In the spring of 1971, I was co-producing and writing a 90-minute, live, late-night television show on KNBC, the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. A precursor to Saturday Night Live, this satirical program was hosted by Al Lohman and Roger Barkley, two extremely popular and sweet-natured (when sober) morning disc jockeys. The writers and sketch performers we hired had never worked on television, and among the long list of people who got their start on the show were Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson, and John Amos. Amos, who later appeared in Roots and as a regular cast member on the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times, was an ex-pro football player and a huge boxing fan, and he idolized Muhammad Ali.
Johnny and I became close friends, and when the first Ali-Frazier fight rolled around — this was only Ali’s second fight since he was unjustly stripped of his title and denied a license for refusing to be drafted into the military — we made plans to go together. Because the Fox Wilshire theater was located in the heart of Beverly Hills, the seats around us were filled with a glittering dazzle of industry movers and shakers, laughing and talking at the tops of their voices. Along with big-time producers and studio executives — none of whom I knew, but whose names I recognized from the trades — I spotted actors Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson seated in our row. Sitting next to them were two beautiful young women in see-through blouses and skin-tight bell-bottom jeans, their eyes a little frantic as they tried to project an air of remote amusement.
The fight, while exciting and hard-fought, did not quite live up to its inescapable hype. The crowd in the theater was clearly for Ali, but as the rounds passed with Frazier methodically and dogmatically gaining command, their confident anticipation of an Ali victory began to dissipate. If he lost, it would be his first, and the thought, once impossible to imagine — his mastery in the ring was so complete — now became a real possibility. Johnny, his vocal support of Ali beginning to wither, became unnervingly dispirited, and at one point, around the 12th round, he even suggested that we leave. “No way,” I told him. “All it takes is one punch.”
“He ain’t gonna win, pal. It’s over.”
Johnny was right, but there was a moment, in either that round or the next, when Ali seemed to rally, the speed and potency of his punches unexpectedly reappearing. In the theater there was a sea of noise, and I remember that after one brutal exchange Johnny suddenly jumped to his feet, his voice rising above the crowd, as he screamed, “ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER! ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER!”
Comedians Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett were seated in front of us. When they turned and looked up at Johnny’s face — a face that was black and menacing — their expressions went from sympathy to incomprehension to almost pure terror. The change was swift and almost imperceptible. Unlike Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, both fervent supporters of Ali who were also in attendance, basking in the infatuated glances of their fans, they mistakenly saw in John Amos a man who represented danger and assault: a genuine nihilism. At least that’s the way it seemed to me.
In the 14th round, when Ali was knocked down for the first time in his career, the silence in the theater was clear and startling. Ali survived that round and the 15th, but we left before the decision was announced. On the ride back to his house Johnny was utterly miserable, his mood plummeting into an abysmal despair. I tried to cheer him up by talking about our upcoming show and a sketch I was working on, but he remained silent, inconsolable, and I worried that the bond between us had become strained. Then, suddenly, he looked over at me and burst out laughing.
“Did you see Uncle Miltie’s face?” he said, almost doubled over. “Man, when I went off, his eyes got all big and he looked at me like I was Nat Turner or something. Fuck Ali! He fought his ass off. He’ll be back.”
[Picture by Lucas Leibholz]
Richard Hoffer is one of the best writers to ever cover sports in this country, first at the L.A. Times and then at Sports Illustrated. His prose is graceful and precise, he’s understated and funny.
Here is he on Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the current issue of SI:
It was no wonder Joe Frazier was so bitter. He was made to seem the foil, a mere accomplice in mythology, consigned to a supporting role in Muhammad Ali’s extravagant, ego-driven drama. It is a harsh truth that if you participate in the most exciting rivalry of a century, it does you little good even to win one of its three bouts. The verdict of history is decisive, and it is permanent, and men like Frazier, who stumble at the precipice, are forever remaindered on the heap of losers, their vinegary claims to justice lost in the courts of public opinion. It was no wonder, then, that when Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996, his trembling hands viewed as a physical artifact of heroism by an adoring world, Frazier allowed that if he’d had his way, he’d have pitched Ali into the fire.
…In 1975—Ali now 33, Frazier 31—they met again in the near-death experience that would ever after be known as the Thrilla in Manila. Ali was even crueler in his prefight taunts, exploiting the fact that gorilla rhymed with the venue. Frazier, by turns mystified and hurt, was provoked beyond the requirements of the bout. While Ali would always say he was only boosting the box office, Frazier could never accept any explanation for attacks that might affect his children’s impression of him. “Look at my beautiful kids,” he’d say. “How can I be a gorilla?”
But not even animus could account for what happened that morning in the Philippines. It was such a violent affair—recklessness tilting it first Ali’s way, then Frazier’s way and then Ali’s again—that it seemed less a boxing match than an exploration of man’s capacities, a test of his will to win or at least survive. But once it turned Ali’s way again in the 12th round, too much had gone before for yet another reversal. There wasn’t anything left in either man. Before the 15th and final round Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, called it quits, saving his fighter from certain ruin, even as Ali was instructing his corner to cut his gloves off. It was victory, but by attrition.
Ali called it “the closest thing to dying I know of,” and he didn’t know the half of it. Their careers were essentially over that day, their 41 rounds of shared agony making any further discoveries in the ring unnecessary, or even possible. Frazier lost a rematch to Foreman and called it quits. Ali managed to dominate the game for several years more, but only on the basis of his personality—he was spent. Even then he was beginning a slow and ironic decline, Parkinson’s eventually rendering him rigid and mute, the final price for all those wars.
Ali’s respect for Frazier was enormous, and he apologized for his name-calling on several occasions. “I couldn’t have done what I did without him,” he once said.
Frazier repaid the compliment: “We were gladiators. I didn’t ask no favors of him, and he didn’t ask none of me.” They recognized that their destinies were entwined, that neither would have achieved his greatness without the other. But Ali could afford to concede the point, being the most popular athlete, even personality, in the world. Frazier, who spent the rest of his life living above his gym in Philadelphia, did not have the comfort of the world’s goodwill—he lived in an age that would reward style over substance every time—and so maintained his half of the blood feud as vigorously as possible, even seeming to take a grim satisfaction in Ali’s poor health, proof of who really won that day in Manila.
That a feel-good reconciliation would elude the two men who shaped such a magnificent rivalry is apt. Even if they were more like brothers than foes—who else could understand the kind of pride that forced them through those three battles?—fighters like them could never really enjoy a cease-fire, could never drop their hands, as if they alone knew what man was truly capable of.
A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.
Here is our man John Schulian, writing for the Library of America’s website:
The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.
They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.
And here’s Mark Kram from his book “Ghosts of Manila”:
Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.
In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.
Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.
In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer has a nice little piece on the fight:
While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.
All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.
Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.
Ali taunted and humilated Frazer time and again in the press and Frazier has never forgiven him for it. From Bill Nack’s great 1996 piece on Smokin’ Joe:
He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”
Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”
And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.
“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”
Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.