Muhammad Ali at 70…The Greatest!

Muhammad Ali Bar, Somerset

by Fran on January 17, 2012

Muhammad Ali turns 70 today. I watched a TV documentary about him last night, a documentary that looked at his relationship with the United Kingdom, or more accurately his relationship with the people of the United Kingdom.

Being someone who was slightly too young to see him perform in the ring, apart from his penultimate fight with Larry Holmes, I was still mesmerised by what Ali was. Watching videos is great, and believe me I've watched many Ali fights over and over again, but being around and experiencing the event as it happens is where that magic link is made from the people to the persona.

I mean pretty much everyone loved Ali. He had a tongue-in-cheek approach to many of his pre-fight press conferences and whilst he absolutely, undoubtedly believed he was the Greatest he still played the game with a humour with which the watching throng could not fail to be enthralled. He was a staggering showman who could, even years after retiring, draw the kind of crowds that brought cities to a stand still.

I went on a short family holiday last August to a beautiful pine lodge nestled in the countryside between the ancient English cities of Bath and Wells. My host, a great guy by the name of Chris, was a bit of a boxing fan. When I say a boxing fan he was actually fully committed to the wonderfully arduous and challenging sport of Rugby Union, but like many others he would watch fights and thoroughly enjoyed what he watched. However, Chris was very much a rugby man through and through, having done battle on the rugby field for more than few years to say the least, an experience that no doubt contributed to his wonderfully relaxed and friendly manner.

Anyway, Chris and I got onto the subject of our favourite boxers. "So Fran, who's your favourite boxer of all time?" After a short but sincere pause, I responded with an innocent "Probably Duran, or Hagler. It's a tough call because I admire both guys for different reasons." Chris looked back at me, a little quizzical, almost confused. It was almost as if the answer I gave was the answer to a totally different question. Being so involved in the sport of boxing for so long, my response was based upon skills, tactics, longevity etc. What I didn't realise was that greater forces were at work here.

I quickly turned the question back on Chris, "What about you Chris, which boxer beats all for you?" Without a second of hesitation Chris responded with the answer that I obviously should have given, "Ali." Chris just loved Ali and let's face it, he's not alone. Ali wasn't so much a boxer as a world-changing, historical event. He transcended the sport in every way. As a young boy Chris had been entranced by the magic of Ali from the very first moment he watched the Ring Wizard work his magic on TV.

"I've something I want to show you Fran." Chris took me through to his house and into a room at the back, a beautiful room with a snooker table and massive TV; a room for the boys to get together, drink and watch sports, probably Rugby mostly, but big fights always welcome. In the corner of the room was what Chris called the 'Ali Bar'.

Chris had spent years gathering together pictures, drawings, books, ticket stubs and all kind of wonderful Ali memorabilia. Ali had so captured the imagination of Chris when he was a youngster watching those incredible events of the 60s and 70s that his influence would never leave him. I was quite blown away and hastily got Chris's permission to take a few quick photographs.

Seeing what Chris had done really brought home to me what Muhammad Ali was and the power of the mystique that he brought to the World. To call him simply a 'great boxer' does not even come close to what the man actually signified. He brought the world the kind magic that no other sportsman has ever or will ever bring again. He was a fighter who was more concerned about bringing a message of peace. He showed the kind of courage in his convictions that all of us should try to keep at the forefront of our minds. He approached his sport with brilliance and lit up the world with his vibrancy, transforming boxing along the way.

I realised something in Ali's Bar that day. Muhammad Ali is most definitely in my top 5 boxers of all time, without a shadow of a doubt. But I think that the title of 'The Greatest' is bigger than boxing, or any sport for that matter. I think that Muhammad Ali is the Greatest man ever to box. This is a much greater honour than simply being the best boxer ever. Duran, Hagler, Robinson, Louis all did amazing things in the sport of boxing. There was just one problem for Chris and millions of others like him - those fighters were not Muhammad Ali.

Happy Birthday Ali.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Azarul Ahmed July 10, 2016 at 11:08 pm

I think Fran “hits the nail on the head” with the comment: “Ali is the Greatest man ever to have boxed!”. The difference between Ali and all the other fighters mentioned above, is that Ali simply ISN’T just a boxer! Someone at his funeral speech said that had Ali lived in a different era – a more modern era, then there’s no doubt that Ali would have been a philosopher, a writer, or some other kind of influential thinker! Don’t forget this is a man who went to prison for his beliefs!!!! This is a man who sacrificed years of his boxing career – his wealth! for what he believed in!!! Just the thought of this is mind-boggling! This guy is special! This man is an example in every way possible!

