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During the twilight of Muhammad Ali’s fighting career, Sports Illustrated profiled the boxer during his training camp for his 1980 title fight against the undefeated Larry Holmes. Ali, who was a mere shadow of his former self, went on to lose the bout (the first and only time he lost by stoppage), and retire just a year later.
Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer who’d been with him since his early career, told Sports Illustrated during the training camp, “Ali hasn’t won a round in the gym since I’ve known him. He’s the worst gym fighter in the world. But he always showed me flashes: 10 seconds, 15 seconds.”
Dundee made the same point to The New York Daily News. “Ali never won a decision in the gym,” he said in a 1996 interview. “He took shellackings in the gym only because that was the way he wanted to train.”
Ali might have lost routinely in sparring matches during fight camps, but boxing legends aren’t made in the lead-up to a bout, they’re created under the blinding spotlight and eyes of thousands of spectators, in sold-out arenas and stadiums around the world, on the television sets of millions of viewers around the world. Under those conditions, Ali thrived and showed more than just flashes of brilliance.
All of them down there had wrote so much about me bound to get killed by the big fists. It was even rumors that right after the weigh-in I had been taken to the asylum somewhere, and another rumor that I had caught a plane and run off. I couldn’t think about nothing but all that. I went dancing around the ring, hollering down at them reporters, “Eat your words! Eat! Eat!” And I hollered at the people, “I am the king!”Alex Haley Interviews Cassius Clay | Playboy Magazine
Ali was brilliant against Archie Moore in 1962, and Henry Cooper in 1963 (back when he was still going by Cassius Clay). Against Sonny Liston in 1964, when he won the WBA, WBC, NYSAC, and The Ring heavyweight titles. Against Floyd Patterson in 1965, who he cruelly punished over 12-rounds for not calling him “Muhammad Ali.” Against George Chuvalo in 1966. Against Cleveland Williams in 1966, perhaps his greatest pre-exile performance. Against Zora Folley in 1967.
Against Jerry Quarry in 1970, his first match after his 3-year suspension from boxing. Against George Foreman in 1974, who later revealed in an interview that the loss “was the most devastating event in my life as an athlete.” Against Joe Frazier in 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, a bout that Ali said, “was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.” Against Earnie Shavers in 1977, one of the hardest-hitting punchers in boxing history.
And those were just the highlights of his career. With his words and fists, Ali captured the public’s imagination unlike any other boxer, or sporting figure in history.
Rocky Marciano, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles—they all would have given me trouble. I can’t know if I would’ve beaten them all, but I do know this: I’m the most talked-about, the most publicized, the most famous and the most colorful fighter in history.Playboy Interview: Muhammad Ali (Second Interview, 1975) | Playboy Magazine
Muhammad Ali’s training routine
During his earlier years, Ali typically trained out of 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, Florida, which was owned by Angelo’s brother, Chris Dundee. “He was the first guy in the gym, and the last to leave,” Dundee later told Men’s Fitness in an interview about the champ’s training routine.
Dundee revealed that Ali never used weight training in his routine. “My belief is that a fighter’s muscles can’t bulk up,” the legendary trainer said. “There can’t be any restrictions to their punches. I ain’t got nothing against weights. A lot of guys use weights, and they do well with them, but he didn’t.”
Instead, Ali worked primarily on his footwork with a lot of jump rope and shadow boxing, and core exercises: sit-ups with legs held vertically, sit-ups with legs slightly raised off the ground and reverse bicycle crunches.
Later on in his boxing career, as he got more famous and the media attention at Miami Beach proved to be too much, Ali built his own training compound, nicknamed “Fighter’s Heaven” in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. At Fighter’s Heaven, Ali trained for some of his biggest fights — Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Floyd Patterson, to name a few — but he also welcomed younger boxers like Larry Holmes, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Sugar Ray Leonard to come train there as well.
“I got hills to run up and down, and I can run any time of the day I want because I don’t have to worry about traffic,” Ali said about Fighter’s Heaven. “I get me an axe and I go out and chop down some trees. In places like Miami and New York you’re not allowed to chop trees.”
