Opinion | Feb 25 2019

The key to beating Muhammad Ali and other short stories

From Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier to Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis and more, Jack Hirsch recalls his small interactions with some of the biggest personalities in the sport
Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali  |  Action Images

IT was legendary public relations man Irving Rudd who told me that if I want to become a boxing writer then I should think of a fresh new angle to write about that no one else had ever used before. Over the years I have written a few, but this latest one is unorthodox to say the least in that it has no semblance of order. It is about some small interactions I have had with boxing’s biggest personalities that were too short to write a story about yet are fascinating in nature. I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I liked reminiscing about it:

In the summer of 1983, I met a close friend of Jim Jacobs’, who in turn arranged for me to speak with Cus D’Amato on the telephone. D’Amato mentioned that he could have trained Muhammad Ali had he chosen, but that he had no patience for the Ali circus. Cus said that Ali always listened to him, but felt bad that he paid no attention to what his trainer Angelo Dundee was saying. “Why do you put up with this nonsense”? D’Amato asked Dundee. According to D’Amato, Dundee said it was because it helped him get his other fighters through being associated with Ali.

“Nah, Ali did not want Cus to train him,” said Dundee when I relayed the story. “Cus gave Ali money during his exile from the ring, Muhammad always remembered kind gestures like that.”

Dundee was obviously fond of Ali, but when I once brought up that Ali had not really been that good to him financially, I got a one – word response “NO”, as in yes you are correct.

Dundee thought highly of Sonny Liston, telling me the only heavyweight in history who could have beaten him was Ali. And on another occasion when Tyson was unbeaten and in his prime, Dundee told me he was of the opinion that Jerry Quarry would have had a good chance of knocking him out, provided he came out banging like he did in the first Joe Frazier fight.

Speaking of Frazier, I got to spend quality time with him in a New York news studio in 1996, and asked him a question surprisingly no one ever had before. Would the George Foreman who annihilated “Smokin Joe” in two rounds in Jamaica, have been able to defeat the version who took Ali’s measure in the “Fight of the Century”? After a little prodding, Frazier sportingly said, “I don’t think the result would have been any different.” When I asked was it a matter of Foreman’s style being all wrong for him, Frazier replied, “That is exactly the reason.”

It was late 1990, and there was a press conference at Madison Square Garden to announce Sugar Ray Leonard’s fight against Terry Norris. Press conferences at that time were not as massive as they are today. A few of us were hanging around chatting casually with Leonard after he had his introductory say. A few days earlier Chris Eubank had defeated Nigel Benn. “Who is Chris Eubank?” Leonard inquired acknowledging he had never even heard of his now potential rival until he got the news he had defeated Benn.

I was sitting in the front of a van on the passenger’s side. In the back were former world champions Tony DeMarco and Aaron Pryor. They were in New York to attend a banquet I was helping run. We were going out to dinner the evening before and I was giddy to be in the presence of such ring royalty. The conversation involved Floyd Mayweather and how good he was. I turned to Pryor and said, who knows who would have won had you and Mayweather met at your best. Pryor nodded in agreement, his way of paying tribute to Mayweather as a great boxer.

It was shortly after Riddick Bowe was stopped by Lennox Lewis in the 1988 Olympics and had to settle for a silver medal when I asked him about his impending professional career. Bowe predicted that he and Lewis would ultimately prove to be the two best men in the heavyweight division. What has always stuck with me is that even then Bowe sensed that Lewis would continue to be a nemesis into the future.

Emanuel Steward had a deep dislike for Drew Bundini Brown relating to Muhammad Ali’s fight with Larry Holmes. With Ali beaten badly and about to be pulled out of the contest at the end of the 10th round, Steward was livid that Brown tried to overrule Dundee who had informed the referee he was stopping the fight. Steward had some mighty harsh words for me about Ali’s cheerleader.

I was trying to reach “Boom Boom” Mancini by phone at a time when he was still an active fighter. His mother picked up and said he was not in. Somehow the conversation turned to Hector Camacho. Mom admitted that her boy had this thing about the Macho Man and always wanted to fight him. He would get his wish in the future losing a split decision.

Carl Froch was in Connecticut to box Jermain Taylor as part of the Super Six super-middleweight tournament 10 years ago, when without warning he was put on the phone to speak with me. It happened so quickly that I was practically speechless. Finding what I felt were the proper words, I ventured a prediction I thought would please the Cobra. “I think you’ll beat Taylor on points,” I said. Judging by Froch’s tone I may as well have picked him to lose. Carl became argumentative telling me he could stop Taylor. He turned out to be correct turning the trick in the final round of their 12.

