By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 30, 2018)
Eighth in a series
By the turn of the century, Stephen Brunt was a well-established, well-regarded sports columnist with a loyal readership at The Globe and Mail, a newspaper he first worked for as an intern in 1982.
Around that time, he also had lost interest in churning out books, such as “Second To None: The Roberto Alomar Story” (published in 1992), just for the case of writing them.
It wasn’t what he wanted to do.
And he had his column to occupy his time.
Eventually, the motivation reappeared and the Canadian journalist was back on track and working on what would become “Facing Ali: 15 Fighters / 15 Stories,” which was published in March 2003 by Lyons Press. The 320-page hardcover tome, later released in paperback, provides the perspectives of those who battled in the ring with Muhammad Ali. Their fascinating stories give more than a glimpse into what that was like.
So how did Brunt, who now works for Sportsnet, warm up to the idea of this book? (Thankfully, he’s written numerous ones since then.)
And what was the genesis of this book?
“I was kind of out of the book racket,” Brunt recalled by phone from his home in Hamilton, Ontario, a few months ago. “I kind of soured on the idea (of writing a book) for a variety of reasons, and I got a call from a friend in the publishing business who wanted to introduce me to an editor, who became my editor at Knopf, Diane Martin, who is a great friend and a great editor.”
Brunt was honest with Martin, explaining at a lunch meeting, “Look, I’m not really interested in this — a lot of work, no money, thankless in a lot of ways, and I’ve got a job.”
But Martin’s persistence paid off.
She pitched ideas to Brunt, including one about Ali.
“She’s not really a sports fan and she said, ‘Well, you’re a big Ali guy and you’ve written about Ali. What about an Ali book?’
“I said, ‘Look, it’s all been done. I have nothing new to say about Muhammad Ali. It’s all been written, some of it’s really good, some of it’s really terrible. But I don’t have anything to add to that library.
“Except in passing, I’ve never met the man. I didn’t cover the fights. They were before my time,” he went on. “So it would be kind of ridiculous to have me writing about Ali.”
That, of course, isn’t the end of the story. Life continued and the idea remained in Brunt’s brain.
“But then, I had this (idea), and I wrote about it in the foreword to the book,” he revealed. “I covered a fight once where it was a reasonably famous guy fighting a nobody, and he predictably beat the nobody and it was kind of a nothing fight. And when I wrote it, though, I reversed it and wrote about the nobody, and who he was and how he got there and why he was there. It was kind of a sad story about the guy, really. But it had dawned on me at that point that sometimes the best stories are in the other corner, and we always just focus on one side.
“And the other guy sometimes is the story.”
That doesn’t mean that Brunt jumped to the conclusion that he should write a book about Muhammad Ali.
“It took time,” he said. “It was months, I think, before he idea fully jelled, and I went back and talked to my editor and said, ‘What if we went back and did this? What if I tried this?’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure how long it’s going to take because the guys are all over the place and I don’t know how many of them I’m going to get.’ I decided 15 was a good boxing number, so I figured we’d do 15.”
At times, the project coincided with Brunt’s journeys for The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper.
“Because I was traveling a fair bit for the newspaper, I could kind of piggyback on that,” Brunt noted. “If I got to Europe or something, I would go and find a couple of guys, or go to England and find a couple of guys.”
And little by little, he started gathering the necessary material to write the book.
He spoke to two-time Ali foe Joe Bugner while he was in Australia covering the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. (The Englishman who relocated to Australia many years ago, faced Ali in February 1973 in Las Vegas and June 1975 in Kuala Lumpur, losing both bouts by unanimous decision.)
He interviewed Henry Cooper in England, Jean Pierre Coopman in Belgium, Jurgen Blin and Karl Mildenberger in Germany.
“So I started picking these guys off one at a time,” Brunt said, “and I really wrote them separately those pieces but they fit together. It was like a jigsaw puzzle and the order was natural but I treated each one as kind of a separate piece.
“And I remember I was sending them to my editor each piece not in order and I’m not sure she totally understood what I was up to until it was all done. Then, when you went from beginning to end, it really worked, you know?”
