Ali's epic trilogy with Joe Frazier
was the yardstick by which future
champions would measure
themselves.

In the outpouring of
charity over Ali’s
failing health, it’s hard
to find an unkind
word. In fairness, the
man had earned the
accolades long before
Parkinson’s Disease
began to ravage his
body
T

THE PUNCH
By Reggie Amigo

In my heart, he will always be the greatest.
-- George Foreman on Muhammad Ali


    hat line struck me like a blow. And as I flipped the cover of a new book on
    the former world champion, I found myself thumbing through some of the
    greatest tributes to any man, page after page.

“Lawdy, lawdy [Lord, O Lord], he’s a great champion,” came off a battered
– and humbled – Joe Frazier after Thrilla in Manila, an epic third fight in their
head-to-head contests against which future champions would measure
themselves.

And Larry Holmes, who would be remembered more for who he fought than
what he did on the night he predictably defended his world title against an aging,
tired Ali, saved his best for a parting shot, telling his fallen hero: “You’re the
greatest. I love you.”

In the outpouring of charity over Ali’s failing health, it’s hard to find an unkind
word. In fairness, however, the man had earned the accolades long before
Parkinson’s Disease began to ravage his body into a shell of his former self.  

Even so, that’s only part of the great story that is Muhammad Ali, and the world
may never know the half of it.

But thanks to people like Alan Goldstein, a long-serving sportswriter on the
Baltimore Sun, we get to relive the Ali legend. The book is an honest portrait of
the man not from the reams of copy he inspired but from the fighters who were on
the receiving end of his greatness.

In their own words, each one of them – from Sonny Liston to Floyd Patterson,
Leon Spinks and little known Jean-Pierre Coopman (whom Ali called “a
gentleman” ) – helped put together Muhammad Ali, the Story of a Boxing Legend
(Carlton Books, 178 pages, hard cover, US$272).

    Goldstein keeps it simple by not getting in the way, except
    to introduce a chapter in the chronology, drawing on the
    many years he spent covering Ali’s fights.

    One such fight, which took Ali and Foreman to darkest,
    deepest Africa, almost leaps out of the pages.

    And here I was, transfixed on the images, knocked back to
    a summer afternoon nearly 40 years ago, lost in a crowd of
    grown men shouting themselves silly around a black and  
    white TV at the sight of Foreman being cut from his legs,
    crashing down and out.

    I had to skip my UP zoology class for that. I remember
    telling my laboratory teammates the story the next day only
    to find out they had done what I did.

By the time Thrilla in Manila rolled around, I had started a small collection of
things Ali, from stickers to newspaper clippings and some of the earlier books on
him.

I was a visitor in my mother’s Grade 3 class sleeping away boring afternoons
under her desk when Ali won his first professional fight. I had not heard him
proclaim himself “The Greatest”, but now we know how it became a currency.
Now we also know why he liked to call his opponents names, and why TV
executives lapped up the one-liners he used to sell his fights.

In a time when internet marketing was not even a sound bite, Ali was a brand. He
pitched himself like so much stuff off a store shelf and earned handsomely.

When asked why he came out to take on Holmes, then the reigning world
champion, his former sparring partner and 12 years his junior,  Ali said: “I got it
made for life financially and every other way. I don’t need to beat Larry Holmes.”

The following year, Ali fought Trevor Berbick and lost a painful 10-round decision,
but even as he was being put to shame, Ali was thinking of a grand comeback.
Six months later, he put the question to manager Angelo Dundee. “You can’t do it
anymore,” came the reply. “There isn’t any water left in the well.”

So Ali closed his career in defeat, but he hadn’t hit bottom. And so, the story
continues ...

Like the man that inspired it, the book takes some doing to put down.

I’m reading it a third time, reliving the moment in each word. If you have not read
about Ali or heard of him, you’ll never know what I mean.
T
The greatest
In their own words, champions weigh in
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