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Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs InBy Stephen Brunt
Reviewed by Cliff Endicott
There are so many books out there about Muhammad Ali these days that it is almost impossible to find one that offers anything new. 'Facing Ali' is an exception to that rule, primarily because Muhammad Ali is only a supporting character throughout the book. The real 'stars' are his opponents.
'Facing Ali' is a 15 chapter compilation of snapshots into the lives of Ali opponents. The entire book is only around 300 pages, so as I'm sure you could tell by the heft of the thing that it doesn't delve very deeply into these men's lives. For that reason, when it comes to the so-called 'name' fighters the book examines, anyone that knows more than a little about that era's heavyweights won't likely learn much. What is interesting, at times greatly interesting, is the look into the Karl Mildenbergers, the Jean-Pierre Coopmans and the Chuck Wepners. I have to admit, there was very little in the chapters regarding these lesser known opponents that I knew before reading ‘Facing Ali’. That, of course, begs the question, "Who cares," but if you have any interest at all in seeing where these men are today, this little book is a nice staring point. And, in context with the subtitle of the book, each man weighs in with his feelings about having faced Ali in the ring.
The fifteen Ali opponents that the book looks at are Tunney Hunsaker, Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, Joe Frazier, Jurgen Blin, Joe Bugner, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, Jean-Pierre Coopman, Earnie Shavers and Larry Holmes. It's safe to assume that anyone reading this review on the CBZ would be more than familiar with the lives of Foreman, Frazier, Norton and Holmes. They all have their own autobiographies, and whatever ground is covered here is trampelled on there. It's the lesser know fighters that you'll learn about in this book, and to say it isn't at least a little interesting would be a lie.
Tunney Hunsaker, a career policeman as well as ex-prizefighter, is the first opponent Ali faced as a pro, and is the subject of the opening chapter of 'Facing Ali'. Learning the love that his native community of Fayatteville, West Virginia has had for him throughout his lifetime is noteworthy, as well as his current struggles with pugilistic dementia. Much of the information in this chapter actually comes from Tunney's wife, as Hunsaker himself is unable to communicate properly due to his mental condition. Humble Henry Cooper (now 'Sir' Henry since his knighthood) is covered next, and much of the story told covers Cooper's two fights with Muhammad Ali. A short back story of how Henry became a boxer is told, as well as his near ruin from poor investments. More than anything, it displays Henry's gentlemanliness, but offers very little new information.
The chapter on George Chuvalo is one of the best, offering nothing that hasn't been covered before in other medias, but summarizing his life nicely. For anyone that doesn't know the hardships George has had to endure, ‘Facing Ali’ provides a look. Three sons lost to drug abuse and a wife lost to suicide, George is painted still as the man who can take any punishment, just as he did in the ring. My favorite line in the book came from this chapter as it passed from George's professional life to his private life: "Taking on Goliath was one thing; he sure never wanted to play Job." A nice guy that has spent a lifetime overcoming obstacles, Chuvalo is shown for the genuine guy he is.
The chapter on Brian London is well written, but considering that London wasn't a very good fighter and has had only a slightly more interesting personal life, this is a chapter that plods at times. Far more interesting is the chapter that describes the life of Karl Mildenberger. A national hero in Germany of only slightly less regard than Max Schmelling, Mildenberger's story is very well told. His development as a fighter to the point of his match with Ali for the title in 1966 is described in a brief but informative story, but the Ali fight itself was the main event of the chapter. I had no idea that this made Mildenberger a legend in Germany, and that Germans consider this particular fight one of the most exciting and important fights in heavyweight history. Mildenberger plays on this in his everyday life, making him a constant presence in the media as a major celebrity.
The following chapter on Joe Frazier gives absolutely no new insight or information, but is noteworthy because of the 'no punches pulled' way the author describes Joe's hatred of Ali. Jurgen Blin is covered as well, telling the tale of a man that always kept his day job - he knew he would never be a champion, but fought for extra money and pride. His match with Ali was a serious beating, and he claims to know going in that it would unfold exactly the way it did. But reading his story is still worthwhile in a peripheral way; understanding the motivations of a fighter that knows he can't fight particularly well. The chapter on Joe Bugner is another good one, as Bugner is a great character away from the ring, and one who still occasionally fights for a side-show payday. Currently he is a TV sportscaster in Australia, where they love a funny, honest guy that isn't afraid of stepping on toes.
The coverage of George Foreman and Ken Norton again offer little new information, especially if you’ve read their own autobiographies. The Chuck Wepner section of the book is interesting mainly due to his claims that he should be rewarded for Sylvestor Stallone's Rocky movie series, as he was the inspiration for it. One of the few areas where even a boxing nut may learn something is the chapter regarding Ron Lyle. Lyle's history has been well documented, but due to his often adversarial relationship with the press, little is generally known of the man's thoughts. Though the majority of the chapter deals with Lyle the fighter, we actually learn a bit about Lyle the man. The same can be said about Earnie Shavers; a little more is told than you may have heard before (but now that Earnie's autobiography is out, even that may not be true - I haven't read it). Jean-Pierre Coopman's story is interesting because very few outside of Belgium are likely to have heard it; the fighter widely regarded as the least deserving fighter ever to get a title shot at least gets his tale on paper.
The final chapter covers Larry Holmes, and anyone that is genuinely a boxing fan isn't going to learn anything here either. Holmes' story is well told in his book 'Going the Distance', so if you want to know Larry, read it instead.
Overall, 'Facing Ali' is not a total loss, and offers a few opinions of Ali that you likely haven't heard before. Its originality of presentation is its major asset, offering something with Ali’s name on it that hasn't been done before: Ali through the eyes of the men he fought. Stephen Brunt is a Michener Award winning journalist, and his book, while certain not to win any awards, is well written and interesting. Mainly for hard-core fight fans, it gives a little insight that hasn't been seen before, and is worthwhile solely for that reason.
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