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The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part Two

Posted in Boxing, Sports, The Wayback Machine with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2010 by thelasthonestman

If you missed Part One, you can find it here.

The warning signs were all there — you just had to look a little bit deeper to find them.

A young Mike Tyson with Cus D'Amato

The first blow to Mike Tyson’s career wouldn’t be anything that took place in a ring — rather, it was the death of his mentor (and father figure), legendary trainer Cus D’Amato (who was best known for having trained former champion Floyd Patterson) in November of 1985.  Tyson was still young and impressionable at the time of D’Amato’s passing, and in time, we would learn that the elderly trainer had played a large part in keeping his fighter out of trouble — and in covering up those problems when they did occur.  D’Amato’s death left a vacuum in Tyson’s life that would never be filled; though D’Amato had already turned over the reigns of handling the fighter to trainer Kevin Rooney.

The management of Tyson’s career was first overseen by two men who had worked closely with D’Amato to guide the young fighter’s path, — they being Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton.  Tyson was extremely close to Jacobs, and he respected him greatly, always listening to what he had to say — with Cayton, however, the close relationship was not there — a factor that would be instrumental in later events.  When Jacobs died of leukemia in 1988, the stability of Mike Tyson’s life took another crushing blow.  The vultures of the sport — such as notorious promoter Don King (with his long history of exploiting fighters for his own benefit) — were hovering nearby, waiting for their opportunity to sink their talons into a vulnerable Tyson.  The deaths of Jacobs and D’Amato, as well as Tyson’s own belief in his invulnerability in the ring, led to two ill-fated marriages — one to actress Robin Givens, the second a professional wedding of his career to Don King Promotions.

The fall of Mike Tyson from heavyweight dominance not coincidentally coincided with the arrival of Don King

With his tumultuous marriage to Givens headed quickly to a divorce, and the squabbling between King and the only surviving member of Tyson’s original management team in Cayton over Tyson’s career, the backdrop was set for Tyson’s fall.  Without the loyalty  to or close relationship with Cayton that he’d had with either D’Amato or Jacobs, Tyson was ripe to listen to the seductive promises made by King — as well as the veiled accusations by the promoter that the people running Tyson’s career were not looking after his best interests.  With that approach, King was finally able to convince Tyson to jettison all of those who had been with him from the beginning.  More notable than Cayton’s departure would be that of his trainer Rooney — a strong detractor of King’s influences — a loss that, at the time, seemed manageable — but which would also prove devastating in the months to come .

King’s people having assumed control, Tyson’s path to his eventual defeat in Tokyo was then set — even if no one realized it at the time.  Instead of a hard-working practitioner of the sport in the disciplined, no-nonsense camps run by Jacobs and Rooney, Tyson was now the head attraction of a traveling circus, led by the ringmasters of King and Givens, with a growing entourage of hanger-ons who were more concerned with themselves than Tyson’s success in the ring. Tyson’s training habits suffered, and his once-effective style quickly deteriorated.  While the early Tyson had been a deceptively effective defensive fighter, who finished his opponents off with quick, bursting combinations — now, he had been reduced to a plodding fighter who marched straight in to his opponent, who ignored the body-punching that had been so effective for him, and who now eschewed combination-punching for the one-punch knockout.

The problems from these changes in Tyson’s approach didn’t manifest themselves immediately — after an eight month layoff following the Spinks win (the longest of his career at that point), he knocked out European challenger Frank Bruno in 5, and followed that up with a 1st round demolition of Carl Williams five months afterward.  But to those people like myself who did look deeper, it was apparent that Tyson wasn’t the same fighter who had beaten Berbick, Holmes, and Spinks.  I remember thinking that the loss of Rooney would come back to haunt Tyson at some point and that the “new” Tyson was definitely not an “improved” Tyson — but who would be able to take advantage of the champion’s growing shortcomings?  Maybe Holyfield, I had thought — but that fight would have to wait until Tyson took care of business in Japan against James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990.

I had watched a little of Douglas over the years, and I had never been all that impressed with what I had seen.  Douglas carried into his title challenge an unassuming record of 29-4-1 — with 3 knockout losses as part of his resume.  The 6 foot-4 inch tall Douglas was certainly talented;  he was quicker than his size might have indicated, with the ability to move around the ring and snap a crisp jab into an opponent’s face — when he was in shape, that is (which was always a hit-and-miss proposition for the heavyweight contender).  Douglas’ biggest drawback was that he seemed top have no passion for the sport, making him a sharp contrast to his sometimes-trainer — and father — Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, a fighter known in his career for his tenacity and heart in the ring.  The relationship between father and son was often strained, as the younger Douglas’ inability to fully realize his potential seemed to drive his father crazy.

Tony Tucker finishes off an uninspired Buster Douglas in the 10th round

I had watched Douglas lose on a 10th round knockout against Tony Tucker only a little more than two years earlier, in a fight that exemplified the best — and the worst — of Douglas.  Douglas had looked good in the early rounds, building a lead on the judges scorecards, but he faded in the later rounds.  When he was finished off in the 10th, he looked more tired and disinterested than hurt.  After the loss, I thought I had seen the last of Douglas as a heavyweight contender, and I didn’t think the sport would be any worse off as a result.  When he was announced as the tune-up opponent for Tyson before his superfight with Evander Holyfield, I saw a mismatch in the making.  While Douglas had “earned” the championship shot on the basis of 6 consecutive wins following the defeat to Tucker (the most notable being a knockout over fellow contender, a glass-jawed Mike Williams and decisions over a washed-up Trevor Berbick and future alphabet-champ Oliver McCall), it was apparent to everyone in the sport that Douglas had been selected only as a “safe” opponent for Tyson to quickly demolish.

As champion and challenger went to Japan, most of the boxing community had to stifle their collective yawns.  The question wasn’t who was going to win, but as to how quickly Tyson would knock Douglas out.  There would be only one casino willing to even put odds on the fight — the Mirage — which had Tyson as a commanding 42-1 favorite.  I wasn’t the only one who thought that those odds weren’t long enough.

The fight would take place on a Saturday night here (which translated to Sunday morning in Tokyo), February 11, 1990.  Along with my father (who was also a huge boxing fan), I religiously followed all of Tyson’s fights, watching them live whenever possible.  With the Tyson-Douglas fight being broadcast live in HBO, this would be another one of those occasions — though we almost didn’t see this fight take place.  “It’s just going to be another one round knockout,” I remember, even today, my dad telling me beforehand.  “Why bother?” he asked.

“Why not?” I’d replied.  “Maybe it might be a good fight, at least for a couple of rounds,” I reasoned.

Little did we — or the sporting world — realize then the magnitude of what we were about to see.

For The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part Three, click here.


The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part One

Posted in Boxing, Sports, The Wayback Machine with tags , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by thelasthonestman

It's been 20 years this month since the greatest upset in Boxing history

My introduction to boxing came, ironically enough, with one of the biggest upsets ever in the sport — but it’s not the one I’m thinking of for today’s piece.   It was February of 1978 when former Olympic Gold Medalist Leon Spinks — unbeaten but inexperienced (with only 7 professional bouts at the time) — faced off with the legendary Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown.  Ali was acknowledged as one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, but as it does to even the greatest practitioners of the sweet science, Father Time had caught up to the champion, leaving him little more than a shell of the fleet-footed, quick-handed master who had dazzled the sporting world in numerous victories over the years.  Ali came into the Spinks fight unprepared, and the younger challenger outhustled his opponent to win the decision (a loss that Ali would avenger later in the year to recapture the title, in what would be his last victory in the ring).

Boxing pundits called it one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport;  at the time, I wasn’t impacted by its magnitude nearly as much, since I had never seen Ali fight until that night.  It wasn’t until later, watching film of Ali in his prime, that I could appreciate how shocking the result was.  But at the same time, Ali was old and admittedly, washed up.  When fighters reach that point in their careers, they lose to other men who would never have been able to compete with them if the skills had been equal.  Which is why the result, while one of the sport’s biggest shocks ever, still doesn’t compare to what would take place in Tokyo, Japan almost twelve years later to the day, when Mike Tyson defended his heavyweight title against an unheralded challenger named Buster Douglas.

Mike Tyson was exactly what boxing needed at the time -- a dominant champion

If you followed the sport as closely as I did then, Mike Tyson seemingly was as close to the epitome of the perfect fighting machine as had ever stepped into the ring.  Unbeaten in his first 37 career fights, Tyson had entered the public consciousness at a time when the popularity of the sports had been waning, and interest in the sport’s marquee division was at one of his lowest ebbs.  A combination of mediocre fighters and no clear recognized champion, thanks to the destructive tendencies of boxing’s inept sanctioning bodies, had left the division a muddled mess before Tyson came along.  No less than a dozen other men had claimed some share of some organization’s title over the decade since Ali had retired, and other than Larry Holmes — who had by now lost his championship to Leon’s far more-accomplished brother, Michael — none had distinguished themselves, all remaining only blips on even boxing’s ever-obscure landscape.  The heavyweight division was badly in need of a fighter who could establish themselves as the best and reignite public interest in the sport.

