Tom Cushman will tell you, without hesitation, that he never expected in his relaxed retirement to author a book about boxing.
All he intended to do, after a sportswriting career that took him from Colorado Springs (1959-66) to Philadelphia (1966-82) and San Diego (1982-2002), was organize the best of his pieces so that perhaps his grandkids might enjoy them someday.
Much of that work came from his years in Philly, when he covered boxing as thoroughly and eloquently as any journalist ever has. After a few friends read portions of his keepsakes and raved about them, he began condensing old clippings into essays. Eventually, on request, he shared some of those soliloquies with longtime colleague Bill Conlin (best-known from his years as a regular on ESPN's The Sports Reporters).
"Bill got back to me," Cushman recalls, "and he said, 'You know, you really need to get this published.' He said there was a lot in there that he wasn't aware of."
After one publisher couldn't see a broad enough appeal, Cushman turned to the publishing arm of his alma mater, Southeast Missouri State University. The concept led to reality, and Muhammad Ali and the Greatest Heavyweight Generation is now hitting shelves nationwide. In fact, Cushman says, interest on amazon.com already has meant resupplying initial orders.
Behind the scenes
Understandably so, because Cushman's finished product is a grabber. Not as a compilation of great fights, which any capable researcher could have done, but as a captivating collection of insights and descriptions that only could come from one who absorbed it all himself.
His perspective, though, wasn't built on an obsession with the sport.
"It's hard to convey this, but I actually wouldn't ever have called myself a fight fan," Cushman says. "I was just fascinated with the people — not just the boxers, but also all the people around them. So, to me, this is not really a boxing book. It's about the fighters and everyone else in the sport."
In particular, Cushman saw the need to chronicle what he felt, with respected peers in agreement: Boxing's elite heavyweights of that era were more plentiful and gifted than during any other stretch in the sport's history. He starts with the menacing Sonny Liston, who butchered Floyd Patterson and reigned until young Cassius Clay (soon to become Ali) arrived. Cushman takes the reader through Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and many other characters in and out of the ring, from promoters like Don King to trainers and even mobsters.
The fact that Cushman's observations are so complete is thanks to the Philadelphia Daily News, which didn't expect its boxing beat writer simply to cover fights and work by telephone. He spent weeks on end with the principals as they trained for major bouts, even if that meant a month in the African nation of Zaire before the unforgettable Ali-Foreman fight in 1974. Cushman was there for the 1971 Ali-Frazier epic in New York, as well as the Thrilla in Manila, and he spent more time in Las Vegas than many high rollers. He also was a regular at Ali's training base in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.
The Greatest secrets
Ali might stand out, but Cushman doesn't put him on a pedestal. He hints at unproven fixing in Ali toppling Liston, and he remembers Ali, after his eighth-round knockout of Foreman in Zaire, admitting that "he had to get the knockout at the point he did, because he could have only gone another round or two."
Likewise, in Manila a year later, Ali told Cushman he was ready to quit, but trainer Angelo Dundee saw Frazier flailing away and yelled at Ali, "He can't see you anymore!"
"That gave Ali enough juice to get out of his stool and win the fight," Cushman says now. "But I saw him a month later in Philadelphia, and he took me into a back room. He pulled his trousers down, and there were still bruises everywhere down from his midsection. That's how much punishment he took."
Dundee, who cultivated so much of Ali's greatness, typifies those who meant as much to Cushman as the champions.
"Angelo was the perfect fit for Ali, because he knew how to play him, how to get his attention," Cushman says. "But there wasn't much planning, because Ali was going to do what he wanted to do. After the Zaire fight, Angelo did a book saying they had planned Ali's rope-a-dope. But that was the biggest bunch of crap. Early in the fight, Ali was taking a beating, and he was leaning back into the ropes. Angelo was yelling, 'Get off the ropes, you stupid ...! Let's just say it wasn't a mutually agreed-upon plan."
Cushman doesn't try to craft a happy ending. He recounts the sad outcomes of many heavyweights beyond the spotlight — with the exception of Foreman riding his kitchen grill to a life of luxury. That came as no surprise to Cushman, who spent a week with the new champ, one-on-one, in 1973 after he destroyed Frazier.
"He was a totally different person than what had been presented," Cushman says. "He was bright and funny, not the guy people saw trying to emulate Liston. He's still a special guy."