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fity June 11, 2016 at 9:45 pm

I must disagree. Ali was one of the best but Jack Johnson was not only a better warrior but a more courageous one. Ali did not win against Sonny Liston , the fight was thrown.A causal viewing should make it clear Mr Liston took a dive. Finally when Ali turned on Joe Frazier it was an insight into his nature and the racist nature of whites who chuckled at his jokers about Mr Frazier;once his only friend. (Joe Frazier got justice got justice by beating the snot out of him in the Phillipines.)

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Fran June 13, 2016 at 7:40 pm

Jack Johnson was incredible, and in many ways had a more difficult relationship with the boxing and indeed the US establishment.

The way Ali turned on Frazier was very sad actually. Joe was an honourable man that did not deserve such treatment.

I agree on the 2nd Liston fight – dive! The 1st though was a one-sided beating handed out by Ali…and Liston was as fearsome a heavyweight as you’ll find anywhere!!!

Thanks fity

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MickeyG June 8, 2016 at 9:31 pm

Well said Fran. Very sad week indeed since the news. Great man and great fighter. I grew up in NYC and as a kid i know Ali was disliked and even hated by many for his brash mouth, his religious beliefs and politics. Not sure the younger folks realize how devisive a figure he was especially during the Vietnam era. The fact that he transcended all that to become the revered “champ” and beloved man we just lost is quite astounding. Not too mention the way he changed the face of boxing of course.
I missed the ALi nite Monday at the gym but we talked about it again last nite and hopefully the kids will do some homework and see what we are talking about.
If you havent seen it, theres a doumentary called Facing Ali that has a bunch of his opponents talking about their experience fighting Ali (including Henry Cooper).
thanks again Fran
Mickey

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Fran June 13, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Hi Mickey

Wonderful comment pal, very well put. I will be certain to check out the documentary (there’s been a few on over here over the last week but not that one).

Cheers Mickey, I hope that all is well with you and at the gym.

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alexander June 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm

Hi Fran, unlike some of the other comment-ors. I was born same year as CC, followed him on early black and white telly, and his Olympic Games experience. Then followed him through the cruiser division, and travelled down from Scotland to see ‘big enery’ put Ali on his backside, for a wee while, at Arsenal’s ground if I remember right. Then was disappointed when he beat my then hero, Floyd Patterson, but then warmed to him as he stunned the ‘big bruisers’ that were around then, especially Sonny Liston, whose name used to make any boxer shake. But Ali, the upstart new boy, changed all that. When he introduced the word Psyche into the dynamics of the four sided square ring, combined with sleek punches, and footwork, and haven’t all us ‘jabbers and dancers’ rejoiced ever-since, yeh. To which I must add, my pal Kenny Buchanan’s experience, about when he was top of the bill at Madison Square Gardens, and Ali was on his undercard, in ascendancy to greatness. And the promoter asked if Ali could share the dressing room with Kenny, and Kenny said, aye, only if you draw a line over on that side, and he doesn’t cross it, two greats indeed. Kenny is still around. And who knows, maybe if Ali, hadn’t started dropping his guard a lot, while rolling on the ropes, in his late years, he might have had an easier time in these last years. But who knows. And to the greatest. I’ve been wearing my hat with the saying ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ on it’, this last few days as a tribute to that man, who took on a lot of ‘global adversity’ in his life, and triumphed for sure. And dont think it was easy, just like Elvis, there was a time when he, they, were loathed by the establishment. It wasn’t nice. But look at them now. So cheers, keep your guard up, be focused, keep jabbin, and dont always believe the Judges. Ha, ha. Alex Jab Jab

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Fran June 13, 2016 at 7:18 pm

Hi Alexander. Love the direct link and history, and as I mention in the article the people really forge the link with ‘the special ones’ during the days and time it happens. ‘The Establishment’ has much to answer for and still has never learned it’s lesson (the will of the people always comes to the fore, the 27 years it took for group of families to get justice is testimony to that).

Love the Ken Buchanan story – amazing 🙂

Hope that you are well and that you are still bobbing and weaving yourself 🙂

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Dan June 7, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Ali was much before my time…my dad despised him for his mouth. Dad told me he always cheered for Smokin’ Joe. I understand that fights need to be sold/promoted and for the times in which Ali came up in people were not at all used to seeing someone who looked like Ali act so boldly! Nowadays, it’s common practice for fighters to flap their gums etc…It’s a turn off to me when I see these fighters dancing on their way up to the ring and all that flashy stuff. I immediately route for the other guy!
I think Ali was a great boxer (one of the greatest for sure)…I think more coverage of him outside of the ring would shed more light on the good man everyone says he was. For him to take a stand on his religious beliefs and Vietnam says a lot about him. He lost 3yrs of his PRIME for his beliefs! Pretty amazing to say the least! Quite the sacrifice there wouldn’t ya say?

