The magnitude of Muhammad Ali, the social change warrior, is so great that in his passing, it has overshadowed the greatness of Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion.
There have been plenty of video clips of his fights shown on various networks this week, but they seem to serve as the platform to talk about how Ali touched so many people.
It says something about your place in history when you are the greatest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing and that is not the greatest impact you had on the world during your time on Earth.
He was the greatest heavyweight champion. It is often a two-fighter debate, between Ali and Joe Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949 and, like Ali when he fought Joe Frazier the first time, fought in a “Fight of the Century” that had far-reaching implications beyond the ring when he knocked out German heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1938 as the world was about to go to war.
Louis successfully defended his heavyweight title 26 times. He was ranked the best heavyweight of all time by the International Boxing Research Organization in 2005. But, Ali fought during the golden age of heavyweights — the 1960s and 1970s — and the quality of opponents he faced, from Frazier to George Foreman to Ken Norton in seven of his 61 fights, was greater than the opponents that Louis faced.
SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Muhammad Ali embraced people, which is why we embraced him
There was one guy, though, that may have been greater than Ali — or, at the very least, was Ali’s greatest rival in the ring. No, it wasn’t Frazier, Foreman or Norton.
It was the diminutive, quiet man who stood in the corner and faced Ali seven times during the champion’s career, and trained both of the fighters who gave Ali the most trouble — the legendary trainer Eddie Futch, who once sparred with Joe Louis in Detroit in the early 1930s.
Futch had Ali’s number, and Ali knew it. At a ceremony at City Hall in New York nearly 30 years ago that included Ali, Foreman, Frazier and Larry Holmes, Ali said to Futch, “You always gave me trouble.”
Yes, he did.
It was Futch who developed the strategy for Frazier to defeat Ali in their historic 1971 meeting.
“Ali was a great fighter, and he was in my mind even greater than what most people thought he was, because he had limited ability and he made that work,” Futch, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 90, once told me. “Ali hardly ever threw a body punch. He never ducked a punch. He always pulled back or away from a punch, blocked it or slipped it.
“I charted Ali’s strengths — the things he was a master at — and I also charted the things that he couldn’t do. So, I set up our strategy to avoid his strengths as much as we possibly could and to exploit his weaknesses as much as we possibly could.
“One of them was that he could not throw the right-hand upper cut properly, so we had Joe bob and weave in a more exaggerated way, just a little lower than he normally did, and stayed close so he could work the body and to watch for Ali’s right hand to drop to throw the uppercut.
“Ali is going to have to dig him out of that low stance with punches coming up. He would try to dig Joe out of that stance, and he would have to do it with the uppercut. He would stand up straight and didn’t bend his knees, didn’t bend his body to throw the uppercut.
“So, I told Joe, ‘The minute you see his right hand come down, you throw the left. He’s got nothing up there. You can catch them with the left.’ The only time that you hit Ali was when he is punching. When he throws the uppercut, you throw the hook. That’s the punch that hurt [Ali] so badly in the 11th round and that’s the punch that knocked him down in the 15th round.
“Ali was throwing the uppercut and Joe threw the hook. I had worked on that round after round after round, telling Joe to step in and throw that hook when he saw the right hand come down. The battle plan was carried out, to bob and weave and stay low and stay in close, stay tight and to work the body and make him bring his hands down. And then [Frazier] shifted to the head when [Ali] brought them down.”
Futch was in the corner for the three Ali/Frazier fights — he was the man who refused to let Frazier, nearly blinded, come out for the 15th and final round in their 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” bout. Futch told me that the betrayal Frazier, who helped Ali while he was banned from boxing from 1967 to 1970 for his refusal to enter the Army after being drafted during the Vietnam War, felt at the hands of Ali, who publicly ridiculed Frazier, was real and deep.
“Joe resented it when Ali started making all those personal attacks on him to hype the gate at the fights,” Futch said. “He didn’t think that was necessary. He felt betrayed because he had helped Ali. There were occasions when Ali would call and ask if he should come to one of Joe’s fights, or would it be better for him to stay away, things like that. They were working together to get Ali reinstated.”
During that time, Futch was also working with an unknown heavyweight in California — an ex-Marine named Norton.
While Ali was exiled from boxing, he would travel around to boxing gyms around the country and find heavyweights to spar with him. One day, he entered the Hoover Street Gym in Los Angeles, where Futch was training Norton. After sparring with three heavyweights, Ali asked if anyone else was up for a sparring session. Someone told him Futch had a heavyweight that might be worthy of sparring with the deposed champion.
Ali asked Futch if his man was up for it, and Futch said yes. “I had been waiting for him to make the suggestion,” he said.
The gym had already filled up when word spread of Ali’s appearance. Futch pulled Norton aside before he got in the ring and told him, “Don’t be a smart guy. Go in there and try to learn something. Just go along and work with him, don’t try anything cute. But if he tries to take advantage of you, take care of yourself.”
Norton did just that when he first began sparring with Ali, but with the gym filling up, Ali wanted to put on a show. So, before the second round started, Ali declared loudly, “OK, boy, I’m through playing with you. I’m going to put something on you now.”
Futch told Norton, “OK, now take care of yourself.”
Ali didn’t realize that Norton was stronger than perhaps any fighter he had ever faced. Ali tried to back Norton into a corner, and Norton picked him up and threw him into the corner. The crowd laughed, and Ali was embarrassed, Futch said. Ali thought he had simply lost his balance, so he tried to back Norton into a corner again, and again Norton manhandled him. The crowd went crazy.
“Now it developed into a war,” Futch said.
They started throwing hard right hands at each other. Ali threw a right hand a little too long, and Norton pulled away and nailed Ali with a hard right counterpunch. “Now the crowd is really into, yelling and screaming,” Futch said. “The place was wild.”
They went at each other for another minute, and the bell sounded to end the round. Ali left the gym, but returned the next day, screaming, “I want that Norton! I want that Norton!”
Futch told Norton, “Don’t put your stuff on.” Ali kept yelling, and asked Futch, “What’s the matter, isn’t he fighting today?”
Futch said he told Ali, “Yesterday, you came in looking for a workout. Today, you came in looking for a fight. When this kid fights you, he’s going to get paid for it.”
Norton did, several years later, and, while Ali officially won two of their three bouts, most observers believe Norton won the third and final fight at Yankee Stadium in 1976.
Boxing greatest is measured by the tests that you face from opponents in the ring. If Ali was truly “The Greatest,” Futch helped make him great.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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