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June 04, 2016

Philly fighters, including Hopkins and Cunningham, reflect on Ali's life, impact

On Saturday morning, the world woke up to the news that Muhammad Ali died. And although there are a great many fighters who never meet “The Greatest,” anyone who has ever put on a pair of boxing gloves is, and will always be, connected to Ali.

Four Philadelphia fighters who to some degree feel linked to Ali -- future Hall-of-Fame fighter Bernard Hopkins, two-time world cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham, heavyweight Amir Mansour, and United States Olympic prospect and budding pro Darmani Rock -- were among countless boxers touched by the news that Ali died.

“What I’m going to remember about Ali is what he said, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me (expletive), and I’m not going to war when I didn’t pass the test. Now you want me to fight brown people who didn’t do anything to me,’” Hopkins said. “Ali said that because he couldn’t even have coffee down the street at a local coffee shop during that time unless he was white. That’s what I’ll remember about Ali: Standing up against oppression.

“Ali, to me, meant more to me for what he did outside of the ring than in the ring, because during a crucial time in this country that we call great -- and it is -- he stood up when he didn’t have to and could have compromised. You look at superstar athletes today that are making hundreds of millions of dollars, and they wouldn’t say anything about social injustice, even though they know they should. Like when LeBron James and some NBA guys put the hoods in support of Trayvon Martin, which is rare. Ali spoke up and these guys today don’t. I was influenced by Ali because he stood up when no one else did.”

Hopkins said he had the opportunity to meet Ali a few times during his career. He said it’s those moments that he'll pass along to his daughter when he tells her about what The Greatest achieved. 

B-Hop and Ali actually have much in common. 

They’re both outspoken. They both had to reinvent themselves in the ring. Ali started out as a slick, fast-handed boxer and morphed into a heavier tactician who won as much on his wits as he did on his iron chin. Hopkins began his career as a puncher and changed into a defensive wizard who won in the later portion of his career on guile. 

“Ali, to me, was bigger than boxing,” Hopkins said. “They took three years out of the prime of his career. When you talk of Ali, I think of Nelson Mandela. When you talk of Ali, I think Martin Luther King. When you talk about Ali, I think of Gandhi, someone who had a different fight on his hands. Christians loved him; Jewish people loved him.

“There were a lot of people that loved him. That says something about the man’s character. Ali was bigger than boxing. If not for Muhammad Ali, there would be no Bernard Hopkins. Ali was one of my inspirations to get into boxing, and of course, Joe Frazier, and the history of my family. When I first heard the news Ali died, to me, I was happy, because he wasn’t suffering anymore. To me, as a Muslim, you understand you can’t have death without life, and life without death. I was rejoicing that his job is done. He used all of the time he had here and he’s out of his pain. I saluted the prince. ‘Well done, champ. Well done.’”

“I’ll be real truthful, his boxing career was great, and I think a lot of fighters make the mistake of trying to imitate him. How do you imitate greatness?"

Mansour had a close friend recently die of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, two ailments that plagued Ali and made him a shell of himself the last two decades of his life. 

“You have to believe that Ali is better off and is relieved now,” Mansour said. “Ali wasn’t an ordinary man. There isn’t a fighter on the planet that can say Ali didn’t influence him. The greatest thing about Ali was his endurance mentally, physically, and spiritually. One of the great traits of a champion is a great work ethic, and that’s what he had. The world wasn’t that kind to him -- well, America wasn’t that kind to him for a time.

“He objected to the Vietnam War, but history eventually was kind to him, because we know now that everyone should have been a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. This man was way ahead of his time and he’s a monument to the human race.”

Rock, 20, just began his pro career. And some experts even think there are some things about Rock that are similar to a younger Ali.

“That jab, I love his jab,” Rock said. “I’ve always tried to copy that jab. When I heard he died, and I knew he was in bad shape, but it still surprised me to hear that he died. I just turned 20 and I know all of his fights. I loved the way he carried himself in the ring and his moves. I’ll always remember Ali as the greatest heavyweight for his speed, his power, and the way he talked.”

Cunningham, like the rest of his Philadelphia boxing brothers, said he was initially sad to hear about Ali’s death. But he, too, felt that The Greatest is in a better place.

“I’ll be real truthful, his boxing career was great, and I think a lot of fighters make the mistake of trying to imitate him,” Cunningham said. “How do you imitate greatness? I mean, really, how does anyone imitate a guy with that kind of size, speed and power? It’s impossible. But for me, the way he stood up to the government during a time when no public figures did that, that spoke more volumes to me than anything he did in the ring.

“The things he stood up for is what I’ll remember, and I’m a military man. I served in the Navy. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was wrong and this country needed to hear that from someone important. Ali had the courage to do that. There’s not even a handful of people who would take jail time over that. Someone of Muhammad Ali’s stature spoke about the wrongs in the world and he didn’t care what people thought. 

"That’s the type of guy he was. He was right. He was way ahead of his time. He gave everyone the courage to speak up.”

Joseph Santoliquito is the President of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Follow him on Twitter: @JSantoliquito