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Who Wants to be a (Mere) Millionaire? Elite Fighters Now Dream of Billionaire Status

Bernard Fernandez

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The late Ralph Kiner, who could hit the long ball but wasn’t particularly adept at anything else on a baseball field, led the National League in home runs seven times in as many seasons from 1946 to 1952. That specialized skill was good enough for him to receive a $91,000 contract to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’52, which at the time of its signing made him the highest-paid player in the league. In reaction to criticism from those who felt the one-dimensional slugger wasn’t worth his new deal, Kiner responded, “Singles hitters drive Fords; home run hitters drive Cadillacs.”

Kiner, who was inducted into his sport’s Hall of Fame in 1975, was 91 when he passed away on Feb. 6, 2014. As the radio voice of the New York Mets from the team’s inaugural season in 1962 through 2013, he lived long enough to see just how puny $91,000 for a year’s labor (worth $846,554.11 in 2018 dollars) would be today. The highest-paid players for the just-ended 2018 season were Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw ($35.57 million) and Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Mike Trout ($34.08 million). It has been widely speculated that Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, an impending free agent who was paid a relatively piddling $21.625 million in 2018, will command a multiyear deal approaching or even in excess of $400 million, which doesn’t seem that exorbitant in these inflated times and considering that he is only now entering what should be his prime, having just turned 26 on Oct. 16.

If Harper signs for something approximating the target figure being bandied about by his agent, Scott Boras, he will become the most highly compensated athlete over the life of an existing base contract, vaulting past boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez, the recently crowned WBC/WBA middleweight champion, who agreed to an exclusive deal with the streaming service DAZN (pronounced “Da Zone”) in mid-October. The 11-fight agreement, the details of which were not disclosed, reportedly calls for the world’s most currently marketable fighter to be paid somewhere between $350 million and $365 million. If he deigns to learn English, the red-haired Mexican sensation, who is only 28 years of age and shows no signs of slippage, could become a popular enough commercial spokesman to become a Madison Avenue heavyweight and possibly approach $1 billion in overall earnings. Breaking the 10-figure barrier might enable Canelo to eventually surpass the only man to have defeated him, the legendarily greedy Floyd Mayweather Jr., who currently reigns as the highest-grossing boxer of all time at $785 million, according to Forbes, a particularly impressive figure when you consider virtually none of it comes from pitching products.

Perhaps it is the possibility that his cherished position atop boxing’s mounting cash pile could someday be challenged by Alvarez, or simply that his lavish spending habits are finally catching up with him, that the aptly nicknamed “Money” Mayweather, who turns 42 on Feb. 24, is publicly speculating about another low-risk cash grab for a rematch with past victim Manny Pacquiao or a schooling of another mixed martial artist who might want to try his hand at boxing, Khabib Nurmagomedov. A 30-year-old Russian, Nurmagomedov is coming off a victory over Conor McGregor, the previous MMA star who foolishly thought he might be able to beat Mayweather at his own game.

His conspicuous consumption notwithstanding, Mayweather ranks no better than ninth among all super-rich athletes. Retired NBA great Michael Jordan is No. 1 with total earnings of $1.85 billion, including endorsements, followed by golfers Tiger Woods ($1.7 billion), the late Arnold Palmer ($1.4 billion) and Jack Nicklaus ($1.3 billion). In addition to Mayweather, other boxers on Forbes’ top 25 list include Mike Tyson (No. 14, $700 million; filed for bankruptcy in 2003), Oscar De La Hoya (No. 19, $520 million), Pacquiao (No. 20, $510 million) and Evander Holyfield (No. 24, $475 million).

