Ali for refusing induction into the Army. Although he loathed him, it was Frazier who campaigned to have Ali’s license reinstated, and it was Frazier who offered to loan money to the former champ when he needed it; two things that Frazier felt history has forgotten in the clamour to deify Ali. He died still bitter.

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I am not a fan of boxers or boxing, but I was enthralled by Facing Ali, as I was by watching When We Were Kings and Tyson. For serious boxing fans and Ali obsessives it should be, like Mailer’s The Fight, required reading.

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