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Fran June 13, 2016 at 7:12 pm

Absolutely it was a massive sacrifice Dan, and there was no doubt that Ali’s treatment of Smokin’ Joe was unkind in the extreme, and I think Ali knew that and regretted it immensely. Truly great figure for the sport and for the World in general.

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Robert Beamon June 7, 2016 at 8:52 am

You were right on. He transcended boxing – “He WAS boxing but boxing WAS NOT him”.

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Fran June 8, 2016 at 9:16 pm

Hear hear Bob 🙂

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Jay Patel June 7, 2016 at 5:34 am

Hi all

What a great fighter and icon Ali was. I must admit I’ve been blown away by the tributes that have emerged following his passing. I didn’t realise he had touched so many lives outside of boxing.

Why do people think this is? I know his trash talking was tongue in cheek and he backed up his claims to greatness. However he could harsh and verge on racism (Frazier, calling white people devils) and sexism. So why do people think Ali transcended all that and became so popular?

I am not trolling this is a genuine question…I am in my 20s so wasn’t around when Ali was in his prime and only know what I’ve seen on YouTube and read on the internet.

RIP champ

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Fran June 8, 2016 at 9:16 pm

Great question Jay, one that I’m not sure I’m able to properly answer. I am a strong believer in the power of approaching life with humour and that it endears a person to the wider community, and he certainly did that. I also think though that Ali was around during a seismic period in American history – particularly the civil rights movement and the realisation that the US had been the protagonist in a war that did not need to happen. Any montage of 60’s America on TV always has Ali somewhere in it – he genuinely became a true icon.

Thanks for the question mate, and I never for a moment thought you were trolling 😉

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Jay Patel June 9, 2016 at 11:28 am

Thanks Fran great insight as always

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Paul_S June 6, 2016 at 11:55 pm

Thanks for the email notifying of this great article Coach. Yes, it seems this weekend all the souls in heaven were united in declaring ‘THE CHAMP IS HERE — THE CHAMP IS HERE!

He was unforgettable and a great life-long role model to me.

My first awareness of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali was seeing the bloodied face of Henry Cooper on the front page of a newspaper in London, England…..It was 1963 and I was 2 years old….That memory stayed with me because I had never seen a bloody face before and such a graphic image tends to stay with you.

On Saturday my wife (she’s the one who actually came up with the above thought) and I were watching BBC coverage on the life of The Greatest and his passing when I got a call from my 22 year old godson. He said he had “just heard the sad news and immediately thought of me because I always spoke highly of Muhammad Ali and how much he had done in and out of the boxing ring.”

He then said he loved me for being there for his mother and brothers and my eyes, which were already on the verge of tears from watching the BBC coverage, started to water……I was touched. Not just by him saying he loved me, but that he would associate his knowledge of The Champ with teachings I shared with them. So, I told him I loved him too and spoke of a quote Muhammad Ali gave as to how he wanted to be remembered — The last line gave us all a good laugh:

“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times.

Who was humorous and who treated everyone right.

As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him.

And who helped as many people as he could.

As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what.

As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.

And if all that’s too much then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people.

And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
•Muhammad Ali

The first boxing match of Ali’s I saw was when he fought Jerry Quarry after his ban had been lifted….Our family would watch the fights the following Saturday on Wide World of Sports w/ Howard Cosell…. In fact the first biography I ever read was when I was 10 or 11 years old and it was on Ali’s life and can still remember how impressed I was impressed at how he would not ride the bus to school, but would run alongside it instead….lol….I never missed a match after the Quarry fight and vividly remember him losing to Joe Frazier in the Fight of The Century.

My family listened to the Foreman vs. Ali fight live on the radio and I was stunned but elated to hear it when Ali KO’d Foreman….I have fond memories of my family’s reactions that night……The Greatest proved himself again and again (as you well know) in what is regarded as the greatest era of heavyweight boxers in history.

I will always be grateful to have seen him in action and to live in the same times as he did.

You have the same effect, Coach.

Thanks and best regards.

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Fran June 8, 2016 at 9:11 pm

Wow.

Fantastic addition to the article Paul, thank you so much. Evocative, moving and thoughtful. I need say no more.

I hope that all is well with you and your wonderful wife. Take care pal.

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Paul_S June 9, 2016 at 9:24 pm

All is good, Coach. Thank you. I hope all is well with you and yours too.

