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Renowned Author Leigh Montville Talks About Muhammad Ali, The Myths and The Man

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Over the course of five-decades-plus, Leigh Montville has delivered books on the careers of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Dale Earnhardt, Jim Calhoun, Manute Bol, Evel Knievel, John Montague and Muhammad Ali. Each is well-written and researched and tells an interesting story, but it’s the 2017 book “Sting Like A Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. The United States Of America, 1966 – 1971,” that somehow stands apart.

The reason is because it deals with a five-year block when he wasn’t boxing and had a legal battle on his hands after refusing to be inducted into the military for religious reasons.

“I was looking for a book topic and floated one to my editor at Random House, Jason Kaufman, but he rejected it. He said I should look for an iconic figure, someone like Ruth or Williams or Earnhardt, who had been previous subjects. I made a list of iconic sports figures, all kinds of people, but felt I was missing someone,” explained Montville, whose most recent literary offering is, “Tall Men, Short Shorts: The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, And A Very Young Reporter.” “Bing! It hit me. Muhammad Ali. The most iconic sports figure of our time.”

Montville then went searching for everything that had been written about Ali in book form.

“I looked to see what had been done on Ali. The best book was ‘King Of The World’’ by David Remnick, which I had read. His story stopped when Ali beat [Sonny] Liston and became a member of the Nation of Islam,” he said. “I thought that this end was when Ali’s most interesting period really began, all of the legal stuff, his time of banishment, his grand return to face [Joe] Frazier in the Fight of the Century. I had no interest in doing a full-scale biography, but this five-year period was fascinating to me.”

Montville’s time researching that period unearthed several interesting finds.

“A bunch of misconceptions have developed about Ali in the rush to confer a sort of secular sainthood on him. He wasn’t a big civil rights guy. He wasn’t a great resister of the Vietnam War,” he pointed out. “He promoted a sort of segregationist philosophy, the idea that black people should have their own land, their own society, a place away from white people. It was a sort of Give Us Kansas and let us live by ourselves. He never marched once with Martin Luther King. During the war, he went to one rally, and didn’t like it. He never went again. He was fighting to keep himself out of the army, not anybody else.”

Montville, a sportswriter and columnist at the Boston Globe for more than two decades and a senior writer for a dozen years at Sports Illustrated, added: “He was a kid who had fallen into a cult. His white-guy, businessmen backers in Louisville sent him to Miami and set him up with Angelo Dundee as a trainer, but they didn’t set up anything for his down time when he wasn’t training,” he said. “That was when he fell under the spell of the Nation of Islam’s rhetoric.”

Views and opinions were extremely varied on Ali then. Where did Montville, who has been honored with the Red Smith Award and the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, fit in?

“I’m only 18 months younger than Ali and I was going through the worries about the draft at the same time he was,” he said. “I joined the National Guard. I thought he had just found a clever way to get out of it, a way that was open if you had money and lawyers. He was never a villain in my mind, just a guy working the angles.”

Montville’s view is somewhat different more than five decades later. “I give him a bit more credit now,” he said. “I think he said a lot of those things that got him in trouble just off the top of his head and then had to back them up. I give him credit for seeing them through. I never thought he was a hero during this time, though his views on Vietnam were a lot like mine. It was a bad war.”

During this period the Black Muslims played an important role in Ali’s life.

“The Black Muslims ultimately were very good for Ali. They made him who he was. He would have been another boxer – a very good boxer, to be sure, maybe, yes, the greatest – if it were not for the Muslims,” Montville said. “The time period of my book, the stretch where he was cast out of boxing, followed by the comeback, was what made Ali different. He became a world figure, not just an athlete. Ali never would have been Ali if it were not for the Muslims. He would have been Cassius Clay, a very good fighter, but not much more.”

During the turbulent decade of the 1960s, Ali was front and center and a folk hero to some.

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“I think he’s been captured forever as the face for the Sixties. No documentary of the time can get more than 30 seconds in without having his image flash on the screen, usually backed by some music by the Doors,” said Montville, a graduate of the University of Connecticut. “I don’t think this will change. His importance only has grown in recent years and, as memories of the time get reduced to catch-phrases and sound bites, he is perfect. ‘I got nothing against them Viet Cong!’”

