From our friend, George Carlin.
On Monday, we ran Pete Dexter’s Inside Sports piece on Larry Holmes. Here is Dexter’s short article on the Holmes-Ali fight, reprinted here with the author’s permission.
By Pete Dexter
When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.
I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.
The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.
I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.
YOU WOULD not imagine Ali like this either: standing in front of Larry Holmes all night, eyes swollen, throwing no punches and once, after catching a terrible right hand, turning away in the ring.
Holmes had come into the fight in the best shape of his life—maybe he had believed the talk of a miracle a little bit, too. He began with energy and something close to hate, but after the second round he walked back to his comer wearing a different expression. “I knew what that look was,” Richie Giachetti would say later. Giachetti is Holmes’ trainer/manager. “We’d found out he didn’t have nothin’ left, and he was too old, and Larry was askin’ himself, ‘Do I really want this?’ All this time he was talkin’ himself into fightin’ Ali and now it’s here, he knows he’s got it won and the look on his face, it was just no expression at all. Usually he’d be happy or excited or somethin’, but the second round on. it was no nothin’ there.
AFTER THE fifth round, Angelo Dundee threatened to stop the fight. It is the eighth round, though, that keeps coming back. It was like a dream that wouldn’t move. Ali lost in ringside smoke, leaning deep into the ropes, moving his hands in slow motion. The rinse washing out of his hair, going gray in front of my eyes … it seemed to last half an hour. Ali without his speed or a punch or his legs, without his mirrors, clearly without his miracle. Nobody to tell him he was pretty; nobody left to believe it could happen.
Standing because he would not let himself go down.
When Dundee finally stopped it after the tenth, Holmes came across the ring crying and hugged Ali. “I love you,” he ‘said.
An hour later he went to Ali’s suite and found him lying face down on his exercise table. “Please promise me,” Holmes said. “Promise me you won’t fight no more.”
It ‘was quiet, then Ali spoke, “Holmmm-z,” he said, “I want Holmes.”
The next morning Dundee was sitting in his room, answering the phone, drinking coffee. “I didn’t do good business last night. It was a horrible night. I seen an Ali, couldn’t do nothing. He just wasn’t there.”
He shook his head. “I hope he don’t fight again, but you know I don’t tell him what to do. Nobody does.”
In the end you have to admire that. He had an extraordinary talent. He had a talent as rare, in a way, as Robert Frost’s or Picasso’s. And a talent like that, I think, is always ahead of the man who has it. It leads him, it takes him places other people can’t go. And even when he understands what it does, he doesn’t necessarily know what it is.
But he had the courage to use it, to follow it, and when it left him standing in the ring, alone with the best heavyweight fighter in the world, he had courage for that, too. And one way or another—unless you’re Robert Frost or Picasso—that happens, because growing old is losing talent.
For a long time, Larry Holmes didn’t want the fight. Giachetti never wanted it. Don King, who would pick Joe Louis out of his wheelchair and feed him to Roberto Duran if the money were right, talked Holmes into it.
King told Holmes that he had been living in Ali’s shadow too long. Giachetti told him the shadow was there, and as shadows go it wasn’t bad.
“Nobody who really knows Ali can say anything bad about him,” Giachetti said. “Nobody wants to see him hurt. We knock him out, they say he’s an old man. We don’t, Larry’s a bum. It’s a no-win situation.”
Holmes listened to King. And in the way you sometimes do when you’re unsure, Holmes denied the part of himself that said he cared about Ali. And as the fight got closer, he came to believe Ali had taken something from him. “I don’t care. if he gets hurt,” he said. “He been denyin’ me my just dues all this time. The man hypnotizes everybody, he don’t hypnotize me. I know him better than he knows himself. There’ll be no mercy in there for him. He either gets knocked out or he gets hurt.” And there was hate in that.
