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MAY-PAC: “HIGHEST-GROSSING” DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN “BIGGEST” OR “BEST”

Bernard Fernandez

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There are many ways to keep score, but in today’s bottom-line world, whoever racks up the most cash often is presumed to be the winner. And when you’re talking about a boxing match whose principal revenue-producer’s nickname is “Money,” it’s only natural that the magnitude of the financial bonanza is a major topic of discussion.

There is no disputing that the May 2 pay-per-view pairing of WBA/WBC welterweight champion Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. (47-0, 26 KOs) and WBO welter titlist Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 KOs) will be the highest-grossing prizefight ever. Projections are for total revenues exceeding $300 million, which would shatter all records, with Mayweather expected to add another $120 million or so to his net worth of $280 million. Pacquiao, on the short end of a 60-40 split, will have to “settle” for $80 million or so to add to a personal fortune estimated at $100 million, although it can be said that a dollar buys a lot more in his native Philippines than it does in the United States.

As might be expected, the income-generating aspects of Mayweather-Pacquiao were a major topic of discussion at Wednesday’s press conference at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, which was nearly as glitzy as the Academy Awards show in the same city just 18 days earlier. There was a red carpet, of course, and over 700 credentialed media from around the world were in attendance. It’s almost amazing that Floyd and Manny didn’t wear designer tuxedos when they stepped onto the stage.

It didn’t take long for anyone holding a microphone to focus on the almost incomprehensible amount of money this fight – which had been in a holding pattern for five years – figures to tally.

“They’re calling this the biggest payday in sports,” said Brian Custer, who, along with Kieran Mulvaney, co-hosted the offstage portion of the globally streamed presentation. “There’s no other sporting event that has generated the type of money that they expect that this fight will generate. When Floyd Mayweather fought Oscar De La Hoya, it set so many box-office records, especially when you talk about pay-per-view buys – 2.48 million. Bob Arum (the CEO of Top Rank, who promotes Pacquiao) says he expects this fight to do three to four million. Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather generated $150 million. They expect this fight to generate $300 million.”

Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, got the gig as emcee at the podium and he, too, hammered home the point that every revenue stream is apt to turn into a raging, flood-level river.

“Hello, welcome to this amazing moment in boxing and sports history,” Ellerbe said. “We’re very excited to be making history today by officially announcing the biggest boxing event in the history of the sport, and one of the biggest events ever in all of sport – Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao.”

In introducing Mayweather, Ellerbe again referenced the spreadsheet logic that the worth of this fight is largely tied to its financial implications, and to Mayweather’s status as the world’s No. 1 PPV attraction.

“He’s been named the world’s highest-paid athlete by Forbes magazine, ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated, which is truly a testament to his great popularity around the world,” Ellerbe said. Showtime ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. also touched on the familiar theme, calling Mayweather “the pay-per-view king” who is “recognized as the world’s highest-paid athlete, for good reason.”

All well and good. But to me, and I’m sure a lot of other fight fans, rich guys getting richer isn’t a reason to pony up wallet-draining amounts for tickets in the arena (face values range from $1,500 to $7,500, with scalpers likely to get much more) or for PPV subscriptions set at $89.95 (regular TV) or $99.95 (high-definition). What matters is this: Can the action in the ring possibly live up to the incredible hype? Because if it’s one thing that we all ought to know by now, it’s that, in boxing, “highest-grossing” isn’t necessarily tantamount to “biggest” or “best.”

There have been fights that were bigger and better than Mayweather-Pacquiao is likely to be, despite technological that have made the concept of superstardom in sports a much more lucrative proposition. Consider this: Maybe the most dominant lefthanded pitcher ever, Sandy Koufax, was paid $125,000 by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, and he had to hold out to get that. In today’s dollars, Koufax’s career-high salary equates to $904,440. Another Dodgers southpaw ace, Clayton Kershaw, recently signed a seven-year, $215 million contract, with an annual payout of $30.7 million. Anyone who saw Koufax in his prime would dispute the notion that Kershaw, as good as he is, is 30 times better than Koufax, if at all.

