Fourteen pages of this issue are devoted to remarkable portraits of a number of Muhammad Ali's opponents as they look today, most of them familiar only to the most avid readers of The Ring Record Book. In the 20 years since the first of these fighters stood toe to toe with young Cassius Clay, all have quit boxing, and it took diligent tracking by British photographer Michael Brennan, 37, to locate some of them.
Brennan got the idea of limning Ali's professional career through interviews and pictures of his opponents while in Houston to photograph former champion George Foreman. "Foreman had taken up preaching, and I got to wondering what had happened to some of the others," Brennan says. So he packed his deerstalker and pocket tape recorder, leaving behind what he remembers as "too many dreary Saturday afternoons snapping pictures at British soccer grounds," to set out on what would be a two-year quest.
He started in Kentucky—Louisville was the site of Ali's professional debut—and lucked out when the first Hunsaker he picked from the Princeton, Ky. directory led him to his man. A sweet female voice informed him that Ali's first opponent was now a police chief in West Virginia. The owner of the voice should've known—she was Tunney Hunsaker's mother. "Elementary, my dear Brennan," Michael thought to himself. Which he soon discovered it wasn't.
He found opponent No. 2, Herb Siler, in a Dade County, Fla. correctional facility, and No. 3, Tony Esperti, in an Immokalee, Fla. jail. Brennan learned from Siler that No. 4, Jim Robinson, was living somewhere in northwest Miami, the scene of the recent riots. "Not an area where you go unprotected," Brennan says. "I wasn't too charged up about cruising the streets in hopes of running into Sweet Jimmy, but I made three anxious trips anyway, to no avail. Finally I just waited for Siler to get out on parole to do the fancy footwork for me."
When Brennan took off for Honolulu, in pursuit of No. 7, Duke Sabedong, he was greeted at the airport by a tall, thin man in a floral shirt who was draping leis about tourists' necks; it wasn't until days later that Brennan discovered that the man was Sabedong. Ah, for the nose of a bloodhound.
Buster Mathis wasn't easy, either. Forty phone calls and a lot of confusing leads from a dozen protective buddies finally led Brennan to him—on a truck-loading platform in Grand Rapids at four in the morning. As for Billy Daniels, "I've yet to locate him," Brennan says. "He's supposed to be a barber in Queens or a meat packer in St. Louis."
The frustrations have been many, to say the least, but Brennan expects times will be even tougher when Ali really does retire. "I've been so wrapped up in this, I don't know what I'll do."
Ali himself has advised against one career. When Brennan showed up for a recent photo session with Ali, he was sporting a pair of shiners he had received the night before in a barroom brawl. "Taking up fighting, Limey boy?" Ali said. "Better stick to taking pictures, 'cause it sure looks to me like you ain't doing too good at this game."