GIACHETTI FORGOT his reservations and got Holmes ready. “It’s comin’ down to a head job now,” he said. That was two weeks before the fight, and from then until the fight itself he kept Holmes away from Ali. “Nobody beats Ali at talkin’,” Giachetti said. “It’s his game. He says the same old things, but everybody still loves to hear it. It’s like ‘Moon River.’” So he brought Holmes to the weigh-in early. He refused to let his fighter pose with Ali for pictures. But Ali was always there.
After. his afternoon workouts, Holmes would take the microphone and ask the audience to believe he would beat him. “The old man has made a mistake. Porky gone crazy, fightin’ me. I could kick his ass back in 1974 when I was his sparring partner, and he never gave me my just dues….” It would go on too long, get awkward. Holmes being Ali, at the same time saying things from his heart.
“If I lose, I’ll retire. People will say I wasn’t ever nothin’ if this sucker beats me I’d have to go hide.”
On September 15, a kid named Gary Wells tried to jump over the water fountain at Caesars on his motorcycle, the same jump that almost killed Eve! Knievel.
AN HOUR before the jump, Ali was sitting in bed, watching the Holmes-Weaver fight on the Betamax. As it moved into the later rounds Ali walked into a closet. There was a tray there with 30 different kinds of pills—that and a scale. He sorted out eight or 10 to eat with breakfast. He said, “I will tell you something. I believe I am on a mission from God. I pray five times a day, it’s 60 per cent of my power. Holmes out drinkin’ wine, gamblin’, how can he beat me?”
I asked if he had liked Holmes when he was a sparring partner. Ali looked at me to see if I was serious.
“I like him now,” he said.
By the time Ali got out of the closet, Holmes had knocked Weaver out, and Truman Capote was bragging to Phil Donahue that he’d ruined Jack Kerouac’s career. Ali watched a few minutes. “This is a messed up world,” he said.
He stood up and looked out the window. The crowd was already waiting for the kid on the motorcycle. Ali had met him earlier. He had shook the kid’s hand and said, “You crazy.” The kid had liked that. A reporter asked if Ali would watch the jump.
“I don’t want to see nobody get his head ripped off,” he said. “They encourage him, but I know what people want to see when they watch somethin’ like that.”
He looked at himself in the mirror again and then laid down. On some unspoken signal, the old Cuban who rubs him down closed the curtains and the room was as dark as the night, and the reflection—the proof of the miracle—was gone with the sun. “As sure as you hear my voice,” Ali said, “you and l will both die.”
An hour later I was lying in my room when I heard the crowd and knew the kid hadn’t made it. The crowd, then the sirens. I thought of Ali, alone in his room.
This week gives Dexter because, well, do we really need an excuse for more Dexter?
Let’s start with this 1980 Inside Sports profile of Larry Holmes written before the Holmes/Ali fight. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
“Seven Scenes From The Life of A Quiet Champ”
By Pete Dexter
“I don’t ever want to fight Ali. Ali’s a legend, I’m hoping he retires. It would be a lot of money [for an Ali fight], but money isn’t everything. When Ali dies, people going to remember him being more than a fighter…”
“To me, Ali’s a great man. I can’t say anything bad about him. When I was his sparring partner, he paid me and took me al over the world. I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I was proud of it…”
“Ever since people known who I am, they been comparing me to Ali. They say I stole his style. It used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. I just smile and thank them and take it as the compliment it is.”
–Larry Holmes in various 1978 interviews
Easton, Pennsylvania. The sandwich is hurt bad but will not go down. It is a turkey sandwich—turkey and bacon and lettuce with rusty edges, leaking mayonnaise everywhere.
Larry Holmes is having trouble with the style. He checks one side, then the other, cuts off the escape routes with his fingers. He bites down, the meat slides out the back. The champion pulls away, his mouth full of mayonnaise, A terrible welt shows on the sandwich. “God-damn,” he says, “this is the kind of sandwich you think the heavyweight champion of the world be eatin’?”