Perhaps more than anyone within that highly exclusive, diamond-encrusted circle, Mayweather puts the lie to Kiner’s long-ago assertion that Cadillacs are the preferred ride of athletes who don’t have to concern themselves with showroom sticker shock. Shortly after he pulled down $250 million or so for his May 2, 2015, unanimous decision over Pacquiao, which set records with 4.6 million pay-per-view subscriptions and $600 million in gross revenues, Floyd treated himself to the world’s most expensive car, the $4.8 million Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita. But that fabulous  new toy apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy Mayweather, an insatiable collector of stratospherically priced land rockets; shortly thereafter he dropped another $3.2 million for a Ferrari Enzo, upping to 25 his collection of luxury vehicles that includes various models of Rolls-Royces, McLarens, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Bugattis.

Mayweather, of course, is free to spend his millions in any manner he so chooses,  but the skyrocketing level of money in professional sports, a seeming affirmation of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character  pronouncing that “greed is good” in 1987’s Wall Street, calls to mind another line from that movie, uttered by the character played by Charlie Sheen. “How many yachts,” Gekko’s young and increasingly disillusioned protégé asks, “can you water-ski behind? How much is enough?”

In announcing his massive, groundbreaking deal with Alvarez, Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, armed with $1 billion in rights fees over eight years from the Perform Group’s DAZN, said the burgeoning financial pie for elite performers like Canelo would make for large-enough slices so the best of the best can financially compete with or even eclipse premier athletes in soccer, basketball, baseball, golf or whatever.

“I am so excited to shake up the world of boxing in America,” Hearn said at a Madison Square Garden press conference to introduce DAZN to U.S. consumers, opening a fertile market which potentially could spell the demise of pay-per-view on this side of the pond, and maybe everywhere. “You’ve seen us do it in the UK … there were certain things I needed to be able to take boxing here to a new level, to build a stable that is unrivaled.”

In addition to Alvarez, all reasonably established members of the Golden Boy coterie figure to benefit from the company’s affiliation with DAZN, both in terms of available dates and the promise of increased purses. Other big-name fighters can expect to be recruited once they are free of their current contractual obligations. But it is Canelo, who will make his DAZN debut when he moves up to super middleweight to challenge WBA champion Rocky Fielding on Dec. 15 at the Garden, who will be the bell cow leading the way to what might soon become a new reality. That fight will be streamed free to entice fans to subscribe to DAZN, a preview of coming attractions as it were, and is not a part of Alvarez’s contractual commitment to the streaming service, which officially begins in 2019.

If the $365 million figure is indeed correct, over the life of the five-year deal Alvarez not only will pull down a minimum of $35 million per fight, but an average of $191,675.79 per day, even if he is just hanging out at home. No wonder he reached for a pen when the DAZN contract was placed before him.

A word of caution, though, comes from former middleweight champion Marvin Hagler, who said it can be difficult for a fighter, or any successful pro athlete, to remain focused and hungry once they become too rich and comfortable. “It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 a.m. when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas,” the Marvelous one once observed.

Boxing has always been the sport of participants who sought to rise up from impoverished circumstances, who had to ply their trade for years and for low wages until, hopefully, their hard work and dedication, if melded with the requisite amount of talent, finally paid off. Celebrated former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey fit that profile, fighting often and for scant recompense until the “Manassa Mauler” became one of the most compelling figures in the 1920s golden age of sports. He received an almost-incomprehensible $300,000 for his July 2, 1921, fight with Georges Carpentier, which generated boxing’s first million-dollar live gate ($1,789,238). The payday for Dempsey, who knocked out the Frenchman in four rounds, would equate to $3,112,226.80 in 2018 dollars, a staggering amount in light of the fact that the average American worker’s pay that year was $3,649.40.

When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier squared off in the first of their classic three bouts on March 8, 1971, each was guaranteed a king’s ransom of $2.5 million ($15,485,175.88 in 2018 dollars). It was a huge sum at that time, especially when you consider that it wasn’t until 1979 that Houston Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan became the first $1 million baseball player. Even more incredibly, future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, a 27-year-old lefthander who was coming off a 20-7 season, was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies because Carlton had the audacity to ask Cardinals owner Gussie Busch, the beer baron, for a raise to $65,000. Carlton got that figure from the Phillies, and rewarded them by posting a 27-10 record with a 1.97 ERA and 310 strikeouts in 1972. Carlton’s $65,000 salary in 1972 ($389,879.81 in today’s dollars), even adjusted for inflation, would amount to a little more than one-90th of what Kershaw made this season.

