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Original Issue

Champs and Chumps Entering the ring against Muhammad Ali served to test--and to reveal--character

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
--Charles Hirshberg