I have to admit it, no. I’ve seen better looking lettuce coming out of a rabbit. Larry peels back the bread and scrapes the mayonnaise with his straw. “A world champion,” he says, “scrapin’ mayonnaise off his own sandwich.”
A month before the sandwich, there was 254-pound Leroy Jones, who presented the same problem. Too much mayonnaise to find the meat. Jones was Holmes’ 34th win without a loss, his 25th knockout, his sixth straight in defense of his WBC title.
The phone rings. Holmes manages to get it to his ear without using his thumb and first three fingers. It is Charlie Spaziani, his lawyer, with news of a woman in Cleveland who is saying that her four-year-old child has a heavyweight champion of the world for a daddy. The wet fingers wrap around the phone.
“What? In Cleveland? And she just comin’ around now? … Well, I’d like to keep it to maybe two dollars a week, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about it.”
Holmes hangs up and looks at the sandwich. “I never heard they had sexual intercourse in Cleveland. I’ll tell you the truth, a man can’t win when it comes to the system.” He looks at his watch. “Right now it’s quarter to one on Wednesday afternoon. If the woman go to the judge and say, ‘Pete got me pregnant at quarter to one, Wednesday afternoon,’ they goin’ to believe her. So you get me and nine witnesses to go down to the court with you, say you was talking to me at quarter to one, and nine times out of ten they ain’t goin’ to believe you anyway.” He thinks it over. “You wasn’t in Cleveland four years ago, were you?”
Which brings the champion’s attention back to the sandwich. He picks it up and decides it isn’t something he wants to eat after all. It isn’t something he wants to look at either. He moves it to a far spot on the desk, covers it with a napkin. In the end, all you can really say about it is that it lasted longer than Leroy Jones.
Larry picks up the rest of the napkin to wipe off his fingers and a cashier’s check for $100,000 comes up off the desk with them. It is the check that he and Richie Giachetti went to New York for the day before. The check that says his schedule fight with Ali will happen.
Ali, the man Holmes had said he never wanted to fight. He had been Ali’s sparring partner, and he had watched him and learned from him. He had called him his idol for the newspapers. He had been on the undercard in Manila, had seen the act of will Ali—who was already beyond his prime—past Joe Frazier. And as Holmes developed and Ali’s skills faded, a point had to come when Holmes knew he was the better fighter. But it was still Ali, and there was still something there that Holmes didn’t have, and never would.
Richie Giachetti is Larry Holmes’ manager and trainer. He is his friend. He has been with the 30-year-old Holmes eight years, and he doesn’t like the Ali fight at all. “I’ll do my job,” he will say later. “It’s $4 million, but anyway you look at it, Ali gets knocked out or hurt. [Don] King keeps talkin’ to Larry about gettin’ out of Ali’s shadow. Did Marciano get out of Joe Louis’ shadow, knockin’ out an old man? The shadow is there, and as shadows go, it’s not too bad….”
The way it comes out all at once, you know it’s something Giachetti has said before, probably to Holmes on the way to New York. Homes shuts it off.
“Ali was yesterday, I am today. I been in his shadow too long, it’s time to come out. No, the fight don’t bother me. A fight is a fight. I don’t care if he got hurt, I can’t care. You care, that’s when you get hurt your own self.” It is as deep a disagreement as he and Giachetti have had, and something between them now feels wrong and unsettled.
Larry walks the check down to the bank, waving at every other car on the street. A school bus stops and the children pinch the windows down to yell they saw him on Channel 6 last night. Later, in the car, he drives past the project where he grew up, into the part of town he calls high society. He lives there, one of three or four black families in a white neighborhood. He says; “I understand where I’m from, and I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”
The car is a long, white Cadillac with silver buckles over the trunk and a gold-plated nameplate built into the dashboard. Forty-eight thousand dollars list price, but Larry says he got a deal. The tape in the stereo is a song about the champ and it sounds like there must be 40 speakers. “They sendin’ a guy up from Philly to paint my name on the door,” he says.