Looking back on the project, Brunt expresses pride in how it was accomplished. “It was a novel way of doing it,” he stated.
He pointed out that some of the marquee names in the book, including Joe Frazier and George Foreman, had their own books, and “Henry Cooper’s had lots of stuff written about him.”
What made the book work, he mentioned was “the mixture of the really famous guys with the really obscure guys.”
Brunt admitted that the book wasn’t a huge seller when it was released in Canada. He said it did “reasonably well in the (United) States with a small press that worked really hard, but then it did really well in England, and it did reasonably well in Italy and in Japan and all these places.”
The Japanese-language version of the book includes a chapter about Ali’s boxing/martial arts exhibition bout against professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in June 1976 at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. (Brunt didn’t write that chapter, but he later received “a really bad translation of it.”)
Overall, “it was a really fun project,” he admitted, also referring to the award-winning 2009 documentary based on his book that followed. The film, one of 15 short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, was not one of the five finalists, but received awards in Canada.
“It certainly got me back into the book world and wanting to write books,” Brunt said. “It was a really good experience all around.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” he added. “It was a ball for me meeting those guys, and it was a real kick. There’s nothing I’d rather do than to meet a bunch of old boxers. It was loads of fun.”
For Brunt, there was no location template to conduct the 15 boxers’ interviews for the book. He visited various locales to get the job done.
He picked up two of them at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.
He traveled to West Virginia to meet Tunney Hunsaker, Ali’s first professional opponent (Oct. 26, 1960, Freedom Hall, Louisville Kentucky, Ali’s hometown; Ali won the six-round bout outpointing Hunsaker). They spoke along with Hunsaker’s wife in the living room at their home. Hunsaker, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former police chief in Fayetteville, West Virginia, at the time of the fight, was battling Alzheimer’s disease when he met Brunt. Hunsaker passed away in April 2005 at age 75. Several of the other boxers interviewed for the book have also died in recent years.
He met Joe Frazier at his boxing gym in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He interviewed George Foreman at his Houston gym.
He conversed with Henry Cooper at a golf course, “where they kind of paid him to hang around in Kent outside of London.”
He visited Brian London at his home in Blackpool, England.
Elaborating on his meeting with Jurgen Blin, Brunt said, “he sat in one of his restaurants (in Hamburg) and interviewed him.”
Brunt and Jean Pierre Coopman sat in a cafe in Ghent, Belgium, and talked.
He posed questions to Joe Bugner ringside at the Olympic boxing venue in Sydney.
He also probed the memories of Ali foes George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers and Larry Holmes.
“All over the place,” was how Brunt described where he collected quotes and anecdotes for the book.
“Every kind of different place imaginable.”
Was Ali made aware that the book was being written? Was it brought to his attention?
“He wasn’t in good shape for a lot of years, and there were a lot of layers between him and anybody,” Brunt said. “So I sent a courtesy note out to them, to his people, but that’s about as far (as it went). He was in a stage when I could not have interviewed him, even if they had let me.”
Here’s how Library Journal critiqued the book: “Brunt does an excellent job of bringing his subjects out of the shadow of The Greatest, recounting their often poignant tales of life before and after their dates with the champ. In the end, of course, we learn more about Ali.”
Publishers Weekly offered this view: “Some of Brunt’s best portraits … bring to life those ‘extremely unlikely tales, longshots, no-hopers, fighters lifted out of obscurity for their date with the most famous man on earth,’ such as Germany’s Jurgen Blin, who fought Ali and the next day ‘was back at work at the sausage factory.’ Although each story varies, Brunt is amazingly sensitive to and respectful of each fighter’s own words, no matter how factually wrong or self-serving they might be. He deftly illustrates how all the fighters to some degree believe that, as Jean Pierre Coopman says, ‘The Ali fight was the defining moment of my career,’ although this feeling is ironic for some, such as George Chuvalo, who despite his winning record became better known in his native Canada for going the distance with Ali and losing…”
Here are the previous installments in this series: