By Tom Donelson (BWAA)
Author, Member of Boxing Writers Association of America
Contributor to dmboxing.com since 2008
(Excerpts from my book on black fighters, Boxing in the Shadow)
“Fighters know how to suffer. They demagnify pain and seldom talk about it. Though some fighters have been called “bow-wows” within the sport, thresholds of pain are hard to detect in fighters….Eyes, nose, ears, larynx, kidneys, they all take horrific beatings. But their faces tell where fighters have been, the potholes over which they had to rattle, from the small arenas with the single light bulb and a backed-up toilet in the dressing rooms to the flooding light of the big time”
Boxing heroes are usually defined less by the ease of their victories, than by their defeats and their various comebacks in the course of a career. Fighters are made through the brutal confines of their sport, in which they nearly see death approach, in which their blood is splattered; and yet they somehow persevere. Brutality sells tickets, but more importantly, it seals one’s fame. For Ali, Joe Frazier was his ticket to fame.
There were two Ali careers. Before being forced into boxing exile after refusing induction into the armed forces, Ali easily dominated the heavyweight scene with ease. Rarely did he have to work up a sweat; and his athletic skills dominated the universe he ruled. Even though he outsized most heavyweights, his hand and foot speed was that of a welterweight. His athletic skills allowed him to break all of boxing’s rules, and he rarely listened to his corner man, Angelo Dundee, one of boxing’s greatest. He marched to his own beat, never really learning the basic boxing tenets only because his speed allowed him to break all tenets. Rules were made for mere mortals, not for Ali.
The Ali that came back from exile was a little slower, and suddenly he was faced with fighters who would have been great in any other era. George Foreman, who would win the heavyweight title a second time at the age of 45, was one of the most feared sluggers of his era. Ali outsmarted him in Zaire. But it was Joe Frazier who pushed Ali to his limits of endurance.
Joe Frazier, like Foreman, would have dominated in most eras of boxing. He was the Mike Tyson of his era, a man whose left hook crushed anything human it came in contact with. He was a perpetual machine, always moving, always punching, and never stopping. He was the foil that made Ali great.
Ali’s relation with the media of his day had as much due to not just to racism but also a divide that existed between the traditional liberals, who were veterans of World War II and Korea, and the hard left that dominates the media today as many of Ali’s media opposition were card-carrying members of the Democratic Party of that era.
One of the most interesting ironies of Ali’s career was that he dissed his black opponents far more than his white opponents. He tortured and taunted Floyd Patterson in their first fight and literally beating the life out of Ernie Terrell in their match in 1966. In Ali’s defense, these opponents were dismissive of his conversion to Black Muslims, and his battles against them were as much a holy war as a boxing match. But his worst treatment was reserved for Joe Frazier. While Frazier originally supported Ali’s cause after Ali was stripped of his title and even gave Ali financial support during his exile, their relationship would soon switch to outright hatred, especially from Frazier’s point of view. Ali, in gearing up for the first match, used racial epithets in describing Frazier, declaring him an Uncle Tom even though one Ali corner man would say later, Frazier was raging black. When he was not calling Frazier an Uncle Tom, he was calling Frazier stupid and ugly. Later Ali would claim this was to draw attendance, but Joe Frazier viewed this attack personally as his children would feel the brunt of Ali’s attacks with attacks from their schoolmates. For Frazier, defeating Ali was about more than keeping his championship, it was about restoring his honor.
The first fight was a brutal affair with both men ending up in the hospital after it was over. Ali began the fight quickly winning the first two rounds. Frazier took control after the third round, dominating with a vicious body attack followed by a thunderous left hook. Ali’s strategy was to start fast and knock Frazier out early. In the sixth round, the round in which Ali predicted he would deliver a knockout, Frazier dominated. He went back to his corner with a smile. After the end of the eighth round, Frazier held the lead.
Ali came back in the 9th round, winning that round with massive punches to Frazier’s face with announcer Don Dunphrey wondered out loud from ringside if Ali was performing his usual magic. The 10th followed the pattern of the ninth, as Ali appeared to turn the tide.
But the 11th saw Frazier nearly ending the fight with a left hook. Frazier connected with a picture perfect left hook and Ali spun 180 degrees. Frazier hesitated a second or two as he thought Ali might have been playing possum. Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee later observed, “Ali played rope-a-dope only Ali was the dope.” Dundee wanted Ali to move and dance, but as Ali entered the twelfth round, there was not much spring left in his legs. Ali took the 14th, leaving his fans hoping for one more miracle. Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th with a left hook wound up from South Carolina. Ali finished the fight on his feet, though Frazier won the first fight in their trilogy. For Frazier, this was his high point as a fighter. He was never better as against probably the greatest fighter ever, and would never again reach these heights.
Frazier won the fight but Ali won the crowd. For many, it was defeat that signified the victory of the establishment. Within the shadow of the Vietnam conflict and the onset of the Nixon era, this fight was more than a sporting event; it reflected the divide of the society as a whole. Frazier was caricatured as the protégée of the establishment, and his victory would taint him as a tool of White America, a role he didn’t seek. Both fighters would continue with their careers, but Ali would continue to overshadow Frazier in defeat as in victory.