At the parking lot outside St. Anthony’s Youth Center, where Holmes learned to box and still works out, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries stands at the window two minutes, taking it all in. “My,” she says. “My, my.” Larry is talking economy to a television cameraman, saying he looked at the car for a year before he bought it, and doesn’t hear what the woman says before she leaves. She says, “That’s real cute.”
In the car again. Larry is talking about the old days, 11 brothers and sisters, no father to support them. He and his friends took gloves into the bars and fought each other so the men there would buy them hamburgers.
He talks about his mother, Flossie, and it makes you remember how deep worries went before you were old enough to understand what they were about, worries you couldn’t talk about then because you didn’t understand, and can’t talk about now because you understand them too well.
“Larry Holmes is a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happen to me, I’ll get by. I go back to work in the steel mills or to Jet Car Wash if I had to, I’d make out. My wife love me, my babies love me—what can happen to that?
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t tight with nobody. I’m still that way. I liked to stay home, just be in the house.
“George Foreman, they say he was scared to be alone in the dark. People say, how could somebody big and strong like that be ‘fraid to stay in his own house with the lights out? I could understand that. I know how it is, you got to have feelings with people.” He looks over and smiles. “I
ain’t scared of the dark….”
And a few minutes later, “I heard George got religion now, bought him his own church.”
Late afternoon. Earnie Shavers has flown into Easton to be part of tomorrow’s second annual “Run With the Champ” five-mile race. Eight years ago, Holmes was Shavers’ sparring partner, and they have been friends through two fights with each other.
Everybody in the Holmes’ camp is wearing Sasson jeans. They are dark jeans with white stitches, officially endorsed by the champion, who can’t wear them because they don’t come with room for his thighs.
They don’t come with room for Earnie’s thighs either.
Giachetti and Holmes and Shavers and two carloads of people—lawyers, trainers, brothers—head over to a shop called New York Tailors to find Earnie a pair of jeans.
“Whatever he wants, put it on my bill,” Larry says.
The shopkeeper shakes hands with Shavers. “You don’t look as big as you do on television,” he says.
Earnie tries on one pair after another, starting with all the 34s, and is working into the 36s now, trying to find something with thigh room. “Try them 38′s,” Larry says. Earnie disappears into a dressing room with a pair of 38s. When he comes out, they are still skin-tight around his legs and he has gathered a handful belt loops at the waist.
“These are close,” he says.
The man from New York Tailors hands him another stack and Earnie goes back into the dressing room. Giachetti says anybody who works out all the time and doesn’t drink can’t expect to fit into clothes. Years before Holmes, he managed Earnie Shavers.
“When me and Earnie was fightin’ last year,” Larry says, Earnie was taken a terrible punishment and I tol’ him, I said, ‘Earnie, Earnie, don’t be takin’ all these shots.’ All says is, “C’mon man, fight.” He had blood comin’ all down his mouth, and I was still thinkin’ about that when he hit me the right hand….”
The right-hand knocked Holmes down it—would have knocked anybody down—and almost ended the fight.
Earnie comes through the curtain carrying a pair that he says fit him. He isn’t the kind to want people waiting.
“Right here, y’all, Earnie Shavers. Come shake the hand that knocked down the champ. Hey, get us a drink. Get everybody a drink….”
Richie Giachetti is standing on a chair at the door of an all-black bar in downtown Easton, pointing at Earnie Shavers’ shining head. Earnie is still dressed in the three-piece suit he was wearing when he got off the plane. Women first, the bar comes over to shake his, touch his arm, ask for autographs. Earnie will spend all night signing autographs.
“The thing is,” Giachetti says, “every fighter comes to the point where he wants to do it all himself. They watch you five or six years and figure they can do the same thing. They all do it, it’s part of boxing.”