Money skews all debate. Are Mayweather and Pacquiao, at 38 and 36, respectively, better fighters than, say, Micky Ward and the late Arturo Gatti? They are, without question. But will their May 2 showdown approach the fury and competitiveness of any or all of the three fights in the Gatti-Ward trilogy? That remains to be seen, although it wouldn’t surprise a lot of people if May-Pac doesn’t rise to the excitement level of those bouts, and any number of others involving lesser talents.

There have been highly anticipated bouts involving big-name fighters that were aesthetic disappointments, such as the welterweight unification pairing of WBC champ De La Hoya (who at the time was 31-0 with 25 knockouts) and IBF titlist Felix Trinidad (35-0, 30 KOs) on Sept. 18, 1999, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Believing himself to be too far ahead to be in danger of losing on points, the “Golden Boy” played keepaway the final three rounds and was shocked to lose a 12-round majority decision to Trinidad, whose largely ineffective aggression was nonetheless rewarded. Statistics compiled by CompuBox revealed that De La Hoya had landed 263 punches to 166 for Trinidad.

In his account of that fight in The Ring magazine, editor Nigel Collins wrote: “The real loser, regardless of what you thought of the official verdict, was boxing. When the spotlight shone the brightest and the challenge was the greatest, neither risked all in the pursuit of ultimate glory, settling for a restrained, conservative approach.”

In truth, De La Hoya-Trinidad was a decent fight if viewed from the perspective of normalcy. Given the exaggerated expectations, though, it fell short. And therein lay the danger of everyone who presumes that Mayweather and Pacquiao will engage in a war for the ages simply because the stacks of high-denomination bills are so high. Consumers contributing to the fighters’ windfall are going to assume they will be rewarded with their money’s worth of spills and thrills, which is at best an iffy proposition.

Mayweather might still be the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, but his age suggests he has at least started on the downhill slope of a remarkable career. He is also known for his splendid defense, which could make it difficult for Pacquiao, who also isn’t quite all that he once was, to find openings. If Pacquiao, a 3-to-1 underdog, finds himself constantly flailing at empty air, as some are predicting, the latest “Fight of the Century” could turn tedious fast.

Face it: if these guys give fans merely a good fight, it won’t be enough, just as De La Hoya-Trinidad wasn’t enough. Risks will have to be taken, caution thrown to the wind, and mindsets will have to be shoot-the-works. Even if all that happens, magic isn’t always made. You never know what’s going to happen until you get there. Prefight hype does not a great event make.

The bar that Mayweather and Pacquiao will try to clear has been set very, very high by fighters from other eras whose historical significance on certain dates might be unapproachable in any case. Even if “Money” and “Pac-Man” fling themselves at each other with reckless abandon, the end result won’t – can’t – approach that of these classic bouts:

Jack Johnson-James J. Jeffries: July 4, 1910, Reno, Nev.

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion when he defeated Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, and his convention-flouting ways – openly consorting with white women, among other perceived transgressions – made white America nervous. Jack London – yes, the same Jack London who authored “Call of the Wild” — was at ringside for Johnson’s victory over Burns, and, writing for the New York Telegraph, he urged retired heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries to come back and restore the fight game to its proper order.

“Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face,” London wrote. “Jeff, it’s up to you!”

Jeffries, who hadn’t fought since 1904 and was fat and happy in California, didn’t want the fight. But as public pressure mounted for him, or someone else, to put Johnson in his place, he returned to training.

The first so-called “Fight of the Century” was staged in a temporary stadium specifically erected for this fight, and from the opening bell it was obvious that Jeffries, who had had to lose 70 points to get back into fighting trim, was no match for Johnson, who openly taunted him. Johnson floored him in the first round, the first time Jeffries had ever been on the canvas, and he went down twice more before promoter/referee Tex Rickard stepped in and put a stop to the slaughter in the 15th round of the scheduled 45-rounder.

