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Larry Holmes and Joe Frazier recall when they were 'Facing Ali'

by Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

9 February 2010

n this May 25, 1965, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali is lifted in jubilation after his match with boxer Sonny Liston. Clay knocked out Liston in the first round of the match to retain his title. (Bettmann/Courtesy CORBIS/Spike TV/MCT) 

PASADENA, Calif. — Though he was heavyweight champion of the world three times, Muhammad Ali’s opponents were no wimps.

At last 10 bruisers who fought Ali tell their side of the story in the documentary “Facing Ali,” airing Feb. 15 on Spike TV.

Charismatic, talkative and witty, Ali wasn’t always viewed as the “butterfly” he claimed to be. “We didn’t think it was funny at the time,” says Larry Holmes, who beat Ali by a TKO in 1980. “But he said a lot of things to me, said a lot of things to Joe (Frazier) about Joe. And, you know, we didn’t appreciate it. And we were there to fight and to win and we was trying not to get hurt while we was doing what we had to do.

“Ali played a very important part in our lives,” says Holmes, who’s sporting a close-cropped haircut and a beige suit with a dark dress shirt.

“Without him, boxing probably wouldn’t have been alive because he had the mouth. He can talk, and he makes people like him. ... So Ali had a lot going for himself. He had a lot of charisma ... a lot of people didn’t like Ali because of the service thing, not going in there, but everybody (it) seemed around the world learned to love him.”

Ali had refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, citing religious reasons, and was forbidden to fight for four years.

That marked a turning point in the boxer’s life, says Derik Murray, executive producer of the documentary, at a press gathering here. “One of the things that our boxers have shared, is there was a real difference between when Ali took those four years off, when he was banned from boxing,” says Murray.

“Prior to that, nobody touched him. From that moment on, when he came back after four years off, he started to take the beatings. He started to take the hits. And I think to Larry’s points, he had to create a strategy so that he actually could change his way of fighting so that taking the hits was part of the process going forward for him in his battles. But it’s a huge difference from that point forward.”

Joe Frazier, who fought Ali three times, beating him in 1971, recalls, “We had three of the greatest fights in history. He won two, let’s say on the record-wise, and I won one. But look at the whole situation now. Who is the real winner? ... Whatever happened to him in his life, you and I not necessarily have to be responsible for. (There are) a lot of things that he has done in his life that you and I know nothing about. So you really can’t ... blame me or anybody else what goes on in his life because it happened, you know ...”

Holmes thinks that even though he captured the world championship, he was always overshadowed by Ali. “Because from day one of my beginning of boxing, I heard that my legs was too small, I couldn’t punch, I was just trying to be a copy of Muhammad Ali. And I probably (was) because Muhammad Ali, at the time, done a lot of talking, got a lot of press, making a lot of money. Here I am from the projects, family very poor and not having the things that I wanted to have as a kid — growing up for myself and for my family. So, yeah, I understood all of that ... I wanted one day to be me, doing the same thing that Ali was doing but in a quieter manner than Ali did.”

Holmes seized the chance when he became sparring partner for both Ali and Frazier. “I took being a sparring partner and I turned it into something that’s good for me. I wasn’t just a sparring partner. I was a student and did learn. I was going to school, and they were teaching me what I could do to become champion, and I would act as if I were heavyweight champion of the world.

“When I left Muhammad Ali in 1975, I knew that I had a 99-1/2 percent chance to be heavyweight champion of the world. I knew it. But I were just waiting for that time to come so that I can show the people that I can become that champion,” he says.

Holmes says Ali needed foes like him, Frazier and Ken Norton. “Because he talked up a good game, and we was all about fighting, but the talk he’d done was to get ... people of the world believing in what he was doing because they had predicted that he’s going to knock someone out in four rounds and five rounds and six rounds or whatever.

“Sometimes those rounds came through and people say, ‘Oh, he’s the greatest.’ Ali made himself the greatest by saying that.”

The ring is not for the faint-hearted, says Holmes. “Boxing is no game. You don’t get into boxing to play a game. You get into boxing to fight, and you’re fighting for your life, because everybody out there say they love you. They do after the fight’s over and they’re the winner. But boxing is hard, and Ali knew it. We all knew it, and we all took the chances that we take. So Ali, in my opinion, is still one of the great fighters of all time.”

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BBC America proffers another apocalyptic saga when “Survivors” premieres on Saturday. It’s the tale of a small band of humans who have prevailed in spite of a virulent virus that has wiped out most of the world. It’s a dark subject and star Julie Graham says she often took the mood home with her. “It was very hard because it’s a show that makes you think, and it’s very hard to switch off at the end of the day because you have to then go home, obviously, and learn lines and look at the script for the next day. So you are constantly living with it. And it’s a very frightening premise, but there is a lot of hope there as well. So it’s not all, kind of, gloom and doom and depressing. The thing that I loved about this script was that there was these beacons of hope everywhere, represented by characters, represented by situations, represented by human relationships. That’s what the human race is good at, in the face of adversity, humanity coming through. So it was quite uplifting as well.”

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And you thought all those exotic diseases on “House,” were manifestations of the writers’ psychedelic imagination? Not so. There’s a real place where syndrome Sherlocks take on the most puzzling of symptoms and try to out-diagnose Dr. House and his handsome minions. On Feb. 28, Discovery Health Channel presents “Disease Detectives,” where the camera follows the MDs in the Undiagnosed Disease Program at the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., as they try to pry the truth out of a five-day round of tests on select victims of mystery diseases.

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When William Petersen left his cozy home at “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” not many people were happy with his replacement. Laurence Fishburne (“call me Laurence”) stiffly took over as former pathologist Dr. Raymond Langston. But Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, says that he’s fitting in much better. “I think Fishburne is also finding his character. It’s ironic because that show is in its 10th season. It’s still No. 7. And I think you can’t deny that Fishburne is a powerful actor and a force to be reckoned with,” she says.

“What has happened last season to this season, he certainly has assimilated more into the ensemble. Audiences have found that as he’s more comfortable with his team, the team is more comfortable with him. And you are really now able to build greater intimacy with the relationships. And I think, yes, we have changed his wardrobe, which does reflect, to some degree, how comfortable he is now with the team and with the ensemble. But from all of the fans and our research entertainment panel, clearly people feel that he has arrived. He’s settled. He’s part of the team, and people are now able to see him actually have more humor.”

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