Archive for Boxing

Flu 1, The Last Honest Man 0

Posted in Boxing, Personal, Sports with tags , , , , on February 22, 2011 by thelasthonestman

So it’s been a while — and so much for that Super Bowl pick from me you were doubtlessly waiting on (for the record, I was going with the Pack).  So what happened for the last couple of weeks?

The flu — and a terrible case of it.  I ran a fever for more than a week, a fever that got close to 105 at times and made me feel — well — pretty much as bad as I’ve felt in a long time.  At my worst, I felt like Marvis Frazier facing off against Mike Tyson back in the day.

What was worse, I tried to work through it at first — and let’s just say that my strategy didn’t work out so well.  It took me two weeks to feel anything close to better, and even now, I’m still coughing stuff up from my lungs.  Bleh.

Needless to say, I fell behind on everything — including updating here — as getting through each day while sick was about the only thing on my mind lately.  As I’m trying to catch up on everything else — work, home stuff, my upcoming fantasy baseball drafts, etc. — I’ll also try to catch up here as well, so thanks for being patient.   And stay away from the flu — you’ll be glad you did.

The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part Three

Posted in Boxing, Sports with tags , , , , on February 18, 2010 by thelasthonestman

If you missed either Part One or Part Two, they can be found here and here.

It took only one round of Tyson-Douglas for me to realize that I might be watching something special unfold that night.

It was a briskly-paced first round, with Douglas giving Tyson just enough lateral movement to keep the champion off-balance and — what was the bigger surprise — the challenger snapping off one crisp, powerful jab after another into Tyson’s face.  Douglas’ hands were quick — much more so than they’d been in his title effort against Tony Tucker — and his demeanor was determined.  It wasn’t the Douglas I’d expected to see — nor I suspect was it the one Tyson had expected to face either.

Tyson had seemed off his game the entire time he’d been in Tokyo, actually getting floored briefly by sparring partner (and former alphabet titlist) Greg Page during training.  Tyson’s camp downplayed the knockdown, but the footage of it that was replayed on the local telecasts was still shocking to the boxing public that saw the champion as virtually invincible.  Still, it gave more credibility to the idea that perhaps, if the right challenger came along, Tyson might be beaten.  But not by Douglas — no, no one thought that.  Except the challenger himself.

When the 1st round had ended, I had turned to my father and said, “At least it’s going to go more than a round.”  Douglas had looked good, but it was only for three minutes.  I didn’t expect the challenger to continue his pace over the next several rounds, but unbelievably, there it was — the challenger pumping his jab into Tyson’s face, snapping sharp combinations off of the champion’s head.  Douglas looked smooth and relaxed and — most important — supremely confident as the fight began to wear on.  So many of Tyson’s prior challengers had entered their bouts with him literally frightened into defeat; Douglas, however, hadn’t shown any sign of being intimidated by Tyson’s reputation or demeanor.  As one round turned into two — then three– then four and five — I realized that Douglas was doing what no one who’d faced Tyson before had been able to do: he was using his size and strength advantage to push around the bully, forcing his will on Tyson while beating him to the punch.  Tyson had slipped into his one-punch mentality, and his stationary head provided an easy target for the challenger.  By the middle rounds, my scorecard  had Douglas pulling further ahead — and the swelling that was beginning to build over Tyson’s left eye was testament to the performance the challenger was giving: truly the performance of his life.

Douglas had no fear that night — he was a changed man in the ring, and in his life, at least for this fight.  His mother, Lula Pearl, had died only three weeks before; given the chance to back out of the fight, Douglas had pressed onward, in memory of her.  The people in his camp had sensed that something special was going to happen that night, as the inspiration that Douglas had always seemed unable to pair with his God-given talent was something he’d now magically captured for this one, defining moment in his life.  The opportunity to live up to all of the expectations laid upon him by his father, Billy Douglas — the opportunity to justify all of the faith his mother had held in him, throughout all of his darkest moments — that opportunity was standing in front of him in the ring in Tokyo — and he wasn’t about to waste it.

