Boxing: Life at court when they were kings

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The Independent Online

In a small room, referred to amusingly as my study, hangs a large framed poster listing all but the last of Muhammad Ali's 61 professional contests; each bout is represented by a glove.

In a small room, referred to amusingly as my study, hangs a large framed poster listing all but the last of Muhammad Ali's 61 professional contests; each bout is represented by a glove. Ali won the heavyweight championship three times and these are celebrated in gold. The other gloves are red. Within the square they form is a period in heavyweight boxing known as the golden era.

If Ali, the most visible figure sport has ever seen, was central to the gripping events of the 1970s, the heavyweight division had never been inhabited by such an array of talent. Not only Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Ali's most formidable opponents, but Ken Norton, Ernie Shavers, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Oscar Bonevena, Jerry Quarry, and later Larry Holmes.

At the heart of Ali's hypnotic appeal, when he challenged Frazier for the championship at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971, was the realisation that three years of exile resulting from his appeal against conviction for refusing the draft (four months later his appeal was upheld by the Supreme Court) had reduced his effectiveness. His remarkable leg speed had gone.

Many regard the first of three contests between Ali and Frazier as the defining moment of heavyweight boxing in the 1970s, the sport's greatest era. Coinciding with an explosion in telecommunications, it grossed more than $20m worldwide, with both fighters receiving a record $2.5m in purse money, watched by 300 million television viewers in 46 countries. It was piped into 337 closed-circuit outlets.

The first time two undefeated champions contested the heavyweight title, it was a perfect pairing; Ali's power with grace, Frazier's percussive aggression. For 15 unrelenting rounds the lead changed hands often. Then Frazier won with a ferocious finish, flooring Ali with a trademark left hook in the final round.

It was a different time, when it was possible to make informal contact with notable sports figures. I covered many of Ali's contests over the next two years as he tried to rebuild his career. But the division would be shaken up when Foreman challenged Frazier for the title on 22 January 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica.

Three days before, I was speaking with Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, while his manager Yank Durham was on the phone seeking to negotiate a rematch with Ali. Foreman's destruction of Frazier in two rounds, one of his blows lifting the champion off his feet, changed everything.

Two months later, I chose not to attend a contest between Ali and Norton in San Diego, thinking it was a foregone conclusion. After Norton shattered Ali's jaw in gaining a 12-round decision, I decided, with his trainer Angelo Dundee's encouragement, to go to Ali's home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He had no inclination to diminish the extent of his setback. "I've been punished," he mumbled through his immobilised jaw. For what? "Taking the guy too lightly," he said. "I didn't work, didn't prepare myself."

Going to a medical in Philadelphia, he alarmingly removed both hands from the wheel of a dark blue Rolls to throw a flurry of fake punches. "They said I couldn't come back. I came back. Now they are saying I'm finished. I'll prove that I'm not."

He took quick revenge with a narrow win over Norton in his next fight to set up a rematch with Frazier, widely seen as an eliminator for the right to meet Foreman. Their second meeting did not match the heights of the first but it was close, and Ali was able to mount a second challenge for the championship 10 years after taking it from Sonny Liston.

Foreman's aura of invincibility was enhanced as he pulverised Norton in Caracas, Venezuela. On the eve of the contest Don King, the impresario who over the next decade held a near-monopoly of the heavyweight title, said he had brokered a deal for Foreman to defend the title against Ali in Kinshasa.

Many who journeyed to Zaire feared for Ali's safety. How could he hope to withstand Foreman's power? The answer was a battle plan of almost suicidal bravery that saw Foreman punch himself out on Ali's arms and torso until, utterly exhausted, he was knocked out in the eighth round.

Some hours after the fight, I came across Ali at his training camp at N'sele, wandering next to the Zaire river. I was invited into his bungalow. He rambled on for two hours, and then, as if the magnitude of his achievement had finally registered, he said: "I've screwed up a lot of minds, kicked a lot of asses - not only George's but all those writers who said I was all washed up, all those people who said I had nothing left but my mouth."

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