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Sharing a ring with Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali
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On the third anniversary of Muhammad Ali's passing, eight of his opponents explain what he was like to fight

Henry Cooper

When June 18, 1963 & May 21, 1966 Where Wembley Stadium, London
& Highbury Stadium, London results Ali w rsf 5 & Ali w rsf 6

“THERE wasn’t another like him. Before the first fight, he was all mouth and saying, “I’ll stop Cooper in five but if he gives me asthma I’ll stop him in four”, that kind of thing. It used to go in one ear and out the other! A lot of the Americans talked more to their opponent than the British fighters but I used to ignore them. He used to try and call me everything but I knew it was putting bums on seats. People would ask if he was upsetting me and I’d say, ‘Let him carry on! I’m on a percentage as well!’ Everyone was buying seats.

“We’d read about him and seen him on film beforehand. He had fast hands and he was fast on his bleeding feet. He could move fast and in a lot of his fights he never knocked people out, what he did was hit them with a series of punches, six or seven punches at a time, all in about three or four seconds, and the referee had to jump in and stop it because he didn’t want the opponents to be injured.

“I was still confident and I thought I had the style, which I did, that he didn’t like. I didn’t stand off him, I took the fight to him and you have to because he was six-foot three in them days and he had the long reach so if I stood off him and tried to box, he’d have poked my head off. So that’s why I had to trap him in corners and on the ropes to stop his mobility.

“I knew that if I’d have hit him with that left hook that I hit him with 15 seconds earlier, and he’d have been in the middle of the ring, he’d have gone down heavy. He’d have hit his head on [the canvas] and that would have knocked him a bit more silly. Unfortunately, the ropes let him down gently; he went from the top rope to the middle rope to the bottom. That’s just how it goes.

“He always praised me [afterwards], and he never knocked me. He paid me the greatest compliment when he said ‘that left hook that Cooper hit me with didn’t only shake me, it shook my relations in Africa.’ That’s a good line!

“For the second fight we had the weigh-in at the Palladium and I was confident. For the first three or four rounds, I was a bit short in my punches and the next round or so I started connecting and got my distance.

“I thought I was holding my own and I thought I was going to go and win. And then, suddenly, bosh, he’d cut me. Ali had this habit of knocking punches down. He’d see a punch coming and he’s gone to stop one of my punches and he’s chopped me right across the eye with his glove.

“I always knew when I had a bad cut if it dripped and it was warm blood. I knew then I was in trouble. You then have to do things out of sequence that you wouldn’t do if you were not in trouble.

“I was gutted because I’d trained hard and I went in there confident thinking I could beat him but, once again, it wasn’t to be. Them two cuts I had in the Ali fights were the two worst cuts I ever had in boxing. Ali wasn’t a puncher, he was a flicker and he dragged your skin with his gloves. I had 40 stitches in the eye with a plastic surgeon. They stitched the top of the cut and the inside of the cut.

“You can’t knock him and he fought everyone he had to fight. He was always a bit controversial though. He said “The Vietcong don’t call me n*****, I’ve nothing against them.” So imagine in America at the time when people are getting killed he comes out and says that. He was banned and, in my eyes, he deserved it. It would be like me saying in 1940, “Hitler isn’t bad, he’s a nice guy.” Everyone would have turned on me!

“I followed his career, of course I did. He had four fights he shouldn’t have had at the end and he had no need to have them. He fought Larry Holmes and Holmes gave him a systematic beating. Holmes said twice in that fight, “Ref, stop the fight”. That fight tipped him over.

“He’s got Parkinson’s and his doctor told me that it wasn’t the sort you or I could get, it’s what they call Parkinson’s Syndrome and its been brought on by being hit in the back of the neck.

“Ali was very unorthodox in the ring. If I saw a punch coming I’d move to the side but when he saw punch he’d move his head back, when another one came he’d move back further and when he couldn’t get back any further he would turn his head. He took a lot of punches on the back of the neck that killed off some brain cells – his doctor told me that himself. His doctor said that Ali had two or three too many fights at the end of his career.

“When I boxed him he was six-foot three, he had the longest reach, he weighed 15-stone, Christ he was marvellous. Then when I see him now, he’s all bent over and he has dark glasses on. They introduced me to him and I told him it was lovely to see him but he is so small now. It’s a shame to see that when you think of what he was like. He was the fastest-moving heavyweight of all time, no heavyweight moved like he did on their feet. He was above any heavyweight. He did things that nobody else could do – if I’d have done them I’d have got caught, but he got away with them because he was so good.”