Was Ali a tool for the Nation of Islam? “I think he was a pawn in the beginning. He was the religion’s big catch, the convert brought into the boat and posed in public relations pictures with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Montville said. “I think things got sketchy when the Honorable Elijah Muhammad realized that Ali had become bigger than he was, the embodiment of the faith. The pawn became the king. That was the problem.”

What period of Ali’s storied life appealed most to Montville? “The part of Ali’s life I liked best was when he didn’t have money and was going around to the colleges, often with his wife, doing his talks, sort of an evangelical minister,” he said. “There was a purity about him then. He was young and misguided, for sure, but he believed what he was doing. When he came back to boxing, all of that disappeared. He became much more venal, sometimes nasty, a creature of the world.”

Montville continued: “The sainthood all came after he retired, after he became sick,” he noted. “I think the sainthood is a myth, but the man underneath, the narcissist, was human and fascinating. You look at his success and he used a lot of the same messaging that [Donald] Trump used. Except he used it first.”

If Ali was boxing today, would he stand out?

“No. Not at all. He came along at a time when boxing was much more important than it is now and when network television was much more important,” Montville said. “He had a captive audience when only three networks were in operation. He would be competing now with other sports, leagues, the constant stream of games and people and other entertainment. His greatest act has been copied by so many people, it would sound ordinary today, kind of ridiculous. At best, he would be a Colin Kaepernick kind of rebel, but on a smaller stage because boxing is a much smaller stage now.”

Is it justified that Ali has been looked at differently since he retired from the ring?

“His years of illness probably did more for Ali’s image than anything,” Montville said. “He became like one of those celebrities who died young – Marilyn [Monroe], James Dean, whoever – captured in their prime forever. No matter that he was still alive. He wasn’t out in the world, living, doing things no one expected.”

Montville added: “When he came into the public eye for the last 30 years or so, he was a shambling, Mother Teresa kind of character, beloved by all. If he hadn’t been sick, he would have been out in the everyday world, living, falling into the pitfalls of divorce, drink, whatever,” he said. “Joe Namath, another idol of that time, does those stupid commercials for Social Security supplement insurance. Ali would have done the same and his star would have been diminished.”

Editor’s Note: “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States Of America, 1966-1971,” is available via Amazon and found at better bookstores everywhere.

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Juan Francisco Estrada Holds Off ‘Chocolatito’ Again

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Once again Juan Francisco Estrada jumped out in front early and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez needed time to crank up the engine, but fell too far behind as the Mexican fighter won the vacant WBC flyweight world title on Saturday.

Estrada wins the trilogy 10 years in the making.

Once again Estrada (44-3, 28 KOs) surged ahead early in the fight against Nicaragua’s Gonzalez (51-4, 41 KOs) and then navigated toward another win, this time at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona on the Matchroom Boxing card.

“We had excellent preparation at high altitude and I think we left the fight clear on who won the fight this time,” said Estrada about the third encounter.

Ten years ago, the trilogy began in Los Angeles as “Chocolatito” confronted an unknown fighter at the time in Estrada. The two surprised the crowd who expected Gonzalez to destroy yet another Mexican fighter. But it did not happen that night though Chocolatito proved too experienced and battered his way to victory in a light flyweight world title clash.

Then, in March 2021, Estrada finally fought Gonzalez in a rematch and the two engaged in a closely-fought super flyweight world title match. This time Estrada proved slightly better according to the judges and won by split decision in Dallas, Texas.

Few knew what to expect in a third encounter.

At first the coronavirus stalled plans for the trifecta so Chocolatito fought a replacement and dominated. Meanwhile Estrada fought another Mexican and did not look good.

On Saturday, a decade after their first encounter, Estrada looked fluid and accurate in dominating the first six rounds of the fight. Though he did not hurt Gonzalez, he was repeatedly scoring at will.

Gonzalez woke up around the seventh round.

Suddenly the Nicaraguan who was once considered the best fighter Pound for Pound showed up and fired rapid combinations. The spring in his legs suddenly appeared and the energy level was cranked up high after nearly being on idle.

Estrada suddenly found himself against the ropes forced to slip and slide away from Gonzalez’s powerful combination punches. A real fight suddenly erupted during the final six rounds.

“All fights are different and all fights are difficult and this was the most difficult one,” said Gonzalez, a four-division world champion.