The “silk pajamas” analogy offered by Marvin Hagler seems more appropriate now than ever. Are today’s multimillionaire athletes as appreciative of what they had as those from other, less-well-compensated eras? A child of poverty growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mayweather was offered a six-fight, $12.5 million contract extension by then-HBO boxing czar Lou DiBella in the autumn of 1999. Mayweather initially rejected the proposal, saying he could not fight for “slave wages,” and insisted he wanted $3 million for his next fight, which would have given him virtual parity with more established, ratings-producing HBO mainstays Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. Mayweather grudgingly accepted the stipulated $750,000 for the last remaining bout on his HBO contract, and retained his WBC super featherweight title on a unanimous decision over mandatory contender Gregorio Vargas on March 18, 2000. Longtime HBO analyst Larry Merchant, however, was critical of his refusal to sign the extension, saying, “Mayweather’s no $12 million fighter.”

Time would prove that Mayweather’s exceedingly high opinion of himself and his worth was more than justified, but not every athlete who plays contractual hardball wins similar stare-downs. Mexican-American heavyweight contender Alex Garcia, at his manager’s urging, turned down a proposed $1 million payday to swap punches with comebacking George Foreman in 1993, the rationale being that he could get $5 million by holding off for a year or so, time in which he presumably could raise his recognizability factor. Garcia instead got knocked out, for a $15,000 purse, in a stay-busy bout with journeyman Mike Dixon on June 8, 1993. He bet on himself and lost, never again coming within whiffing distance of the kind of money he might have made for fighting Big George.

Another athlete who bet big on himself and lost is former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Latrell Sprewell, then 34 and on the downhill side of what had been a mostly productive career. After having been paid $14 million a year on his previous contract, he should have counted himself fortunate to be offered a three-year extension for $21 million, an annual average of $7 million. He instead publicly ripped team owner Glen Taylor, asking reporters how anyone could expect him to try to “feed his family” for such a paltry sum. Taylor withdrew the offer and Sprewell never played another game in the NBA, for anybody.

“His comment about `feeding my family’ wasn’t really the issue with me,” Taylor said in an interview in October 2006. “That was just a bad thing. What was worse was that he said, `Well, then maybe I shouldn’t play so hard,’ or something like that. That, I took issue with.”

It will be interesting to see if today’s ultra-wealthy athletes can remain as driven and committed as their less-affluent forebears, who not only played or fought for pride and championships, but to pay the bills and actually feed their families. Where once sports fans marveled at the three-year, $400,000 (total!) contract the New York Jets lavished upon rookie quarterback Joe Namath on Jan. 2, 1966, the San Francisco 49ers signed newly acquired and largely unproven Jimmy Garoppolo, who previously had served as Tom Brady’s backup with the New England Patriots, to a five-year, $137.5 million contract, with a salary-cap hit of $37 million for this season alone. Where Bob Pettit, a 10-time first-team All-NBA selection and two-time league NBA who was still playing at a high level, retired from the St. Louis Hawks after the 1964-65 season because he thought he could do better as a banker than his $65,000 basketball salary ($513,591.67 in 2018 dollars), LeBron James raked in $85 million in 2017, $52 million of which came from endorsements.

After he has a couple of hundred million dollars put away for a rainy day, will Canelo Alvarez still want to suffer the rigors of training camp and more trials by combat to further embellish his legacy? Or will he be satisfied to walk away, fat and happy, with still more to give because the incentive to do so had diminished in correlation with the expansion of his bank account?

Like the Charlie Sheen character asked in Wall Street, how much is enough? It is a question everyone who buys a Powerball or Mega Millions lottery ticket probably poses to himself or herself, even as we imagine what it must be like to find that life has supplied us with its elusive winning numbers.

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+

Arne K. Lang

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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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