Henry Cooper on Muhammad Ali

George Chuvalo

When March 29, 1966 & May 1, 1972 Where Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto
& Pacific Coloseum, Vancouver Results Ali w pts 15 & Ali w pts 12

“ALI was supposed to fight the winner of my fight with Mike DeJohn in Louisville, Kentucky (September 1963).
I saw Cassius, as he was known then, and he was wearing a three-piece suit with a vest and he had his shirt tied. He looked very preppy actually. Bill King told me that Cassius was going to flex his muscles and Mike DeJohn is going to feel one arm and I was to feel the other arm. I said, “Okay”.

“So I was feeling his arm and I remember thinking to myself, “That’s not a very big arm”. It wasn’t really imposing, I mean it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t very big. I decided to have a little fun with this so I said, “How you doing Popeye?” He was posing with his arm clenched and he looked at me kind of funny and he said, “Why are you calling me Popeye?” I said, “Well Popeye has huge forearms, which I assume you must have, and he has very small biceps, which is what you have, very small biceps.”

“He laughed and said that Archie Moore talked that way, Alex Miteff talked that way, everyone talked that way.
Mike DeJohn lasted the distance because every time he was in trouble they’d pick him up, pull me away or warn me. It was crazy. After the fight, Ali said he wouldn’t fight me because I fight rough and tough like a washroom woman.
In ’65 I fight Ernie Terrell for the WBA title and they give it to Terrell. I don’t care what anyone says, I beat Terrell.
Terrell was then supposed to fight Muhammad Ali, who was the WBC champion. But 17 days before that fight I get a phone call. ‘Do you want to fight Muhammad Ali? Ernie Terrell had to pull out’. ‘Sure, no problem’, I said.

“So I had 17 days’ notice, which isn’t a hell of a lot when the fight is 15 rounds. But it was no problem. I fight the fight and he has this cup on. People were saying that I’d thrown a lot of low blows but I was just hitting him on the red part of his cup, which was way above his belt.

“People said I threw a lot of punches low, but most of them landed on or above the beltline. I remember thinking before the fight as we’re getting introduced while I was looking at his trunks, it was like Elmer Fudd fighting Bugs Bunny when his ears were sticking out of the trunks! I felt like Elmer Fudd.

“It was a tough fight, he fought a good fight but I would like to have had another couple of months training. He went to the hospital after the fight and I went and danced with my wife. He went to the hospital with bleeding kidneys. He peed blood for a few weeks because I banged him on the body pretty good.

“I don’t remember much about the fight. I remember more about watching it as a spectator when I’ve watched it on tape since. You see it differently that way, my memories are of how the fight looked on TV, not how it looked to me at the time.

“I thought I won the rematch, I thought I won that fight. He wasn’t the same fighter in ’72 though. I realised he wasn’t as fast; he just wasn’t as sharp. He went into exile during his formative years and they were important years. You can’t be the same fighter, you can’t lose those precious years and still be the same fighter. He was never the same after that. Ever. He had to rely on cunning to beat guys like George Foreman. He didn’t beat them because he was so skilful, but he was cunning in his approach.

“In the first fight he moved a lot more, in the second fight he didn’t move as much. He’d lost that little edge, he hadn’t retained all his skills. It is just the way it is.

“When I think of Ali at his absolute best was the fight with Liston, the first fight. He shocked the world. He was under pressure and he showed what he was about as Liston chased him all around the ring. I thought Ali would fall like a cheap tent but he was too elusive and moved backwards beautifully. He moved this way, then the other, and Liston was frustrated. Liston couldn’t hit him in the ass with a bowl of sand.

“After that fight he converted to Islam and changed his name and that caused a storm. Then there was all that with Vietnam. When we fought in Canada, it was a relief to him to get away from the badgering he was getting in the States. He didn’t feel that pressure in Canada, he had a good time there.

“Who knows how much better he would have been if had kept going during those exile years? It’s hard to say.”

Muhammad Ali

Brian London

When August 6, 1966 Where Earl’s Court, London Result Ali w ko 3

“HE was far too good for me. He was a brilliant fighter and I wasn’t good enough to fight him. When they offered me the money to fight him I just said ‘Yes’ and I thought that I’d go for it, but I had no chance. My problem was I never really fought for the love of it; I fought for the money.

“The criticism I received from some people after the fight was justified and it did hurt my feelings and my pride because I didn’t try and I should have done.

“At least I should have had a go and I do regret not going after him more – but he was so damn good! I said after “I knew he was fast but I didn’t know he was greased lightning” and that was true!
I’d seen some of his fights but never, ever, did I think he was fast like he was. His speed was like a welterweight or a middleweight rather than a heavyweight.

“I wish I could go back and try again. I fought some of the best fighters of that time – Eddie Machen, Thad Spencer, Henry Cooper, Jerry Quarry and [Floyd] Patterson. All really good fighters, but Ali was the best.”