Though neither fighter was ever visibly hurt, Gonzalez’s pressure kept Estrada expending too much energy trying to evade the Nicaraguan’s traps during the final six rounds.

“He always goes 100 miles an hour,” said Estrada of his nemesis.

Estrada used uppercuts and slide steps to maneuver against Gonzalez’s hard charges. It seemed to work and allowed the Mexican fighter more room and time to apply counter-measures.

In the final round, those maneuvers allowed Estrada to connect with a hard punch to the body that forced Chocolatito to cover up. It also allowed Estrada to unravel a combination that gave him the last round if needed. After 12 rounds one judge scored it 114-114, while two others saw it 116-112, 115-113 for Estrada who becomes the new WBC super flyweight world titlist.

“We did an excellent fight and I got the victory,” said Estrada. “I’ve always said Chocolatito is a future Hall of Famer.”

Gonzalez was gracious in defeat.

“What is important is we gave that good fight to the fans and we came out in good health,” Gonzalez said.

There is even talk of a fourth fight.

“As long as they pay well, of course,” said Gonzalez.

Other Fights

Julio Cesar Martinez (19-2, 14 KOs) retained the WBC flyweight world title by majority decision over Spain’s Samuel Carmona (8-1) in a rather dull affair. Mexico’s Martinez chased Carmon all 12 rounds in a fight that saw Carmona slap and run, then hold.

No knockdowns were scored and Martinez won 114-114, 117-111, 116-112.

Diego Pacheco (17-0, 14 KOs) ran over Mexico’s Adrian Luna (24-9-2) with three knockdowns in winning by stoppage in the second round of the super middleweight fight. It was no surprise.

The 21-year-old from South Central L.A. once again showed that despite his youth his power seems to be continually increasing as evident in the knockout win.

Now training with Team David Benavidez, the young super middleweight looked sharp, especially with the lead overhand right that floored Luna in the second round. Luna was floored two more times and the fight was wisely stopped by his own corner.

“You put in the hard work then you come in here and shine,” said Pacheco. “I joined team Benavidez this year.”

Nicaragua’s former world titlist Cristofer Rosales (35-6, 21 KOs) won a dog fight over Mexico’s Joselito Velasquez (15-1-1, 10 KOs) by unanimous decision after 10 rounds in a flyweight clash.

It was a back-and-forth struggle that saw the taller Rosales take over in the second half of the fight and win by simply out-punching Velasquez and handing the Mexican his first loss as a professional by scores 97-93 three times.

Photo credit: Milena Pizano

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Tyson Fury TKOs Derek Chisora in Round 10

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It was a chilly night in London but that didn’t deter a near-capacity crowd from turning out at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to witness the third rumble between Tyson Fury and Derek Chisora. The Gypsy King was heavily favored to retain his WBC and lineal heavyweight title and performed as expected. Indeed, this fight closely resembled their second encounter back in 2014.

In that bout, Chisora absorbed a terrific amount of punishment before his corner pulled him out at the conclusion of the 10th round. Tonight’s fight ended nine seconds earlier at the 2:51 mark of round 10 and it was the referee who terminated the match.

When is a heavyweight not a heavyweight? When the man in the opposite corner is substantially bigger. With an 8-inch height advantage and a 15-inch reach advantage, the six-foot-nine Fury was simply too big a mountain to climb for the brave Derek Chisora, a fighter who changed his nickname in mid-career, transitioning from “Dell Boy” to “War.”

Fury dominated round two, especially the last minute, a round in which he was credited with landing 18 power punches. The writing was on the wall for Chisora who ate a lot of thudding uppercuts in the ensuing rounds and ended the contest with a badly swollen right eye and a bloody mouth. With the victory, Fury improved his ledger to 32-0-1 with his 24th win inside the distance. The Zimbabwe-born Chisora falls to 33-13.

Oleksandr Usyk and Joe Joyce were in attendance and the Gypsy King addressed both before he left the ring. Calling Usyk “The Rabbit,” he indicated that he would fight Usyk next in a true unification fight, but said if there were a snag in negotiations he wouldn’t mind trading blows with the Juggernaut, Joe Joyce, who wore down and stopped former heavyweight title-holder Joseph Parker, a former Fury sparring partner, in his most recent engagement. However, Fury also revealed that he had an issue with his right elbow that may require surgery.