P.S. I haven’t forgotten about the review, but was away for 2 months on a job…been home 3 weeks now and can do it if you’re still interested.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way, but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.”
Muhammad Ali

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Declan Hill June 6, 2016 at 11:24 pm

Hi Fran

Respect as always. You are the thinking man’s guide to boxing. Here is my take on Ali.

All good wishes

Declan

Muhammad Ali has shuffled off to the great boxing heaven in the sky.  He was a fighter who set the world alight with his skills, politics and charisma.  In the glowing hagiographies that will come out let us remember a few things about him.

First, Mohammad Ali could be a through jerk. Ali’s treatment one of the other great boxers of his era – Joe Frazier – was awful.  Frazier was a dignified, good man who had lent Ali money and support when Ali protested against the Vietnam War.   Ali responded by calling him an ‘Uncle Tom’ and a ‘gorilla’ (He also called him other names so distasteful that I will not repeat them).  It was ugly, racist, vile crap used to sell a fight.

Second, Sonny Liston, Ali’s opponent who is gazing up at him in the famous photo, had a long, sordid relationship with the mob.    The story that circles around that fight is that Liston was told to take a dive in the first round by his mafia connections.  Ali is furious and as he stands over Liston, he is screaming for him to get up and keep fighting.  That anger is what the photographer has captured, not Ali’s triumph.

Liston was not the only prominent boxer who worked for the mafia.   There is a massive  graveyard full of fighters who used their muscle to help organized crime scumbags.   Even in the first Rocky film its central character is working as a debt collector for the neighbourhood mobster.

Three,  there is one man that Ali never fought would could possibly – I repeat possibly – have beaten Ali at his prime.  Teofilo Stevenson the extraordinary Cuban heavyweight who won three Olympic Gold medals.  Hang around the Cuban boxing scene and it does not take long for Stevenson’s name to come up.  He is a legend.   He was offered $5 million-dollars to fight Ali in 1976 in what would have been a massive ‘communism vs. capitalism fight’.  The Cubans claim that the Americans were too afraid to arrange the fight.  The story that the Americans tell is that Stevenson turned down the offer saying, ‘What is million-of-dollars compared to the love of millions of Cubans?’

However, when all of Ali’s career is added up – the protests against racism, the opposition to the Vietnam War and those wonderful, thrilling, glorious fights against Foreman and Frazier – he is one of the greats and he will be missed.  May he rest in peace.

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Fran June 8, 2016 at 9:08 pm

Hey Declan

Thank you, a very incisive view of the contradictory nature of Ali in and out of the ring. I very much appreciate you taking the time to contribute. The cruel treatment of Smokin’ Joe was very shameful and I believe that Ali recognised that and understood Jo’s intense dislike for him. I think also that Ali’s arrival at least coincided with the end of significant Mob corruption in the sport, I do feel though that others took up the Mob approach and changed it slightly to not be as obvious, and that the corruption is still present in another form. Such is life I guess.

Thanks again pal, appreciative of your contribution.

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Peter Dawkins June 6, 2016 at 8:24 pm

Hi Fran

I woke up Saturday morning and heard the news and just sat there and wept.

Not only was Ali a great boxer thinking of him reminded me of the times that I sat in front of a black and white TV set watching his fights with my dearly loved and departed dad – very special times.

Ali along with Neil Armstrong were my boyhood heroes – god bless both of them.

Thanks

Pete

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Fran June 6, 2016 at 8:26 pm

With you there Pete

As I said in the email, it was yesterday afternoon that it got me. Daughter walked into the kitchen and asked why I was crying at the radio. I couldn’t explain…

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john traynor December 13, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Hello Fran

Don’t know whether it was just me but when I was a kid I wanted anyone but Ali to win. He was a big head, rude and it wasn’t just Frazier he was deeply disrespectful of but George Foreman wasn’t treated too well either. However I’m a bit more forgiving of his behaviour now as I’m aware of the game he was playing and what an effective game it was. I thought his stance against the U.S. authorities was his greatest fight what a brave man he was for refusing to fight in Vietnam and losing his licence for 3 years (?).
Another thing I liked about him aswell was he was different from what
people expected of boxers, he was creative, political and funny. I appreciate him now more than I ever did as a kid.

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Fran December 18, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Hey John

He was incredibly cruel at times, beyond the pail. My guess is that once he realised after the first Liston fight that he could gain real advantage by disrespecting and being dismissive of opponents, it snowballed. But, as you say, his bravery and intelligence both inside and outside the ring puts it all into perspective. The will never be another Ali.

Nice insight John. Thanks mate.