Karl Mildenberger

When September 10, 1966 Where Wald Stadium, Frankfurt Result Ali w rsf 12

“ALONG with Henry Cooper, Muhammad Ali was the best I ever fought. The thing I remember about the lead-up to the fight is that Ali never trash talked me like he had with everyone else. He came to Germany and was respectful and he came across as a really nice guy. The atmosphere was great and I had the support of the 45,000 fans and it was one of the greatest events in my country.

“It was a great fight. I gave him the hardest fight that he’d had up until that point and Ali himself has admitted that it was one of the toughest fights he’d had in the early stages of his career.

“I knew from the beginning that Ali was younger, quicker and had more skills than me. But I felt I had a small chance because I was a southpaw and he still hadn’t worked out how to fight southpaws – that really was my chance. I was confident that I could really get into him and score the upset to shock the world. At that point he really was a massive favourite and no one expected me to beat him. It was a really tough fight all the way through and there was a moment in the ninth round where I thought I’d got him, but by the 12th round it became too much. I was cut and I was exhausted.”

Jurgen Blin

When December 26, 1971 Where Hallenstadion, Zurich Result Ali w ko 7

“MY fight was the only time I ever fought where I really believed I had no chance to win before the fight. We fought in Zurich so I didn’t even have home advantage and I had to think of the money because I knew I wasn’t going to beat him. The fight confirmed my fears and, without doubt, he was the best guy I ever fought.”

muhammad ali

George Foreman

When October 30, 1974 Where May 20 Stadium, Zaire Result Ali w ko 8

“WHEN we young, truly young and kings, Muhammad Ali and I didn’t know how valuable we were to each other. We just didn’t know.

“I had this complex after losing to Muhammad, and I truly didn’t understand why I lost that match. And what bothered me more than anything was that it wasn’t supposed to happen. And to be honest, I was surprised I never got a rematch.

“Later on, Muhammad called me one morning. I was in Livermore, California and he got my number from somewhere, and I was shocked. We spoke for a long time and he said ‘Well, I’m thinking about giving you a shot.’ I said ‘Man, that would be really nice.’ He said ‘But only one condition: you must take Dick Sadler back.’ And I had let go of Sadler and I said no way I’m taking him back. He said ‘You don’t want to talk about it?’ I didn’t, and he said ‘That’s your problem George; no one can talk to you. If you don’t take Sadler back, I’m not gonna give you a shot.’ I said ‘So be it, I’m not gonna work with Dick Sadler.’ And I knew at that point that I would not get a shot and that he would not fight me again. I knew that.

“And it ate me up for years, not that I didn’t get the shot, but it ate me up because I lost. I just couldn’t figure how I lost. I was in the right position and was doing all the right things and I didn’t get the win. I didn’t understand. Nobody had been able to stand up under those shots I had delivered beforehand, and it was odd. He really didn’t knock me out, I was almost knocked out myself from throwing all the shots. You know the rope-a-dope? I’m the dope. That ate me up a long time.

“Then Alan Malamud from Los Angeles, a sports reporter, came down to my ranch. He was on his way to report on Muhammad Ali fighting Leon Spinks in the dome in New Orleans. And he stopped by and I was working in my garden, of all places, and he said ‘George, what really happened in Africa? I want to know the truth.’ And I looked him in the face and said ‘You know, I lost; that’s what happened.’ He said ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, I got knocked out and lost the title. I even have pictures to prove it.’ And we burst out laughing. And that was the only time I got a little freedom from that. It ate at me from ’74 to ’78, and then that was the last. I was done with it.

“In 1989, I did that Champions Forever video and all of us were together in London, and nobody was taking care of Muhammad. He couldn’t tie his tuxedo tie, and I had to do it for him. And (Joe) Frazier was saying ‘Why? Why are you helping him, don’t worry about it. What about all those guys he had all those years ago? Where are they now?’ And I remember saying to Joe, ‘Man, that’s his whole story that he’s pretty; we gotta make certain that when he gets on the camera he’s pretty.’ He says ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and I said ‘No, no, no, we’ve got to take care of each other. You gotta be Smokin’ Joe, and he’s got to be pretty, and I gotta be ol’ Foreman’. They just didn’t understand then. And I was doing an interview and finally Muhammad and Larry (Holmes) asked me, ‘Why are you being so nice?’ Well, we only have just one of him. If we had four Alis and four Fraziers, it could have been really messy and mean, but we only had the two of them, and I don’t think the world will ever see that again.