Along came Tyson.  Making his debut in March of 1985, Tyson quickly proved himself to be everything that the fighters surrounding him in the division were not: he was active (15 fights in his first year along), and he was exciting (19 knockouts in a row to begin his career, and 26 knockouts in his first 28 fights, 16 of them coming in the 1st round).  While most heavyweights threatened to put their audiences to sleep with slow punching and lots of grabbing and clinching, Tyson forced you to glue your eyes to the screen, anxious with the anticipation of the flurry of punches that would separate his opponent from his senses and end the fight.

I had never seen anyone like Tyson before — and at least in the heavyweight division, I’ve never seen anyone like him since.  His hands were lightning fast, and he was economical in his movements.  No effort was wasted, no punch was thrown without purpose or an intent to dismantle his opponent.  In a division populated by out-of-shape, lazy fighters, Tyson was a man among boys, even though his tender age as one of the division’s youngest competitors meant the exact opposite was true.  As Tyson systematically began to dismantle the division’s best, he not only captivated the attention of hardcore boxing fans, but also that of the general public, many of whom had never followed the sport before, but who now found themselves tuning into the next Tyson fight the way they might have the Super Bowl, or a World Series game.

Tyson separating Trevor Berbick from his senses

Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick  in 2 rounds to win the WBC title in November 1986, making him the youngest fighter to ever win a share of the heavyweight title (breaking a mark set by Floyd Patterson).  The KO was a textbook show of power by the new champion;  the second and last knockdown of the round saw Berbick crushed to the canvas, and when he tried to get up, he would fall down twice more — the image of Berbick stumbling and staggering around the ring was replayed countless times on the airwaves, evidence to all that we were watching something special in the ring.

Crushing knockout victories over Pinklon Thomas (an underrated boxer of this time), Olympian Tyrell Biggs, and a comebacking Larry Holmes would follow.  Decisions over Bonecrusher Smith and Tony Tucker would gain him the WBA and IBF titles, making Tyson the undisputed king of his division — at least as far as the governing bodies were concerned.  Still out there, however, was the unbeaten Michael Spinks, Holmes’ conquerer and the man acknowledged by those who followed the sport closely as the true Heavyweight Champion (as he had never lost his title in the ring).

Tyson standing over Michael Spinks as the King of the Heavyweight division

When Tyson met Spinks in a mammoth event to determine the unidsputed Heavyweight Champion, I remember thinking that if anyone could stop Tyson’s reign of terror in the division, it was Spinks, who was as skilled a boxer as there was in the sport.  That thinking looked utterly foolish as Tyson disposed of Spinks with no more effort than you or I would use in swatting a cockroach — Spinks, who had never been knocked down in his career up until that point, was left draped under the bottom rope and knocked out halfway through the 1st round.

There looked to be nothing that could stop Tyson from putting himself in the company of the sport’s all-time elite.  He was young — only 22 years old — in his prime, and with seemingly a decade or so ahead of him to cement his legacy as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — Heavyweight Champion of them all.  Tyson was a wrecking machine in the truest sense of the word, and after the destruction of Spinks, I was sure that I was witnessing a fighter who could not be beaten anytime in the future — certainly not by anyone sharing the heavyweight division with Tyson.  Possibly Evander Holyfield, the former World Cruiserweight Champion who was positioning himself as Tyson’s next major threat, might be able to stay stay competitive for a while — but actually win?  Not likely.  Tyson, it seemed, would be on top of the heavyweight division forever.

Little did any of us know at the time, though, that the end would be only three fights away.

Part 2 of The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time is now up here.

12 Angry Men — An American Film Classic

Posted in Entertainment, Movies, The Wayback Machine with tags , , , , on February 10, 2010 by thelasthonestman

So my wife was lucky enough to pull jury duty for today.  It’s actually the second time this has happened to her (I’ve never been called for it yet myself).  The first time around, the trial was canceled the day beforehand when a plea was apparently reached, but this time she’s headed off to the courthouse.  I’m admittedly curious as to what kind of trial she could be taking part in.  Is it going to be something newsworthy, or more like sleep-inducing?  How long is it going to take — a day or maybe weeks — and will she be given the “don’t talk about the trial to anyone, even your loved ones” request you see jury members given during every television or movie courtroom drama?

Her experience today got me thinking this morning about the depiction of the trial process on the big and small screens.  Almost always, the jury deliberation itself in an afterthought when it comes to dramatizing the events of a trial; we’re usually privy to all of the intrigue taking place behind the scenes with either the prosecution of the defense, but less often do we see the juries themselves, or get to know what’s going on behind those closed doors after both sides have rested their case.