Co-Feature

In a heavyweight match that lasted only three rounds but was chock-full of action, Daniel Dubois overcame three knockdowns to retain his secondary WBA heavyweight title he won at the expense Trevor Bryan with a third-round stoppage of upset-minded Kevin Lerena.

In the opening stanza, Johannesburg’s Lerena, landed an overhand left on the top of Dubois’s head that put the Englishman on the canvas and left him all at sea. He went down twice more before the round was over, the first time of his own volition when he took a knee (reminiscent of his match with Joe Joyce) and the second from a glancing blow.

Dubois, whose legs are spindly for a man of his poundage, had trouble regaining his equilibrium in round two, but Lerena didn’t press his advantage. In the next frame, a short right from Dubois penetrated Lerena’s guard and down went the South African. Smelling blood, Dubois knocked him down again and was pummeling him against the ropes when the referee interceded just as it appeared that Lerena would be saved by the bell.

It was the fourth straight win for Dubois (19-1, 18 KOs) since his mishap versus Joyce. Lerena, who entered the bout on a 17-fight winning streak, lost for the second time in 30 fights.

Also

In a ho-hum affair, Denis Berinchyk, a 24-year-old Ukrainian, captured the European lightweight title and remained undefeated with a unanimous decision over French-Senagalese warhorse Ivan Mendy. Berinchyk (17-0, 9 KOs) was making his first appearance in London since winning a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics where he was a teammate of Oleksandr Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko.

The judges had it 117-112 and 116-112 twice for the Ukrainian. The 37-year-old Mendy, who has answered the bell for 380 rounds, falls to 47-6-1.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Light Nips Glanton in Florida; across the pond, Kelly UD 12 Williamson in Newcastle

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ProBox TV, a fledgling promotional group co-founded by former world champions Roy Jones Jr, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Paulie Malignaggi, has found a home for their bi-monthly shows at an events center in Plant City, Florida, near Tampa. The main event of last night’s show (Friday, Dec. 2) was a well-matched 10-rounder between world ranked cruiserweights Brandon Glanton (pictured on the left) and David Light, both undefeated.

Light, a 31-year-old New Zealander who was 19-0 (12 KOs) heading in, had a strong amateur background that included a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but was virtually unknown outside the Antipodes, having fought almost exclusively on small shows in Auckland. Glanton, a 30-year-old Atlanta native who had trimmed down considerably since his days as a defensive lineman at HBCU Albany State, had caught the eye of hardcore fight fans with a thrilling split decision over previously unbeaten Efetobor Apochi on a TBS show in Minneapolis.

The oddsmakers made Glanton (17-0, 14 KOs heading in) a small favorite and after 10 hard rounds there were many who thought he deserved the nod. He turned the fight into a “phone booth” affair, pressing the action while working the body effectively, and scored the bout’s lone knockdown, knocking Light off his pins (he wasn’t badly hurt) in the final frame with what appeared to be a glancing blow. But two of the judges were more impressed by Light’s counter-punching, scoring the bout 97-92 and 95-94 for the kiwi, overruling the dissenter who had it 95-94 for Blanton.

It was the sort of fight that cries out for a rematch, but David Light will undoubtedly go in a different direction. Both he and Glanton were pointing toward a match with WBO title-holder Lawrence Okolie.

Newcastle

Earlier on Friday, across the pond in Newcastle, England, former Olympian Josh Kelly got the signature win that had eluded him with a lopsided 12-round decision over defending British 154-pound title-holder and former amateur teammate Troy Williamson.

This was Kelly’s third fight since David Avanesyan burst his bubble in a welterweight affair, stopping Kelly in the sixth stanza. The local fighter, who boosted his record to 13-1-1 (7) blamed his poor performance on his struggle to make weight.

The previously undefeated Williamson, 19-0-1 heading in, was making the second defense of the title he won in a barnburner with Ted Cheeseman. He went to post a small favorite, but was outclassed by Kelly who won by scores of 119-109, 119-111, and 118-110.

In the co-feature, Manchester’s Lyndon Arthur (21-1, 15 KOs) stayed relevant in the light heavyweight division with a second-round stoppage of overmatched Joel McIntyre (20-5). In his lone defeat, Arthur was TKOed by revenge-minded Anthony Yarde.

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