“I remember when I fought (Evander) Holyfield, each of them was introduced in the ring and they walked out, and that was the first time I realised, what am I doing up here? We were tied together like a chain. Frazier stepped out, Muhammad stepped out, and I should have stepped right on out too. We were tied together, and there’s not a day that goes by, even now, that I think of life and Frazier and Ali are not in it.”

Richard Dunn

When May 24, 1976 Where Olympiahalle, Munich Result Ali w rsf 5

“IT was a terrific night and one of the very best of my life. I enjoyed everything about it – it was exhilarating, it was exciting. The only thing is I came second, but so what. I didn’t go into the ring thinking that I’d lose, even if it was at the very back of my mind a little bit. I went with every intention of winning the fight.

“It was all level after three rounds but it quickly went downhill after that! I’m a southpaw so I think it took him a round or two to find his range but once he did, he just took me apart. Despite that, I enjoyed it.

“Ali said I was better than George Foreman after the fight but that was certainly just his bravado of the time. He was a good fighter was Ali, the best I’ve ever seen and certainly the best I ever fought and, looking back, there was not a cat in hell’s chance of me winning – we were at different skill levels. My best chance – what I was hoping for – was to catch him unawares. But he was always in command, despite trying my hardest. He was a much better fighter than I was.

“He was classy, he was brilliant and I loved the man. I still do.”

Earnie Shavers

When September 29, 1977 Where Madison Square Garden, New York Result Ali w pts 15

“FIGHTING Ali was my proudest moment because the whole world had their eyes on me for one hour. He was such a fantastic fighter who had so much speed – even when we fought he was fast. The fight went 15 really tough rounds and I had him in trouble enough times to where I thought I’d won it at the time. But I’ve watched it on video since a few times and he definitely won it.

“It’s a good feeling to know that I fought ‘The Greatest’, because he was just that. I did wobble him a few times during but he came back – I think I made him mad! You see, I knew I could punch really hard from the first day I stepped foot in a gym, when I was 22 years old, and the trainer said ‘Man, this guy is going to hurt somebody’. I carried that confidence into my fight with Ali.

“But he stood up to all I had and came back with his own punches to beat me.”

Earnie Shavers

Leon Spinks

When February 5, 1978 & September 15, 1978 Where Hilton, Las Vegas & Superdome, New Orleans Result Spinks w pts 15/Ali w pts 15

“I HAVE nothing but good memories of fighting Ali, they were two good fights that I fought with him.
It was also hard because he was my idol when I was growing up and I’d seen him start to grow old. But that gave me the confidence to beat him and just getting in a ring with him made my confidence grow. Once I had caught him with my best punch – the overhand right – I knew I had won.

“The first fight was a clear win and I thought I won the second time in but they didn’t give it to me. Hey, in boxing you just never know.

“Beating Ali was a wonderful moment but it doesn’t compare to winning the Olympic gold medal (Montreal, 1976) because that was for my country.”

Larry Holmes

When October 2, 1980 Where Caesars Palace, Las Vegas Results Holmes w rtd 10

“MY first impression of Muhammad Ali was that of a champion. I had wanted to meet him all my life and I wanted to be around him. During those early sparring sessions when I first started with him, when I was just a little boy, he kicked my ass but he couldn’t hurt me. Then I grew up.

“From then on, I thought I got the best of him every damn time we went in there because he hardly did anything. He lay on the ropes and what not, I thought I did pretty good working with him. But, you know, he was just Muhammad Ali, sometimes it would look like he’d be doing nothing but he’d actually be doing plenty.

“I never thought I was going to fight him. I didn’t want to fight him because I knew what I could do to him. When it happened I thought I did a good job when I fought him. I kicked his ass. But he was Muhammad Ali and everyone was going to look up to him as the greatest.

“People say, ‘Oh, he was old’. True, but I kicked his ass. He shouldn’t have taken that fight. People always say ‘If he was young…’ He wasn’t young and if he was, who knows? Nobody knows. It’s not about ‘ifs’, it’s about what you can do at the time.

“Nobody had a jab like mine – the Holmes hammer – and Muhammad Ali couldn’t hit you like I could hit you with his jab. I hurt you with my jab, Ali couldn’t do that.

“After me he fought Berbick and he did better against Berbick, but by then he was totally shot, he was gone, he was no longer Muhammad Ali.

“In my mind he was one of the greatest, but not THE greatest. My favourite was Joe Louis and then Jack Johnson. It seems that every time I tell someone that they have an argument.

“But Ali has always been a good guy, he’s a great guy. I liked him and respected him. A lot of people said things because he didn’t go into the services in 1967 and fight in Vietnam but that doesn’t make him a bad person. No, he was always a great guy – for me, for boxing, for everybody.”

Muhammad Ali

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