An exception to that approach is the 1957 Academy Award nominated film 12 Angry Men, which is a personal favorite of mine and a movie I make a point to watch whenever I catch it on somewhere.  Adapted from a 1954 television broadcast of the same name, the black-and-white movie is headlined by a fine performance by legendary actor Henry Fonda and features a cast filled with talented and recognizable actors.  12 Angry Men is viewed as an American classic, having been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and it’s the owner of tremendous acclaim (it’s a favorite film of Roger Ebert, and it has a 100% approval rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes).  While the story has been adapted for the stage since, and there have been several remakes of the film (most notably a 1997 version made for Showtime), the 1957 version is the definitive version of the story, and the one I enjoy the most.

If you haven’t seen it (an oversight you can and should immediately correct — the film is available on DVD at Amazon), the story’s focus is on the deliberations of a jury serving in the trial of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father.  The jury — twelve men of various social status and economic means — is largely convinced of the boy’s guilt and is prepared to deliver a quick guilty verdict — which would result in the death penalty (according to the story).  But one juror (Fonda ‘s character in the original) is a holdout, believing that the evidence is circumstantial and that the accused deserves as least the time and effort of a deliberation before convicting him.  Juror Number Eight, as Fonda’s character is known (we don’t get anyone’s names throughout the film until the very end — the jurors are all known simply by their number) begins to present the case of the accused innocence to his fellow jurors, many of whom are hostile at first to what they believe is simply a waste of their time.

Fonda’s character is clearly the hero of the piece, an outnumbered man facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, but the characters of the remaining jurors are also fleshed out spectacularly throughout the film, as the audience discovers that many of them have their own personal flaws and prejudices that are influencing their votes.  Lee J. Cobb (a fine actor in his own right, who originated the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman) plays the main antagonist in the jury room, Juror Number Three.  Cobb’s performance lives up to the “angry” part of the title, as his juror is a bitter, resentful man with his own private demons that put him in direct conflict with Fonda’s quiet, determined strength to find the truth.  It’s the dynamic between the two that drives the drama, but there are many other noteworthy performers in the film as well — Martin Balsam as the jury foreman, and E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and Robert Webber as jurors.

The movie is a taunt, tense ride that sees Fonda eventually swaying the remaining jurors over to his side.  Unique in its making is that the film is set, outside of a few brief scenes, entirely in the jury room (only 8 of the 96 minutes of the film takes place outside of there), leaving the claustrophobia of the hot, cramped deliberation room felt by the jurors to seep off of the screen and envelop the viewer.

There are some flaws and inaccuracies in the film — primarily the composition of the jury itself; in the 1957 movie, the jury is an all-male group with no African-Americans — the closest thing to a minority juror is the Czech watchmaker, played by George Voskovec.  Later adaptations rectified this implausibility (the 1997 remake had four African-Americans among the jurors, while several stage adaptations have changed more than one juror’s sex from male to female), but despite the suspension of disbelief needed, the original still stands as the best of them all.  If you haven’t seen it before, it occasionally runs on Turner Classic Movies and is on DVD.  I highly recommend it.

The Year In Review

Posted in Entertainment, Le Boo Coaching Awards, News/Current Events, NFL Football, Personal, Rants, Sports, Television, The Wayback Machine, The Wrapups on December 30, 2009 by thelasthonestman

It’s been a long year here — and in case you missed it the first time around, here’s some of the highlights (and lowlights) we focused on in 2009:

Why are so many of our nation’s banking institutions having problems keeping their heads above water?  A look at this story of my personal experience with one of those banks — with prime examples of  idiotic decision-making and completely appalling customer service — might shed some light on the reason.

If you were looking for ugliness in 2009, there was no better place to find it than the car wrecks found on reality television shows.  My personal target — the disgraceful Jon & Kate Plus 8 — and my thoughts on it has been one of the most popular posts on the blog this year.

Sportsmanship on sports has been on the wane for  long time now — and we’re not just talking about at the professional level.  One of the most atrocious displays in 2009 of that lack of class was found in, of all places, girls high school basketball.  After reading this, you might wonder where former coach Grimes is now — if I had to guess, he’s probably been with the Grinch all month trying to figure out how to steal everyone’s Christmas away.

A chapter of my life went away in 2009, as a company I’d worked for went quietly into bankruptcy and oblivion.  It was a sad moment, and one I hope never to have to experience again.

One of the better sports documentaries I’ve seen came on HBO earlier this year, a look back at the war between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.  My take on it — and on the Ali-Frazier blood feud — was one of the pieces I most enjoyed doing in 2009.