Johnson walked away with $120,00 – that’s $2,918,100 in today’s dollars – and Jeffries with a nice parting gift of $117,000. He never fought again.

Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II: June 22, 1938, New York City

Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had hoped the 1936 Berlin Olympics would serve as a showcase to promote the notion of Aryan supremacy, but black American sprinter Jesse Owens put the kibosh to that by winning four gold medals. Still, the German hierarchy saw the outcome of the first Louis-Schmeling fight, on June 19, 1936, in Yankee Stadium, as proof that their ideology was correct. Schmeling, a former heavyweight champion, floored the favored and undefeated Louis with an overhand right in the fourth in the fourth round and he remained in control until closing the show on a TKO in Round 12.

For the rematch, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Louis, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany,” an allusion to the likelihood of America entering the burgeoning global conflict that became World War II. Louis took the admonition to heart and, before a crowd of 75,000, again in Yankee Stadium, he went right at Schmeling from the opening bell, knocking him down four times in Round 1 before the German’s corner threw in the towel.

In Germany, the radio broadcast – which began at 3 a.m. local time – was cut off before the final knockdown. In the U.S., the victory by the “Brown Bomber” was hailed by whites and blacks alike as an affirmation of American values. Modest and clean-living, Louis was widely seen as the antithesis of Johnson.

“He’s a credit to his race – the human race,” New York sports columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote of Louis’ avenging his only previous loss with the emphatic dispatching of Schmeling.

Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I: March 8, 1971, New York City

In “Boxing,” the epic coffee-table publication authored by Bertram Job, he notes that Ali-Frazier I “was not simply just one more heavyweight world championship bout. It was the greatest event that had taken place since two men walked on the surface of the moon three years before.”

Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, which had resulted in an enforced 3½-year absence from boxing. During the interim, Frazier had rose up to claim the title, with their first meeting also the first time that two undefeated heavyweight champions: Ali went in at 31-0, with 25 KOs, while Frazier was 26-0 with 23 wins inside the distance. In demeanor, style and appearance, the two men could hardly be more dissimilar: Ali was tall, lithe, narcissistic and controversial; Smokin’ Joe was short, stumpy, taciturn and relentless.

If the old bromide that “styles make fights,” then Ali and Frazier were made for one another. Before a sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden, the two – each man was paid a then-record $2.5 million ($14.64 million in today’s dollars) – gave every bit of themselves. Frazier, however, came away with a unanimous decision, punctuating his performance with a leaping left hook that deposited Ali onto his back in the 15th and final round.

Ali would win two subsequent matchups, and it can be argued that Part III in the series, the “Thrilla in Manila,” was even more riveting. But the anticipation of something great, which was delivered in full, and then some, in Part I perhaps is unmatched in the history of boxing.

If there is a fight that, hopefully, holds the most potential parallels to Mayweather-Pacquiao, it is Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, which took place on Sept. 16, 1981, in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It also was a welterweight unification fight, with Leonard, the WBC 147-pound champion, coming in with a record of 30-1 (21) to 32-0 (30) for Hearns, the WBA ruler.

Perhaps because he had that one loss – to Roberto Duran – Leonard was the underdog, albeit a close one, at 6½-5 odds. There was a feeling in some quarters that the 6-1½ “Hitman,” with his imposing 78-inch reach, would put his physical advantages and superior punching power to good use against the quicker, more mobile Leonard.

But the action didn’t follow the script most had visualized. Hearns boxed, and masterfully, for long stretches, so much so that he began to build a substantial lead on the scorecards. Leonard, his left eye swelling, had little choice but to become the aggressor as the fight entered the championship rounds. Advised by his chief second, Angelo Dundee, that “You’re blowin’ it, son,” after the 12th round, he hurt Hearns in the 13th and was able to close the deal with a barrage of blows along the ropes in the 14th.

Six years ago, Leonard looked back at that first scrap with Hearns as the highlight of professional career, even more so than his stunning upset of Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.

“To me, those were the great days of boxing, when there were rivalries, personalities, legends,” Leonard said. “There was such an abundance of talent in every division.

