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Champs and Chumps
Charles Hirshberg
February 17, 2003
Entering the ring against Muhammad Ali served to test—and to reveal—character
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February 17, 2003

Champs And Chumps

Entering the ring against Muhammad Ali served to test—and to reveal—character

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Facing Ali: 15 Fighters, 15 Stories
by Stephen Brunt
The Lyons Press, $22.95

Poor Brian London will forever be remembered for the first few moments of his 1966 bout with Muhammad Ali. As the two boxers touched gloves, the actor Richard Burton rose from his ringside seat and bellowed with feigned horror, "Stop the fight!" Like London, every man who stepped into the ring with Ali is remembered in part by how well he stood the test. London, who by his own account "didn't really try," represents one end of the spectrum. At the other end is Joe Frazier, who reminisces that before his first bout with Ali, he solemnly prayed, "Lord...I'm not asking for something unworthy. I want you to help me kill that scamboogah." And, lo, his prayer was heard.

This book (published last year in Canada and in the U.S. this spring by The Lyons Press) portrays 15 of Ali's opponents, all of them complex and gifted—though in some cases their gifts did not involve boxing. Each has a remarkable story, for they all came of age in an era when one had to battle just to be a fighter. British champ Henry Cooper, for instance, got the strength for his shotgun left by working as a plasterer. ("The left was my trowel hand," he says.) Ken Norton learned to box in the Marines. Young Frazier made his own punching bags by filling old sacks with worn-out clothes and Spanish moss and hanging them from trees in the Carolina woods.

These are men of substance, worth getting to know. Brunt does them justice, but the author has done something even more impressive: He has found something new to report about Muhammad Ali.