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HBO’s Exit From Boxing More Proof That All Empires and Title Reigns Eventually End

Whoever first coined the phrase “All good things must come to an end” might have been talking about the 1,500-year run of the Roman Empire

Bernard Fernandez

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Roman Empire

Whoever first coined the phrase “All good things must come to an end” might have been talking about the 1,500-year run of the Roman Empire, the somewhat more abbreviated domination of Major League Baseball by the New York Yankees or the even shorter reigns of even the greatest and most enduring of boxing champions. But Thursday’s announcement that HBO would shut down its boxing operation by the end of 2018, after a mostly successful (if not so much lately) 45 years, nonetheless sparked multiple expressions of sadness while raising questions as to why and how such a thing could come to pass.

“There was a time when everything HBO Boxing touched turned to gold,” said promoter Lou DiBella, 58, founder and chief operating officer of DiBella Entertainment and a longtime senior vice president of HBO Sports until his departure in the fall of 2000. “I’m sad. This is like the Yankees going out of business in a way, in terms of a brand. HBO was the most powerful brand in televised boxing throughout the world, not just the United States. And now it’s going away. That’s pretty amazing.”

The same sentiment was more or less echoed by Larry Merchant, 87, the erudite former newspaperman who served as an analyst for HBO’s boxing telecasts until he left the premium-cable channel in December 2012.

“I was part of something that worked out well for me for 35 years,” Merchant said from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “The way I try to put it is that we were once a good-looking prospect, then a challenger, a champion and a great and long-time champion. Then we were an ex-champion and a has-been who finally retired. All I can say is, `So long, champ.’”

HBO’s abdication – and that’s essentially what it is, the one-time “Heart and Soul of Boxing,” as it once billed itself, quitting on its stool at the same time that Showtime, Fox, ESPN and various streaming services are investing significant resources into the sport – hardly comes as a surprise to those who have been tracking its incrementally decreasing commitment in recent years. At the height of its involvement with the sweet science, with which it had become inextricably identified, HBO’s deep-pocketed, blow-the-competition-out-of-the-water approach came with an annual budget of $80 million for marketing and rights fees. But as its corporate identity changed (HBO and its parent company, Time Warner Inc., were acquired for $85.4 billion by AT&T Inc. in June), boxing’s place in the HBO lineup became less about the good old days and more about a diminishing bottom line.

“I don’t know, that’s above my pay level. I don’t work at HBO anymore,” Merchant said when asked why the plug was being pulled and what might have been done to prevent death by disinterest. “But just as (the new executives in charge) became hard-core numbers guys, where the original executives had a passion and a vision in their approach to boxing, things changed.

“They haven’t had many prime-time heavyweights from America for some time. The (ratings and income generated from boxing) have gone down. HBO is now a mature company, and the guys who care just about the numbers decided that boxing wasn’t popular enough to keep going. They were putting fractions – small fractions – of the money into it that they used to put into it.

“Today the real opposition for HBO is Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and so on. The people in charge of HBO now are trying to see the future from the present, not the past. We’ll see if the paltry amount of money they were putting into boxing recently is put to better use elsewhere. But it is interesting that Fox comes in with some serious money, as is ESPN, Showtime and some streaming entities. Somebody obviously cares about boxing. Fox isn’t putting tens of millions of dollars into it because they don’t want to make money. They want to make money. So the sport, like water, will find its own level. It always has.”

The timing of HBO’s announcement, with a release from HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson, 37, on the New York Times web site, is especially curious in light of the fact that it was largely obscured by the overriding national interest in the he-said, she-said testimony in Washington involving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused him of sexual assault in an incident dating back 36 years to when both were in high school. One former HBO official, who asked not to be identified, called the timing of the announcement “cowardly,” comparing it to the massive television coverage of June 17, 1994, car chase involving football legend and accused killer O.J. Simpson. As untold millions of eyes followed the path of that now-infamous white Ford Bronco and its celebrity occupant, several important sports events going on that same day were basically overshadowed, including the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup Parade, the World Cup Opening Ceremony,  Game 5 of the World Series and Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open round.

“It’s sad to see it all go away by its own hand and their own decision-making,” DiBella said. “You would have loved to see them to go out on top, not with a whimper.”