The coal in my Christmas stocking actually came early in the year — I just didn’t know it then.  It was the trade of Jay Cutler to my beloved Chicago Bears this year that made me feel like I was being punished for not being on Santa’s good list.  I already railed on Cutler’s crybaby act before he was traded to Chicago — and it’s only gotten uglier as the season’s gone on.  On the bright side for Bears fans like myself, it can’t get any worse — can it?  Maybe that question doesn’t need to be answered.  If you want to compare Jay Cutler to Jeff George — like I heard ESPN’s Tom Jackson do this week — you won’t get an argument from me.

And finally, there’s the disgrace to both the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts that took place on Sunday.  That article is probably still fresh in your mind, but if you didn’t read it, it’s worth it to check it out.

I’ll see you in 2010 — and enjoy your New Year’s celebration.

A Look Back At The Thrilla In Manila — And The Ali-Frazier War That Still Rages Today

Posted in Boxing, Sports, Television, The Wayback Machine with tags , , , , on April 16, 2009 by thelasthonestman

ali-frazier1Once their names were almost inseparable — Ali and Frazier.

Now, they are two men who couldn’t be any further apart, by any means you might measure.  One is a hero to millions, remembered as a legend and one of the greatest his sport had to offer, wealthy and famous wherever he goes — even if he’s now only a shadow of the man he once was.  The other has faded into relative obscurity, now living in near poverty in an inner-city neighborhood far removed from the glamour of the spotlight, a figure still angry and bitter over his treatment by his rival many years after the fact.

And well he should be.

cosell-aliWhen I was a kid and was first introduced to boxing, the one fighter I got to know immediately was Muhammad Ali.  And why not?  At the time — 1976 to be exact — he was the Heavyweight Champion of the World back when that title still meant something, and he was arguably the most famous athlete of his time.  It was impossible not to know who Ali was, even if you didn’t follow boxing.  No athlete of modern times — exact possibly Michael Jordan — was more well known in the United States, and it’s not a stretch to say that no athlete in history has been more recognized around the entire world than Ali was.  He wasn’t just a sports figure — he was a celebrity with greater recognition than many a world leader or famous actor.

So why wouldn’t he become my favorite boxer as I took my tentative first steps into becoming a fan of the sport?  Everyone seemed to love Ali, and I would be no different, quickly becoming a fan.  Being too young to know better, I was almost hostile to my father’s suggestions that Ali was “washed up” when we sat down to watch his fight on network television (remember those days?) against a complete unknown — well, at least to me — Leon Spinks.

ali-holmesAs you would expect, I was devastated at the time when a old, slow, and out-of-shape Ali was out-hustled by the raw, inexperienced Spinks, who captured the champion’s crown in a 15-round unanimous decision.  I was giddy with excitement when I heard the news that Ali had recaptured his title in New Orleans seven months later against Spinks, still too young to realize that this would be his last hurrah.  I was devastated again when Ali retired, then when he lost to Larry Holmes in an ill-advised comeback, then yet again when he lost to Trevor Berbick before he finally hung it up once and for all.

At the time, I would have told you without fail that Ali was “The Greatest”, as he had always proclaimed.  But I grew older and wiser, and as I became a huge fan of the sport of boxing — and in turn, studied its history — I realized that my view had been a myopic one.  While I would always acknowledge Ali as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time and one of the greatest boxers as well, I would eventually replace him at the top of both my all-time list of heavyweight champions (with the immortal Joe Louis) and the list of all-time pound-for-pound greats (with the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson).

But that re-ranking aside, I still knew everything I could about Ali, didn’t I?  I knew about his dramatic emergence onto the boxing scene in the early 1960’s, about his conversion to Islam, about the unjust suspension of his boxing license and the inspirational comeback he’d made to the ring. I knew all there was to know about his underdog victory against George Foreman to regain his title, and all you could know about his battles with his epic adversary, Joe Frazier.  Right?

It turns out I didn’t — and I’d harbor a guess that I’m not alone.

ghosts-of-manilaNow showing on HBO this month is an outstanding sports documentary Thrilla In Manila.  If you haven’t gotten a chance to see it, and you know or care anything about either boxing or Muhammad Ali, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  In addition, I highly recommend also checking out the outstanding book Ghosts of Manila by author Mark Kram — I’m not sure if the the documentary was based off of or inspired by the book, but much of the material found in the former is in the latter and in even greater detail.  Both documentary and book take a look back at the bitter Ali-Frazier rivalry — one that hasn’t let up, even now, some thirty years plus later — that would culminate in a ring on a brutally hot morning in the Philippines.  Both tell not only the story of the fight itself, but the mostly untold story of the callous and cruel verbal attacks made by Ali against a man in Frazier who never deserved it, the bitter personal war that it would cause between two men that had started as friends, and the damage that it would lead to for both men — with its effects still felt today.