“Tommy Hearns seemed like an indestructible machine, so to beat him, I think that was my defining moment, the pinnacle. Those kind of matchups don’t come along too often.”

They seem to come along less often now, in an era where there are fewer great rivalries, personalities and legends. We look to Mayweather-Pacquiao because, where Leonard, Hearns, Duran and Hagler were able to test each other on almost a rotating basis, May and Pac were left with few attractive options except each other.

And so we pay, and pay big, for an oasis of a big in a parched landscape. Here’s hoping that Floyd and Manny provide us with the cool sip of pugilistic refreshment to carry us through until the next water hole shimmers somewhere off in the distance.

Photo by: Chris Farina / Top Rank

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Yoka vs. Hammer Kicks Off the Thanksgiving Weekend Slate on ESPN+

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PRESS RELEASE— Tony Yoka, the dynamic heavyweight punching Parisian, aims to impress in his ESPN platform debut. Yoka, who won a super heavyweight gold medal for France at the 2016 Rio Olympics, will fight veteran Christian Hammer in a 10-rounder Friday at H Arena in Nantes, France.

Yoka-Hammer will stream live and exclusively this Friday, Nov. 27 in the United States on ESPN+ beginning at 2:55 p.m. ET/11:55 a.m. PT.

The ESPN+ stream will also include the return of unbeaten 2016 French Olympic gold medalist Estelle Yoka-Mossely against Pasa Malagic in an eight-round lightweight bout. Yoka and Yoka-Mossely, who have been married since 2018, welcomed their second child in May.

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Earlier this year, Yoka inked a promotional agreement with Top Rank, which will co-promote him with Ringstar France.

“Tony Yoka’s potential is limitless, and he is a grounded young man who is motivated to be a great professional fighter,” said Top Rank chairman Bob Arum. “France has never had a world heavyweight champion, and I believe Tony is the one to bring the sport’s biggest honor home.”

The 28-year-old Yoka’s stellar amateur run included a berth at the 2012 London Olympics and gold medals at the 2015 World Championships and 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Before his triumph in Rio, he’d already defeated the likes of former heavyweight world champion Joseph Parker and current undefeated prospects Joe Joyce and Ivan Dychko. At the Rio Olympics, he defeated Croatian standout Filip Hrgović in the semifinals and edged Joyce in the gold medal match.

As a professional, Yoka (8-0, 7 KOs) made his debut in June 2017 with a second-round stoppage over the previously undefeated Travis Clark. Apart from a decision win over Jonathan Rice in his second outing, Yoka has stopped every foe, including durable Englishman David “White Rhino” Allen and former European champion Alexander Dimitrenko. He made his 2020 debut Sept. 25 and stopped former world title challenger Johann Duhaupas in one round.

Hammer (25-6, 15 KOs) has fought many of the leading heavyweight names during his 12-year career, falling short against Tyson Fury, Luis Ortiz and Alexander Povetkin. He’s notched myriad upset victories, including a highlight-reel knockout over David Price and a 2016 split decision over Erkan Teper for the WBO European belt. In March 2019, he went the 10-round distance against Ortiz and has not been stopped since Fury forced him to retire on his stool after eight rounds in their February 2015 clash.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 115: Macho, Freddie and More

David A. Avila

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Camacho me and Mia

“Macho.”

That single word is how Hector Camacho presented himself when introduced. It was the only word needed for the three-division world champion from Puerto Rico who was raised in Harlem, New York.

The first time I met Camacho was in a dark and packed Las Vegas nightclub in the MGM where he was a guest of Oscar De La Hoya back in March 2001. Though it was difficult to see, when Camacho was introduced, I could see the large gold medallion with the word “Macho” in letters six inches high.

Showtime network will be presenting a documentary called “Macho: The Hector Camacho Story” on Friday, December 4 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. It sparks memories of how a fighter in the lower weight classes grabbed the attention of the boxing world.