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DOG February 9, 2012 at 4:52 am

hi Fran,
you mentioned Ali is in your top 5 boxers of all time.
i remember as a young boy sat watching the Ali vs Frazier fights
in the early 70’s with my dad,we were both cheering for smokin’ joe,
it wasnt till a later in life that i began to realize that in the ring Ali
was a genius,i think it was just all the bragging and talking that me &
me dad didnt like about him.anyway you mentioned top 5 boxers,
heres my top 5(they might not be the best but they’re my fav’s)
5.Khaosai Galaxy
4.Marvelous Marvin Hagler
3.Mike Tyson
2.Dwight Braxton(Muhammad Qawi)
my number 1.Roberto Duran
who’s in your top 5 Fran?

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Paul Smith January 26, 2012 at 11:00 am

Yes Fran, that site is no longer on my radar. My Boxing Coach.com is the most ‘REAL DEAL’ website imo, as I and many others can certainly appreciate, that this is a boxing website made for contenders – not pretenders.

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tom January 26, 2012 at 7:35 am

Jack Johnson deserves loads of respect. No doubt. But you won’t get so many cool posters of him:). But seriously, good point made by Fran. Heroes needn’t be perfect. What, in my eyes, makes Ali a hero is his effort to take part in a wider collective struggle and his will to sacrifice his immediate interests for the case.
And I had better go and do some workout now:)

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Paul Smith January 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm

EXCELLENT article Fran!
I have my home gym set up with various pics of “the Greatest” and other great fighters. I use it as a form of motivation and inspiration. From Ali as a 12 year old, posed in a fighters stance, to one of him on his butt after Frazier knocked him down; to Bruce Lee, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Robinson.
I have tickets and pics from Ali’s Liston and Foreman fights, as well as an excellent quality large colour pic of him and Norton in the ring.
My absolute favourite pic however, is a black and white sepia like one of Ali and Frazier as senior citizens, they are side by side and wearing boxing robes, both of them looking ‘eye of the tiger’, stone-faced, straight into the camera.
That pic , imo, is worth more than 100 thousand words, because the look in their eyes tells the full story of their battles, both in the ring and in life.
It is quite touching to see, because it shows that even the strongest men can be ravaged by time and although they may not have always gotten along well with each other and appear to be half the men they used to be, there is a grudging respect that they have for each other and their respective fighting spirits.

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Fran January 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Thanks Paul

Really well made point. It’s that peculiarity that is entwined in boxing. How two guys can unleash hell on each other but having at least a level of respect that can go beyond friendship. What Frazier and Ali had was quite unique in the sport. Joe being the working-man’s fighter. No nonsense, tough, relentless. Ali having the cinematic shine. Having read an lot about their relationship and how it developed (or deteriorated depending on your view point). Unprecedented really. It would be lovely to think that they were friends in the end, but having watched a documentary last year it was clear that Joe was deeply hurt and upset by how the relationship soured, even 30 years later. There you go. I think Joe may have respected Ali as a fighter, not sure he respected him as a man though.

Cheers Paul, nice of you to post.

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Fran January 26, 2012 at 9:58 am

By the way Paul, I noticed that you had been offering some defence of the MyBoxingCoach approach on another website, a website that shall remain nameless 😉 Thank you for that, very much appreciated mate.

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fity January 24, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Sorry but he is tarnished by how he treated Joe Frazier;and how he blew off training prior to his fight against him in Manila. Jack Johnson,Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano,in that order. Yes he was an outstanding boxer,but too full of himself to be called the greatest. Besides Rocky was wise enough to retire undefeated;and without Parkinsons disease. Johnson fought under very brutal conditions and faced a harsher,racist environment.

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Fran January 25, 2012 at 9:25 pm

fity, I agree absolutely that Ali’s treatment of Joe Frazier was terribly unfair and in fact disloyal. Frazier had lobbied sanctioning bodies and politicians throughout Ali’s exile to have Ali’s license reinstated and certainly did not deserve that kind of treatment that was meated out to him by Ali. However, no one said heroes have to be perfect, and people happily overlook shortcomings when it comes to idol worship.

Jack Johnson. Now there was a fighter and there was a story. A uniquely brave (and fun-loving) man who made a stand against an extremely brutal system of organised racism.

Great comment fity

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tom January 20, 2012 at 6:36 pm

I mean, i do not expect ANYBODY to be patron saint of ANYTHING. I love watching gamboas and maywathers performing their outstanding skills but…it is a bit more difficult for me to admire their personalities…
So, happy birthday Ali:)

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tom January 18, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Hello Fran,
thank you for the sweet column and the links.

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Fran January 20, 2012 at 8:00 am

Cheers Tom, and you’re welcome

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