ali-frazier-poster3Everyone by now knows the background behind Ali unjustly losing his boxing license due to his refusal to be inducted into military service during the Vietnam War — but far fewer people know of Joe Frazier’s lobbying on Ali’s behalf behind the scenes to have that same restriction lifted.  And while it would be easy to claim that Frazier’s actions were more self-serving than noble — after all, without Ali there could never have been the money Joe would make in their megafights together — it’s hard to feel that Frazier’s actions were anything but noble when it’s revealed that the then-champion helped Ali financially when the latter was in need during his exile, a selfless act that was done entirely in private and away from the prying eyes of the media and world-at-large.

826620boxer-muhammad-ali-taunting-rival-joe-frazier-at-frazier-s-training-headquarters-postersAnd how were Frazier’s actions repaid by Ali when his suspension was finally lifted, and the dream fight between the two warriors — and tentative friends at the time — made?  Whether it was an attempt at psychological warfare or simply just an act to help sell the fight to the world, Ali turned on Frazier with vicious intent, savaging Frazier to the media and anyone who would listen, labeling the champion as a “Uncle Tom” and an ignorant buffoon who was only a tool for the white man and a traitor to his race.  It was an inaccurate and unfair depiction of a proud man in Frazier who had been born in the poorest part of South Carolina, who had worked hard while growing up in the toughest part of inner-city Philadelphia (a far cry from Ali, who had come up in more prosperous surroundings in Louisville), and who had seen as much racism first-hand as had Ali — even if he wasn’t the type to publicly decry it.

The enmity between the two men, which had simmered through the loss of the title by Frazier to George Foreman in Jamaica, the letdown of their second fight (a 12-round decision win for Ali),  and Ali’s shocking triumph over Foreman in Zaire, grew to a crescendo by the time their rubber match in Manila arrived.  Ali took his insults of Frazier to a new level, referring to his challenger as a “gorilla”, mocking his physical features (Ali would take to pushing his own nose flat in an attempt to mimic Joe’s), and even taking to punching a toy monkey meant to depict Frazier while at his press conferences or meeting with the media.  It was an ugly side to Ali that those in his camp have excused as simply another act of showmanship — just a way to sell tickets;  however, those in that corner ignore the reality of how deep an insult the term was to Frazier, and how troubling the usage was in referring to an African-American.  Coming from another black man, it was doubly so.

The book and the documentary touch on all of this and much more.  If you’ve looked at Ali through rose-colored glasses over the years, both of these looks back will be a stark wake-up call and a disappointing reminder that our heroes are as flawed, even more so in some cases, then those who idolize them.

manila-2The culmination of the blood feud between Ali and Frazier would be their epic struggle in Manila, and both the documentary and the book give great insights into one of the greatest heavyweight struggles ever.  Everything that is good — and bad — about boxing was in display on that morning in the Philippines.  While Ali had taken the fight largely due to believing that Frazier was washed up following the beating he took at the hands of Foreman, Frazier trained for the contest as if he was going to war for his life — and in many ways, he was.  The fight would be more of a contest of survival than a sporting event — Ali himself would say afterward that this had been “the closest to dying he had ever been” — and it can be said that while two men went into the ring that day, neither came out whole.  Both Ali and Frazier left part of themselves behind, and neither man would be the same again physically — or mentally.

manila-3The fight itself was a war;  Ali dominated the early rounds, nearly knocking Frazier out while showing an aggressive tact he rarely had exhibited since his return to the ring in 1970.  But in the middle rounds, the former champion would rally, muscling Ali at every opportunity while pounding the now-stationary fighter in the ribs, kidneys, liver, and hips at every opportunity with his brutal left hooks, each thrown with the intent of knocking Ali out.  Frazier surged ahead on the scorecards, but as the fight entered the last rounds, Ali had begun to rally again.  Constant punching to Frazier’s face had swollen his right eye almost shut.  Unbeknown to anyone other than Frazier and his trainer, the great Eddie Futch, cataracts had rendered the fighter unable to see with his left eye, and with his vision impaired in his right eye from the pounding he’d received, Frazier was now fighting essentially blind.  Ali would rain punishment on a tiring Frazier, who despite the beating, refused to give up.