Camacho was more than flash or words, he was an electrifying boxer who stood out in the 1980s, an era dominated by the “Four Kings” Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. Oh, and also a guy named Mike Tyson.

The fast-talking Camacho was a phenomenal fighter who swept aside opponents with his blinding speed and shocking power. It was against Los Angeles-based fighters like Refugio Rojas and Louie Loy that I first read about his exploits. Both were knocked out.

A third Southern California fighter John “Huero” Montes was thought to be the one to give Camacho a real challenge. The fight was televised to a national audience in February 1983. At the time I was watching it on a tiny black and white television and at 1:13 into the first round Camacho unleashed one of those lethal uppercuts and Montes was out-for-the-count.

Camacho arrived that day.

From that point on few could withstand the speedy southpaw’s blinding charges. Six months later he stopped Mexico’s “Bazooka” Limon to win the vacant super featherweight title.

One fighter who heard the final bell was Freddie Roach who could take a punch and knew a thing or two about fighting southpaws.

“I liked fighting southpaws,” said Roach via telephone. “My dad taught me early to keep my foot on the outside and lead with right hands.”

Roach had never lost to a southpaw. The winner that day between Camacho and Roach in Sacramento, on December 1985, was supposedly going to fight Puerto Rico’s heavy-handed Edwin Rosario.

Using his surefire method of fighting southpaws, Roach managed a knockdown of Camacho with the help of his foot. But it was not enough.

“He was very difficult. Lot of people raved about how fast his speed was. You didn’t really realize until you got into the ring with him,” said Roach. “I wasn’t the slowest, but wasn’t the fastest. I just couldn’t keep up.”

Despite using roughhouse tactics against the lefty speedster, Roach said that Camacho invited him to dinner after the fight.

That pretty much explains Camacho, a talented and big-hearted guy.

Last Stages

The last time I ran into Camacho was at the Pechanga Resort and Casino when he and Mia St. John were about to fight on the same boxing card in 2009. He was much heavier but still able to defeat middleweights.

How good was Camacho?

He defeated two of the Four Kings when he beat Roberto Duran twice and stopped Sugar Ray Leonard by knockout when they fought in 1997. Yes, Leonard was 41 and had not fought in six years, but this was Sugar Ray Leonard.

“I didn’t think he would ever beat Leonard,” said Roach.

Neither did Leonard.

“I just felt that I was a bigger man. I was smarter, stronger, all those things, but the first time he threw a punch, it was like, Pow! And I said, ‘Wow, that hurt,’” said Leonard about their encounter. “I tried the best I could to just go the distance. When he was at his best, he was a thing of beauty.”

What I remember after Camacho beat Leonard was how sincerely apologetic he was after the victory. He could talk the talk and walk the walk but inside he remained the kid from Harlem who was given extraordinary talent. And he was humbled by it.

Roach remembers their dinner together after their fight.

“That night he took me out to dinner with his friends and said you fought a good fight,” said Roach adding that Camacho was a very likeable guy. “I saw him along the way in his career.”

Roach, who would later train another astoundingly fast southpaw named Manny Pacquiao, said he never fought anyone again as talented as Camacho.

“You hear rumors of drug problems and training problems. But when he fought me, he was in for 10 and I tried every trick in the book but it didn’t work. He was in a higher class than I was,” Roach said. “He was one of the best fighters in the world.”

Don’t miss this Showtime documentary next week.

Jacobs and Rosado

Speaking of Roach, the famous trainer will be working the corner of Gabe Rosado (25-12-1, 14 KOs) when he meets Daniel Jacobs (36-3, 30 KOs) on Friday, Nov. 27, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

It’s Philly versus Brooklyn.

Rosado has long proven to be a real professional who keeps adding elements to his fight game. Paired with Roach he has further developed under the guidance of the Southern California-based trainer. Plus, Rosado can plain fight.

Jacobs, a former world champion, has proven to be an elite middleweight and looks just as comfortable as a super middleweight.