According to an article in the Pennsylvania Heritage, after the compound’s construction, a large iron bell was added, which rang four times a day — “wake up at half past 4 o’clock in the morning, again at 8 o’clock for breakfast, then 5 o’clock in the evening for supper, and one last time signaling lights out at 10 o’clock.”
Following his loss against Ken Norton in 1973, a bout where Ali also had his jaw broken, he headed back to Deer Lake with former 5th Street Gym sparring partner, Vinnie Curto, to recover as well as commence an 11-week training camp for the rematch.
The boxers would wake up at 4:30 in the morning for their daily run, chop wood, and then eat breakfast. After a morning nap, sparring sessions began at 2:30 in the afternoon and ended around 4 o’clock. They then had leisure time before lights out at 10 o’clock.Fighter’s Heaven: Muhammad Ali’s Training Camp in the Pennsylvania Wilderness | Pennsylvania Heritage
Ali was back at Fighter’s Heaven again in 1978, this time after a split decision loss against Leon Spinks. Nearing 40-years old and with over 50-boxing matches wearing on his body, Ali was focused on getting into the best shape of life in the rematch against the 24-year old undefeated fighter.
“I’m goin’ back to my private training camp in Deer Lake to get ready for this fight,” Ali wrote in a 1978 pre-fight piece for The Ring magazine. “I know now that trainin’ in Miami last February was a mistake. I thought that the weather would be good. No snow. No bad weather that would prevent from runnin’ every morning and getting my legs in shape. But there were no hills where I stayed. I couldn’t get excited about runnin’ on the flat ground. My heart wasn’t in it every morning.”
Ali also about getting his weight in order for the rematch. “This time, at Deer Lake, I’m gonna get my weight down to about 215 in the middle of July. That means I’ll be trainin’ for about six weeks in my camp at the proper weight level that I will need for the fifteen rounds. I may even go into the ring at 210 pounds. At that weight, I’ll be dancin’ all night.”
Muhammad Ali’s diet
For his training camp diet, Ali typically ate three main meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner – with dessert and snacks sprinkled throughout the day. In his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, the heavyweight boxer described his go-to breakfast, “poached eggs, wheat toast and grapefruit or orange juice.” Ali believed that grapefruit juice helped to keep “the fat off his stomach” and made him “feel good mentally.”
For lunch, he ate “fresh vegetables, good lamb, veal, squab, [and] fish,” and then for dinner, it was usually baked or broiled fish, chicken or turkey with a salad, according to his former nutritionist, David Jones. For snacking and desserts, Jones gave Ali a combination of trail mix, raisins, nuts or candy sweetened with honey.
Jones would also wake up at dawn each morning to make smoothies, herbal teas and other health drinks for after Ali’s morning run. “I had to have them ready for him after his morning run,” Jones told The Roanoke Times.
Ali famously never drank coffee, soda or alcohol; preferring to stick with distilled water and fruit juices. A Washington Post article published in 1978, also mentioned that Ali ate a ton of fruit and vegetables for the vitamins and minerals, and usually ate an early steak dinner before a fight.
In a 1975 interview with Playboy, during the lead up to his third fight with Joe Frazier, Ali described his struggles with eating the “wrong food” and his training camp diet:
I’ll go to a coffee shop and order a stack of pancakes with strawberry preserves, blueberry preserves, whipped cream and butter, and then hit them hot pancakes with that good maple syrup and then drink a cold glass of milk. At dinnertime, I’ll pull into a McDonald’s and order two big double cheeseburgers and a chocolate milk shake—and the next day I weigh ten pounds more. Some people can eat and not gain weight, but if I just look at food, my belly gets bigger. That’s why, when I’m training, about all I eat is broiled steaks, chicken and fish, fresh vegetables and salads. I don’t even get to see them other things I like.Playboy Interview: Muhammad Ali (Second Interview, 1975) | Playboy Magazine
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