After a beating in the 14th, Futch — against the protests of Frazier — would signal to stop the fight.  Ironically, in the corner opposite of theirs, Ali was begging his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut his own gloves off, seemingly unwilling to answer the bell himself.  The shocking juxtaposition of the two — the eventual loser wanting to continue while his corner fought to protect him from risking his own life in his quest for victory, while the eventual winner was looking at the abyss and hesitating, while his corner urged him onward — poses the question:  How would the lives of these two men — and our remembrances of them both — have been forever changed if Frazier had answered the bell for the 15th round — and Ali had not?

ali-oldThe aftermath for both is well documented.  Ali would go on to fight again, but never be the same.  Frazier also would fight on, but his career was essentially finished that day in Manila.  Over time, the wars each fought in the ring would take their physical toll on both men.  Ali today is a shadow of his former, glib self — the effects of his years in the ring and his battle with Parkinson’s Disease well evident.  Frazier also wears the effects of the punishment he took.  But while so much has faded over time with both of these men, one thing is as strong today as it was then — and that’s an utter disdain of Ali by Frazier, the latter still embittered by his treatment so many years ago.

The documentary and the book tell us a lot about both of these men, whose stories are forever intertwined with one another.  What I took out of it was that Ali wasn’t quite the hero I once thought he was, and Frazier was never the villain he was often portrayed to be.  Both were proud men and proud fighters.  There is a great deal about both to admire — and a great deal about both that neither should be proud of.  Which, I guess, makes them both human — like the rest of us.  No more — no less.

joe-frazierThe lasting image I take from the HBO Special, though, is that of Frazier watching the tape of his fight with Ali.  There’s a haunted, troubling look on his face as he watches his younger self attacking and stalking Ali in the ring, an almost wry smile coming up from the corners of his mouth as you can see him reliving every blow being struck.  You can sense that, for Frazier, a part of him is still in Manila, still chasing after the elusive Ali.  In some ways, he’s a ghost of a man chasing down another spectre — even after all these years — a spectre he’ll never be able to catch, no matter how badly he wants to.

Whatever Happened To Classic Network TV?

Posted in Television, The Wayback Machine on March 5, 2009 by thelasthonestman

So here’s what prompted this piece — apparently, there are a lot of Farrah Fawcett fans out there.  I’ve gotten an unusually large number of hits on the blog in the last week, and a great number of them are being drawn here by google-searching images of the former Angel, leading them back to this article and to this image I used in the piece:

Ahhh .... memories

Ahhh .... memories

I’ll admit that I’m a little surprised that people are out there looking for pictures of Fawcett;  thirty years ago, however, it would have been a different story.  If the internet had been around back then, we would have all heard stories about how people searching the web for the image of this iconic pose by the superstar would have caused the net to implode — much like the stories we heard last year about New York Magazine’s website crashing after they ran pictures of their photo shoot with Lindsay Lohan posing topless.

You know you looked, so don't deny it

You know you clicked on the above link and looked, so don't deny it

But clearly, the lesson here is that, apparently, there’s still a lot of Fawcett fans out there, and thinking about her and the show that made her a household name, Charlie’s Angels, also got me to thinking about how much different the television landscape that turned her into a star was back then.

The television network TV Land has made its mark in broadcasting “classic” television shows, a large number of them having been mined from the television schedules from that time during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  But a look at what’s on the airwaves now — at least on the networks — makes me think that, when we look back at this era of TV viewing, there isn’t going to be a whole lot to remember fondly.  If you’re looking for high-quality programming, then you’re better off hitting the cable channels instead;  tomorrow’s classics have been increasingly found there, whether it’s recently ended shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under (both found on HBO), current hits like The Closer (TNT), or sleepers like Mad Men and Breaking Bad (AMC).

On the other hand, if you’re one of the small minority living with just network programming but still looking for quality viewing, then I feel for you.  The top-rated offerings from the networks last year seemed to have as many reality-based shows (American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, Survivor) as those that weren’t.  Does that mean there’s nothing to be found on the networks?  No — but the list of enjoyable, compelling programming is small, with some notable shows (House, Lost) as the exceptions to the rule.

The dearth of watchable network TV makes me look back fondly at what was available when I first got hooked on the tube.  A look at the TV schedule from 1976-1977 — the premiere season of Charlie’s Angels and with it, Farrah’s breakout role — reveals a huge number of shows that, thirty years later,  still hold up as classics of the small screen.

Looking for drama back in 1977?  A viewer had The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, or Starsky and Hutch to fill the void.  But those choices paled in comparison to the options available to lovers of comedy.  There was an All-Star lineup of classic comedies available then — The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, All In The Family, M*A*S*H*, Barney Miller, Welcome Back, Kotter, Sanford & Son, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Maude, — and more.  Are there any comedies today that hold a candle to these powerhouses?  Maybe a couple — 30 Rock and The Office come to mind — but these are few and far between.