Expect the kind of prize fight they used to show in the Golden Age of boxing in the 1950s when you had guys like Johnny Saxton fighting Denny Moyer. It should be that kind of battle of wits and skill. I’m looking forward to it.

Photo: Hector Camacho, David Avila, and Mia St. John. Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Muhammad Ali Biographer Jonathan Eig Talks About His Book and the Icon Who Inspired It

Rick Assad

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Given the breadth and depth of Muhammad Ali’s 74 years, it isn’t very easy to capture the complete essence of the man.

Dozens of books have been written about the three-time heavyweight champion including Jonathan Eig’s 2017 biography, “Ali: A Life.”

Born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay, he would one day be known around the globe as a world-class boxer, civil rights advocate, philanthropist and cultural icon.

Like so many others, the Brooklyn, New York-born Eig became intrigued by Ali.

“I loved Ali as a child. He fascinated me. He was outspoken, radical, yet so very loveable,” he said. “And, of course, he could fight! I was astonished to realize, around 2012, that there was no complete biography of Ali, even though he was probably the most famous man of the 20th century.”

Eig, currently at work on a major offering about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., added: “I had read lots of Ali books, including [David] Remnick’s “King Of The World: Muhammad Ali And The Rise Of An American Hero,” and [Thomas] Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times,” and [Norman] Mailer’s “The Fight” – but those were not complete biographies,” he pointed out. “By 2012, enough time had gone by to put Ali in historical perspective. Also, there were plenty of people still alive to tell the story. I did more than 500 interviews, including all three of Ali’s living wives. I wanted to write a book that would treat Ali as more than a boxer. I wanted to write a book that would show the good and the bad. I wanted to write a big book worthy of an epic life, a book that danced and jabbed half as beautifully as Ali.”

Given Eig’s exhaustive research, what previously unknown tidbits about Ali did he come across?

“I learned thousands of new things. I think even hardcore Ali fans will find new information on almost every page,” said the former Wall Street Journal reporter and 1986 Northwestern University graduate. “I discovered things Ali himself didn’t know. I discovered Ali’s grandfather was a convicted murderer, for example. Ali didn’t know that! I read Ali’s FBI files, as well as those of Herbert Muhammad, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. I interviewed Ali’s childhood friends. I found MRIs of Ali’s brain. I counted the punches from all of his fights. I measured how those punches affected his speaking rate. Ali’s wives also confided in me things I never knew. I spent four years working on this book, and every day delivered revelations.”

Over the years, Ali, who posted a 56-5 ring record with 37 knockouts, seemed to mellow with time which helped ingratiate him to an even wider audience. How was this possible?

“People change. They grow. It’s hard to stay radical as you get older and richer,” said Eig, who has written five books including three that deal with sports. “The late Stanley Crouch had a great line about Ali. He said young Ali was a grizzly bear. Ali in the ’70s was a circus bear. Ali in his later years was a teddy bear. We all loved the teddy bear. We wanted to hug him and love him. But it was the grizzly bear who we should remember first. It was the grizzly bear who shook up the world.”

Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram covered nearly the entirety of Ali’s career which spanned 1960 through 1981 and included a three-year period, 1967 until 1970 when he wasn’t allowed to box after being convicted of draft evasion because he refused induction into the armed forces.

In Kram’s book, “Ghosts Of Manila,” the author asserts Ali was essentially a pawn of the Black Muslims.

What’s Eig’s take?

“I love Kram’s book, but I think it’s dangerous to question anyone’s religious faith,” he said. “Ali was a true believer. The Nation of Islam took advantage of him at times. But does that mean he was a pawn? I don’t think so. He knew what he was doing. He made his own choices. One might argue that the NOI did more for Ali than Ali did for them.”

Ali wasn’t perfect and that included his fondness for women. As a Muslim, how did he hurdle this?

“He didn’t reconcile it – except to acknowledge that humans are human, they are flawed,” Eig said. “The thing I love about Ali is that he said he was the greatest, but he never said he was perfect. He talked to his wives about his weakness. He even talked to reporters about his flaws – his weakness for women, his disdain for training, his poor handling of money. He knew who he was and he never tried to be anything else.”