Frazier would beat a couple of stiffs before losing his championship to George Foreman. Frazier was not strong enough to handle the heavy punching Foreman. His second fight with Ali was seen at the time as a battle between two washed up champions. The fight lacked the sizzle of either the first or third fights; but seen today, it merely prepared us for the final act between these two men. The fight was fought at a fast pace, and by itself would have been recognized as an excellent fight but the fight was stuck between two of the greatest heavyweight title fights and, seemed nothing more than ordinary. Ali started this fight in the same vein as his other fights by dominating the early rounds. He almost knocked Frazier out in the second and won the decision.
Ali upset George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Using his tactical skills, Ali had Dundee loosen the ropes. Borrowing a page from the old Mongoose, Archie Moore, Ali adopted his rope-a-dope. Foreman punched himself out and Ali finished off the young slugger. After the first round, Ali knew that if he tried to box Foreman, he would have been vulnerable and exhausted in the middle rounds. Foreman was effective at cutting off the ring. Instead, he used Foreman’s strength against him.
With this background, the third fight promised to be a quick night for Ali. Frazier was considered over the hill and no match for Ali. The drama that preceded the first fight was not present, though the match proved to be even more brutal, possibly the most brutal heavyweight championship fight in history. For both of these men, this fight was not about the championship; it was about the control of each other. For Frazier meant to beat Ali or die trying, and almost got his wish.
The fight followed the same pattern of the other fights. Ali started out fast, hitting Frazier with every imaginable combination. Frazier, starting in the fifth round, dominated the middle rounds with some of the most vicious body punches seen in Heavyweight history. By the 10th round, Ali could barely return to his corner and Frazier was on his way to victory. In every fighter’s career, there is that defining moment when a fighter goes beyond the pale to find what’s deep in his reservoir. Ali came out in the 12th round with one last rally, hitting Frazier with combinations to Smoking Joe’s face. Frazier’s left eye closed, and he was now vulnerable to Ali’s right. In the 13th, Frazier’s mouthpiece ended up in the seventh row, and by the 14th, Ali was hitting Frazier at will. Kram, covering the match for SI, counted nearly 30 right hands finding their target on Frazier’s face. Eddie Futch, Frazier’s long time corner man, stopped the fight. He could no longer stand his fighter’s plight and refused to allow any more torture. Frazier would never forgive his corner man for this but Futch was right. Neither man had much left. The Trilogy ended as both fighters knocked the last ounce of greatness out of each other.
Ali continued to reign as champ for nearly three years, but was not the same fighter. He barely escaped with a decision over Ken Norton that could have gone either way, and was punished by Ernie Shavers before winning that fight. He managed to win his title back a third time from a non-descript Leon Sphinx before retiring. His subsequent comeback against Larry Holmes ended in humiliation and his final misguided effort was a loss to Trevor Berbick. Joe Frazier’s own career shortly ended as well. George Foreman pounded the proud gladiator a second time during the American bicentennial celebration and, five years later; Frazier fought some pug to a draw.
Ali – Frazier I represented the trend lines in American society with both men playing specific roles. Ali relished his role and Frazier was forced to play a role he had no desire to play – a fighter defending the establishment. This fight actually matched the hype. As for boxing history, both men would find themselves involved in the best trilogy in boxing history. For 41 rounds, both men brutalized themselves; and these fights shortened their careers. But all three fights were magnificent bouts. Two of the fights were for the championship, and the middle fight of the trilogy was an elimination fight. While Ali would win the second and third bouts, it was Frazier who would win the fight of the century, ensuring his place in boxing history.
After the trilogy, Ali experienced his own changes and so do America. As the 1980’s began, Ali was no longer the radical Ali but then America was changing as well. The Ali was angry at America was no longer angry but then America accepted him as a hero as the 1996 Olympic showed when he was given a standing ovation as he lit the Olympic flame. Ali showed that in America, second and third chances happened and the hatred that Ali encumbered in the late 60’s for his stance against the Vietnam War and his conversion to Islam cease to exist. Like most humans, he had his dark side that was exhibited with his relationship with Joe Frazier but he also suffered from his conviction which includes losing three years of his life as a boxer and the millions that went with it.
Ali fought in the golden age of the heavyweight division with great heavyweights abounded. Sonny Liston was one of the great heavyweights but his short reign and two knockout defeats obscured what was a great career. Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and George Foreman own careers were often lost in the shadow of Ali. While Holmes defeated Ali, he defeated an old Ali long past his prime but now Holmes like Foreman and Frazier got his due. Foreman would comeback at the age of 45 would recapture the heavyweight title two decades after he lost the title to Ali against the undefeated Mike Moorer in another great boxing upset. Just as Foreman lost his title in one of boxing great upset, he would finally regain his title against a younger opponent and who was winning the bout easily before Foreman right hand ended the bout. As a favorite he lost his title to Ali but as a underdog two decades later, he won the title with the circle completed.
Ali is recognized as one of the greatest fighters, if not greatest, as he combined skills rarely seen of both power and speed and in the process, he changed the nature of the sport. His first bout with Frazier was considered the fight of the century and it lived up to its hype but it also transcended the sporting world and become a symbol of the political battle then and now. Ali R.I.P.