This is NOT one of those shows

This is NOT one of those shows

Of course, the relaxed standards of cable programming has made it easier for those channels to offer content that the networks won’t touch — but even that excuse seems weak, as the networks aren’t operating under older standards either.  I don’t think it’s a lack of freedom given to the networks that’s causing the problem;  rather, it’s a lack of creativity.  And sadly, if the last few years are any indication, there’s not going to be any change on the horizon — so get used to more “high-quality” programming like The Moment of Truth (and make sure to clear your schedule for the time you’ll need to take a shower to clean up after viewing).

Or, in the meantime, if you’re like me and expect better, then feel reassured that the other cable channels are picking up the slack.  And if that’s not sufficient, then that’s why they invented the DVD, right?

Just Another Hottie In A Bikini

Posted in News/Current Events, Sports, The Wayback Machine on February 10, 2009 by thelasthonestman

You can admit it — the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue used to be a big thing to you once, but that day is long since gone.

I’m not ashamed to admit, it used to be to me.  Like a lot of young teenage boys who were big sports fans, I received an SI subscription as a gift one year from my parents.  I was 12 at the time.  In February of 1983, my first swimsuit issue arrived in the mail.  I’d heard about it from even before I’d gotten the magazine, but it was still definitely a big deal when it arrived at my house for the first time, a vision of warm, exotic places in the middle of what was a decidedly cold, Midwestern winter.

Original, unedited cover of my first swimsuit issue

To put this in a little bit of context, at the time I lived in a rural area that didn’t have cable, so there was no HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax.  The Internet was nowhere near becoming a reality — my Intellivision represented “cutting edge” home technology then — and VCR’s were still a luxury that you didn’t find in every home, certainly not ours.

So how did a young man get his … er … “female fix”?  Well, unless you had a father who collected Playboy and left the magazines somewhere they could be found (and my dad did neither), the closest you were going to get to admiring the female form was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — hence, my excitement at the time.

My mom and dad usually got the mail from the box, so imagine my horror when I got the above issue — but with certain “select locations” obscured from view with permanent black marker!  It was my first brush with censorship, this one coming at the hands of my somewhat overprotective parents.  I wasn’t too happy, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that they hadn’t kept the issue away from me entirely, and that there was still plenty to be seen inside the pages that they hadn’t taken pen to as well.

Artist's rendition of the censored cover -- I can't remember exactly how it looked, but it might as well have been like this

Over the years, as my subscription continued, I received a number of other SI swimsuit issues — thankfully, none of them altered the way the initial one had been (even my parents realized it was time to let me become a man, I guess — either that, or the black marker ran out of ink and they never got around to buying another one).  Every young man has memories of his first celebrity crushes — was there any boy growing up in the 1970’s that did not have or not want the famous poster of Farrah Fawcett on their wall?

You should see her now -- no wait, that might not be such a good idea

The face on every 13 year-old's bedroom wall in the 1970's

My own favorites at the time became two women I discovered through the SI Swimsuit issue — Kathy Ireland (still a hottie after all this time) and Paulina Porizkova.

In time, I ended my subscription to Sports Illustrated and moved on, while over the years, the swimsuit issue has lost most of its relevance.  I discussed that fact with a friend once, and we agreed that the nature of the world today — and the accessibility of the female form in media — have played a large part in the fact that, frankly, the issue just isn’t a big deal anymore — not with the availability of magazines like Maxim, not to mention the explosion of the world wide web and soft-core programming on cable/satellite television.  I greeted the announcement of this year’s cover model, Bar Refael, with little more than a yawn — that and maybe a quick “A guy walks into a ‘Bar’ … ” joke when I first saw the cover model’s name (thanks — I’ll be here all week).

Maybe it warrants suggesting that Sports Illustrated should do away with the issue entirely at this point.  The magazine always garnered a lot of controversy from its publication anyway, and I have to wonder what the point is anymore with their continuing on with it.  Sure, they’ve actually used the occasional sports athlete to model the swimsuits in more recent offerings, but it’s obvious that most of the swimwear is barely functional for sun bathing, never mind swimming — and that’s not even mentioning the “body paint” suits that can be found now in its pages (and I can only imagine my parents’ horrified reaction if they’d had that prevalent back in 1983).

No, the SI Swimsuit issue has nothing to really do with “sports”; rather, it’s the once-a-year attempt of a magazine that wants to be respected for its work in journalism trying to be something it’s not:  a pin-up book.  There are magazines that do that job now to much better effect, and they do it year round to boot.  As much as I love tradition, it’s time for Sports Illustrated to get off the beach and focus on in-depth analysis of sports.  Heck, if you could get him to put down the copy of Maxim, even the 12-year old in me could probably agree with that now.