Eig, who has also penned “Luckiest Man: The Life And Death Of Lou Gehrig,” and “Opening Day: The Story Of Jackie Robinson’s First Season,” went on: “We’re all complicated, right? Ali was no more complicated than you or me, but he let the whole world see his complications – his racial pride and his racist behavior toward [Joe] Frazier, his love of women and his cruelty to his wives, his generosity with his money and his stupidity with money,” he said. “I don’t think Ali was different, just more open, more willing to let us see everything.”

Ali’s battles with Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton are legendary, but his two fights against Sonny Liston are filled with question marks, such as were they fixed?

Ali claimed the title on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round and then faced Liston 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine, where he knocked out the challenger in the opening frame.

In Eig’s mind, were these two bouts on the level? “My hunch is that the first fight was legit. Liston quit when he knew he couldn’t win,” Eig said. “The second fight is more suspicious. Liston’s flop was pathetic. Bad acting! But I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. As an aside, Liston’s wife said Sonny had diarrhea before the fight, which might have given him one more reason to throw it.”

Still, Ali in his prime was a sight to behold. “Ali before the exile, in my opinion, was the most beautiful boxer of all time. His combination of speed and power and ferocity was thrilling, elegant, frightening and marvelous,” Eig said. “Was he the greatest heavyweight of all time? Maybe, maybe not. Was he the most breathtaking? To me, yes.”

Early in Ali’s career his braggadocio was off-putting to many. But much of it was showmanship.

“One of the Greatest” doesn’t sound as good, does it? If we’re only discussing his action in the ring, Ali was one of the greatest,” Eig said. “But that’s like saying Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest trumpet players without considering his voice, his charm, his improvisational skills, his smile. In and out of the ring, Ali was the greatest in my book.”

For so many, Ali was many things. What traits in the man does Eig admire? “I love his fearlessness, his honesty, his insatiable appetite for people,” he said. “He was so very loving. But he could also be narcissistic. He wanted everyone to love him, but he wasn’t always sensitive to the feelings of others – including his wives and children. He turned his back on friends like Malcolm X and Joe Frazier when it served his purposes.”

While Ali could be polarizing, he had his legion of supporters including Howard Cosell, Jerry Izenberg, Robert Lipsyte, Larry Merchant and Jack Newfield.

“You could add Mailer, [George] Plimpton, and so many others to that list,” Eig noted. “Those men were lucky enough to spend time with young Ali and to bask in the great warmth of his sun. He was great to reporters. He was the best story they ever covered. And unlike most celebrities, he really paid attention to them.”

Eig continued: “I only met him once, six months before he died, and I envy those reporters who got to know him and got to see him at his best. I think those who knew and loved Ali became his disciples,” he pointed out. “Ali’s friend Gene Kilroy told me over and over that he thought Ali was like Jesus, that people would be studying his words and drawing inspiration from his life for centuries to come. That’s the feeling he gave to those with whom he spent time.”

Ali was a boxer, but so much more. How does Eig see him? “I think Ali will be remembered as one of America’s great revolutionary heroes – one whose courage went far beyond sports. Like Jackie Robinson, like Martin Luther King, like the abolitionists and suffragettes, he loved America but refused to accept its shortfalls,” he said. “He fought to make his country live up to the promises contained in the Declaration of Independence. He will also be remembered as an important world figure, one who united Africans, Americans and Asians, one who helped Americans better understand Islam and helped people of Islamic faith around the world better understand America.”

In Ali’s last quarter century, he was almost universally loved. This is a far cry from being labeled a draft dodger.

“Ali was always a spiritual man, but in his later years I believe he clarified and deepened his spirituality,” Eig said. “He became more focused and more thoughtful.”

When Eig turned in his manuscript, what was his immediate thought? “I wanted to take it back. I didn’t want to be done,” he said. “I had so much fun writing this book I wanted to work on it for the rest of my life. I knew I would never find anything more fun to work on.”

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