Excuses are commonplace in boxing. The reasons often vary, but former world featherweight champion Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson certainly had one for me that was original as to why he lost his title by knockout to “Prince” Naseem Hamed in 1997. I phoned Johnson a favorite of mine a few days after the fight. He attributed the decisive blows to being hit by Hamed’s elbows, not his punches.

Coincidentally I found myself in an elevator on two separate occasions with Frazier. The time was brief but nevertheless revealing. The first time was after a Boxing Writers Association of America’s dinner. He started to vent about heavyweight Bert Cooper who he had once trained and had a falling out with. Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson who also happened to be on the elevator had a smile on his face humored by Frazier’s rant. The second time was at the Turning Stone Casino in 2001, following his daughter Jackie Frazier’s fight with Laila Ali. Frazier lost an eight round majority decision to the daughter of Joe’s nemesis Muhammad Ali. Although he felt his offspring should have gotten the decision Joe was remarkably composed on the way up to his room. An insider in Frazier’s camp told me later that his attitude was less about being a good sport than being relieved his daughter did not suffer an embarrassing defeat as he feared she might.

Ring magazine founder and editor Nat Fleischer  who passed away at age 84 in 1972, was far and away the most influential journalist in boxing history. He also lived in the past revering the old-timers, saying they were far superior to the modern fighters. As a kid I used to call the Ring magazine offices and get to speak to Fleischer. Because Fleischer was in his declining years he lacked the patience to speak for long, so our conversations were more in the question and answer mode. Who would have won a fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Joe Louis? I asked one day, humoring myself. Judging by the delay, Fleischer had never been asked that one before. True to form he went with the man who had won the world heavyweight title 40 years before the “Brown Bomber” did. “I think it would have been a close fight, but I think Fitzsimmons would have edged him,” came the reply. I then phoned The Ring’s senior writer, Fleischer’s colleague and close friend Dan Daniel who was approximately his age. Although Daniel also thought that the boxers of yesteryear were superior he was not as fixated in the past as Fleischer was. “Don’t listen to the old man,” said Daniel, “Louis would have murdered Fitzsimmons.”

Because I had attended more shows in New York for the prior decade than any other reporter, members of the New York State Athletic Commission were so familiar with me that they originally did not give it a second thought when I crashed the rules meeting for the fight between Lennox Lewis and Michael Grant at Madison Square Garden in 2000. I tried to remain obscure, but was eventually asked to leave the meeting which was off limits to the press. However, I was there long enough to realize the fight was over before it had started. While Lewis was examining the gloves and getting personally involved in every little detail, his focus was completely unmatched by Grant who had detached himself from the proceedings. Grant was off to the side alone, sulking, appearing upset that he would have to fight. Unsurprisingly, Grant meekly went out in two rounds the following night.

In 1998, Kevin Lueshing stopped Benji Singleton on a small club show in Plainview, Long Island. There was little fanfare for such British boxing royalty. I am not sure if I was the only reporter present, but what I do know is that I was the only one to enter his small dressing room afterward where Lueshing sat with his trainer John Davenport and his manager Roger Levitt. Davenport took offense to a question I asked about why Lueshing did not throw as many rights as normal. “That is the most ridiculous question I have heard in my life,” he said angrily. I proceeded to leave the room telling him how obnoxious he had been on the way out, but in a matter of seconds I was back asking for a do over. We all had a nice chat, I praised Davenport who then sportingly apologized.

There were some small perks I enjoyed during my years as the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. For one of the banquets I oversaw in Las Vegas, I had the distinction of being seated next to Mike Tyson for the whole event. What I took away from that was Tyson’s massive star power. He never left the table, but the likes of Timothy Bradley, Bernard Hopkins, and Freddie Roach all sauntered over to say hello. Floyd Mayweather there to pick up his “Fighter of the Year” award could only stay a short time but made it a point to recognize Tyson during his acceptance speech.

Eddie Futch was apparently not a fan of Pernell Whitaker. When Whitaker was in his prime, Max Kellerman said on ESPN that in his view “Sweet Pea” was the greatest lightweight of all-time. The following week I got to spend time with Futch at an event and heard him mutter a couple of times how ridiculous he thought Kellerman’s opinion was.

When he was the light-heavyweight champion of the world, Jose Torres challenged heavyweight king Muhammad Ali, saying he would beat him. Years after they had both retired Torres stood firm in that view despite admitting that in his opinion Ali was the greatest of all-time. Torres told me the reason he could have defeated Ali was because he was a heavyweight who did not use his weight thus nullifying the physical advantage he would have otherwise enjoyed.

muhammad ali

The mind games never stop. When light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev was introduced at a BWAA banquet, a couple of years ago, I glanced over to Joe Smith’s table where I noticed him looking menacingly at his potential opponent. They have not yet met as of this date and perhaps never will.

Boxing News Shop