Not that boxing on HBO started out on top, even if it’s first telecast, the Jan. 22, 1973, heavyweight title bout in Kingstown, Jamaica, in which George Foreman dethroned Joe Frazier on a brutal second-round stoppage that saw Smokin’ Joe floored six times, was an aesthetic success for action-craving fight fans. Many Americans were reluctant to take the leap of faith to pay extra to receive programming for access to a new phenomenon known as premium cable. When HBO officially launched on Nov. 8, 1972, the time between the movies that constituted the bulk of its programming was filled by video of a bicyclist’s ride through New York’s Central Park, the taped feed coming from a camera mounted on the handlebars. Hardly cutting-edge stuff.

Foreman, now 69, not only appeared as a boxer on HBO in both phases of his remarkable career, but as a color commentator. He said he was not surprised that HBO was bailing because the network had “used” boxing until it had served its purpose, and is now casting it aside as so many other media outlets have in the past.

“Joe Louis-Max Schmeling really made boxing on radio important,” Foreman opined. “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports made boxing on television important in the 1950s and ’60s, as did ABC’s Wide World of Sports a little later on. HBO wasn’t really HBO until it started putting boxing on with me and Joe Frazier. That was the beginning of building something and making it extra-special.

“But whenever (those media outlets) make it on a bigger scale, what do they do? They drop boxing, which is a reason they got big in the first place. What’s happening now is nothing new. I’m surprised they just announced it.

“For years I traveled around the country and people told me, `George, I don’t really care that much about HBO, but because you’re on it, I’m going to buy it.’ They were probably saying the same thing to other fighters who were bringing (subscribers) to HBO. The (heavyweight unification) tournament with Mike Tyson really sealed the deal.”

Foreman cited former HBO Sports executive Michael Fuchs, who paid Tyson an almost-unthinkable $26.5 million to cover his appearances on the network for 1987 and ’88, as being an important factor in HBO’s emergence as the dominant force in TV boxing, as well as the golden era heyday of DiBella and former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham. They were as bottom-line conscious as their successors at HBO’s corporate headquarters, but they brought a passion to their work that some say has not been maintained at the same level. Business is business, but unbridled enthusiasm is an ingredient that is imperative to the success of any venture. The guys at the top of the boxing operation might have gotten the most credit for those decades of success, but they had a lot of help along the way.

“It’s sad because it’s the end of an era,” acclaimed former HBO Sports director Marc Payton, 69, said of HBO’s impending exit from boxing. “I’m sad for friends of mine that are still at HBO who will be affected by the loss of its boxing programming. For me it was an era that was an incredibly fun time. I was there for 35 years doing boxing and made a lot of great, lifelong friends and with whom I shared a lot of great memories.

“The economics of the business, such as the deal Top Rank recently cut with ESPN, I’m sure contributed to the decision on HBO’s part, as well as the loss of some of its marquee fighters which diminished the star value at the network. (HBO mainstays Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin became free agents with the conclusion of their Sept. 15 rematch, and another headliner, Sergey Kovalev, lost for the third time in his last five bouts when he was stopped in seven rounds by Eleider Alvarez on Aug. 4).

“We were the home of the stars for so long. We had Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather. We did the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy, and Tyson from the time he was a young challenger to becoming a champion before he went to prison. We had them all!”

To date, HBO has televised 1,111 fights, an ironic figure indicative of its former No. 1 status in an industry that is proclaiming its continuing health by branching out and lapping up new revenue streams. Oh, there is one more event on the schedule, on Oct. 27 from the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden headlined by the scrap for the vacant IBF middleweight title between Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Derevyanchenko. There might be another farewell fight or two scheduled between then and the end of the year, but Foreman’s hope that boxing will again find its way back to HBO beyond then, and to any significant degree, appears to be wishful thinking. Like all love affairs, when it’s over, it’s over.

“To have the tremendous legacy and incredible history that HBO  had … certain fights we did became the sport’s Super Bowls,” a reflective DiBella said. “Boxing on HBO was must-see programming as much as The Sopranos was must-see programming.”

But Tony Soprano is gone, as is the deceased actor who superbly played him, James Gandolfini. The king is dead, long live the king, whoever and whatever that is.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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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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