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Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs in

by Stephen Brunt

History is written by the winners. It’s one of the truisms of war, commerce, and sports. But what is made clear in Globe and Mail sportswriter Stephen Brunt’s latest book, Facing Ali, is that the stories of the losers are often just as compelling, sometimes more so. It is in losing that we often see more of people’s characters, as their vulnerability is laid bare.

Take the story of little-known German boxer Jurgen Blin, whom Ali knocked out in Zurich on – no joke – Boxing Day in 1971. As a child, Blin milked cows at four in the morning until it was time to go to school because his father was too drunk to do the job. And then the kids at school called him “Cowshit” because of the smell.

Then there’s Joe Frazier, who was fired from his job at a Philadelphia slaughterhouse after winning a heavyweight gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Frazier had won the gold with a broken thumb and had a cast on his arm when he returned home, but it was difficult to work in the constantly wet conditions. He was let go.

Or Canadian George Chuvalo, the first man to go all 15 rounds with Ali. Chuvalo lost badly, but never hit the canvas. Later in life, Chuvalo lost three sons – two to drug overdoses and one to suicide – and his wife killed herself.

Facing Ali is replete with heartbreaking stories of ill-prepared, ill-educated, hungry young men from dysfunctional families eventually making it into the ring against arguably the greatest boxer of all time. Most had a brief flash of fame that often lasted no longer than the fight itself. Others have dined out for years on the fact they lost to “The Greatest,” in some cases becoming national heroes merely for having shown up.

The book is broken into 15 “rounds,” poignant stories of 15 of Ali’s opponents, ranging from Tunney Hunsaker in 1960 – Ali’s first pro fight, when he was still known by his given name, Cassius Clay – to Larry Holmes, whom Ali beat in October 1980 in the second-last fight of his career. The book also serves as an abridged boxing history from 1960 to 1980.

Most of Ali’s former opponents recognize that he helped give them a comfortable living even while beating them. The most notable exception is Joe Frazier, who could hold his own in the ring against Ali, but could never match his verbal sparring. For years Frazier silently took every insult Ali hurled at him, though to Ali it was just business.

Brunt delivers the occasionally horrific details of these men’s lives in a calm, assured way – a soothing tone for the reader who may be navigating the seamy world of boxing for the first time. Brunt knows the sport of boxing cold, which is crucial because boxers, in order to survive the brutality both inside and outside the ring, tend to block out all negative thoughts and memories of the sport. Too often they tell heavily skewed life stories – call it the “I coulda been a contenda” syndrome. Brunt fills in the gaps that the fighters, unintentionally or otherwise, sometimes leave in their accounts. Brunt has given a voice to those whose customary mode of expression is their fists.

Boxing has always captivated people – especially writers – not so much for its athleticism as for its raw brutality, its bloody immediateness. The combatants are fuelled by equal parts anger, rage, social injustice, and a simple desire to be accepted or loved. The sport is peppered with racial tension, crime, poverty, violence, exploitation, greed, lust, betrayal, and desperation.

There is little that is sweet about the so-called Sweet Science – it’s more like a 15-round car accident. But try as we might, many of us just can’t resist taking a peek at the carnage. Facing Ali is equally hard to turn away from.