As Douglas continued to pound away on Tyson, I remember remarking to my father, “He can’t really keep this up, can he?”  I’d seen so many boxing matches over the years, and in all of them that had followed the same script that Tyson-Douglas was following, inevitably the fighter in Douglas’ shoes would end up winning by knockout.  There could be no other ending to the fight — not with the tremendous amount of punishment that Douglas was handing out — but still, there was a surreal feeling of disbelief in what we were watching.  My father and I knew — as I’m sure everyone watching at home or in Japan knew — that it would be only a matter of time until Tyson reestablished the natural order of the universe and dispatched Douglas back to the obscurity from which he’d come.  The unlikelihood of what we were watching was playing tricks with our perceptions, forcing us to ignore the obvious — and that was that Tyson was headed towards his first defeat.

Tyson watches in disbelief as Douglas climbs back to his feet

As the 8th round neared its end, there was the first moment where balance seemed to be ready to be restored — as Tyson finally caught Douglas with a huge uppercut that sent the challenger crashing to the canvas.  “Dammit — he was so close!” I remember saying (or something to that effect).  I had been captivated by both Douglas’ effort and by the tremendous sports story in the making that an upset would be, and I’d found myself rooting for Douglas as the fight progressed.   Incredibly, I watched Douglas beat the count just as the round ended.  “You think he can come back?” my dad had asked.  None of Tyson’s challengers had ever done so before.

But in the 9th, I found myself believing in the impossible.  Douglas not only shook off the effects of the knockdown, but he reestablished himself immediately, and the fight settled back into the rhythm of the earlier rounds.  Tyson was clearly frustrated now, and Douglas pulling himself up from the canvas seemed to sap the last of the champion’s energy.  With his eye swollen and almost shut, Tyson was caught by a vicious Douglas combination near the end of that round that wobbled his legs and sent him careening to the ropes.

“He’s hurt!  He’s hurt! He’s going to go down!”  My father and I had both jumped to our feet, shouting to each other and at the television as if he were working the corner ourselves.  My heart was racing with anticipation of a Tyson knockdown, but it didn’t come — not yet.

Tyson crashes to the canvas -- and boxing history is forever altered

As the 10th round began, the challenger continued his onslaught while the champion desperately tried to recreate his one, shining moment of the 8th round, hoping to land the shot that would save his title.  But it would be Douglas landing the greatest uppercut I’ve ever seen in a title fight — a right hand that nearly dislodged Tyson’s head from his shoulders and a punch that I’m certain would have knocked out many a heavyweight great that night.  As Tyson wobbled again, Douglas followed up with a flurry of punches, capped off with a brutal left hand that sent the champion crashing to the canvas for the first official time of his professional career.  I jumped in the air just as Tyson was landing on his back.

The sight of the champion — considered unbeatable — desperately fumbling for his mouthpiece with his glove while struggling to get to his feet, while the referee counted away the last moments of his reign as the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” is a sporting image I’ll never forget as long as I live.  As much as I’d grown to despise Tyson after his alliance with King and his abandonment of those who’d first brought him to greatness, as much as I’d found myself rooting for Douglas that night to win, I still felt sorry for the now ex-champion.  He had been humbled in a way that you don’t see in any other sport but boxing, and I knew at that moment, that his life was forever, irreparably changed.

Below, if you’ve never seen it, the thrilling conclusion to Tyson-Douglas (Rounds 8-10).

Douglas would break down in tears in the ring after the fight, talking about how the memory of his mother had driven him that night, and I found myself in tears as well.  The beauty of sports is in its ability to move emotionally the people who witness it, and nowhere could that have been seen better than in Tokyo that night.  It wasn’t the  greatest fight I’ve ever seen, but it still remains my favorite moment in boxing ever — and that, it will probably stay.

It’s been 20 years since Buster Douglas did the impossible.  A lot has happened after that fight to both men — the near-criminal attempt by Don King to have the result reversed because of a supposed “long count” on the Douglas knockdown (a brazen attempt at sports theft that was viewed poorly even by the boxing community, which has been witness to a number of outrageous things over the years), the debacle of Douglas’ reign as champion (which ended with an overweight, out-of-shape Douglas losing his title in a 3rd round knockout loss to Evander Holyfield in his very next fight), and the sad journey that Tyson would take over the course of his life afterward (with lowlights including his bankruptcy and his 1992 rape conviction).

I’d rather not remember all of that, though.  I’d rather remember watching with my father the Greatest Upset in boxing history as it took place — and thinking then that nothing was truly impossible.

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.

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.