It is three or four drinks later, and Earnie and Larry are in the back of the bar, listening to the stories of Easton. Richie blows his nose and says as soon as this fight is over he’s getting his sinus cavities burned out. “They been killin’ me for years,” he says.
“Anyway, a fighter’s got to have somebody to tell him the truth. Larry’ll look bad, he’II line up 15 guys and ask them, ‘How did I look?’ And every one of them will say, ‘Fine, Champ,’ and he’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Who do you want to believe? You looked like hell.’ It’s like a marriage. He don’t want to hear that but he knows I’ll tell him the truth. Damn, I got to get my sinuses fixed….”
I say I have heard they do that operation without an anesthetic.
“That’s right, they can’t put you to sleep ’cause they don’t know when to stop burnin’.”
The fighters have worked their way to the front of the bar again, and Holmes hears the last of that. “You need help goin’ to sleep?” he says. “I’ll put you to sleep, Richie, be glad to.”
Giachetti gets back up on the chair and rubs his knuckles into Holmes’ scalp. Holmes says, “He jus’ love to do that to black folks.” Giachetti reaches around Larry’s head and finds his far ear, pulls it until the champ is square in his face. Then be puts a thumb as thick as a farmer’s in Larry’s nose! They look at each other a long minute, Giachetti kisses him on the cheek.
Holmes says, “Earnie, I know why you got rid of him now.”
The thing about Richie, no matter where we go he always takin’ me out to see somethin’.” The party has moved twice and is in a Chinese restaurant now. Richie is standing on a chair near the door, talking to a waitress, Larry is remembering the last time they were in San Francisco.
He says, “All I want to do is stay in the hotel room, but Richie, he says we got to go get somethin’ for his wife. The next thing I know, he got me out on a boat, going’ to Alcatraz prison. It’s cold and rainin’, and he takes me out there, walking all over to show me work Al Capone shit. You believe that? ”
There is a noise from door. Giachetti has grabbed the waitress by the head. “Richie,” she says, “you know how long it took to fix my hair?”
Giachetti speaks to the ceiling, still keeping his hand flat on her hairdo. “Forgive this sinner, O Lord,” he says. “Heal her, cleanse her. A woman weak of the flesh, gone astray, but nonetheless one of Your flock….”
The waitress says, “I’m Jewish, Richie.”
He says, “You? You don’t look circumcised.”
The whole town is out for the race the next morning. Giachetti and his wife and Larry’s wife and brother and Steve Sass, a sometimes cornerman, have all shown up wearing sneakers and Pony jogging suits to watch the race. Larry endorses Pony.
Nancy Giachetti and Diane Holmes are together at the finish line, Nancy holding the baby. Kandy Larie Holmes, seven weeks old, yawns pink. Nancy is hard and soft, a woman whose own kids are almost grown. She misses holding babies, she calls her husband Giachetti.
Giachetti himself is wearing sunglasses and drinking unnatural amounts of coffee. He says he feels fine, and the only consolation in that is it’s exactly what’ he said a few years ago after he’d been stabbed 20~odd times in a street fight in Cleveland, a fight, by the way, that he won. He said he felt fine and then went to sleep on the sidewalk.
The race is five miles, mostly downhill, and about 40 minutes old. The serious runners are already sitting in the grass sipping fruit juice and having their legs rubbed when Larry and Earnie come around the corner and start up the long hill to the finish.
Giachetti watches them finish, and while they sign autographs and pose for pictures he goes back to the Sheraton. Five men, early 20s, come into the lobby behind him. Holmes’ limousine is parked outside and one of them has read the name on the door. Coming in, he says, “Fuck Larry Holmes.”
Giachetti steps in front of them all. “Who said that?”
The biggest one says, “I did.”
Giachetti walks into his chest., The desk clerks have stopped breathing, everyone in the lobby is frozen. “What, you got somethin’ to do with Holmes?”
Giachetti looks up into the man’s face. He says, “I’m his friend:” The man looks at Giachetti, half a foot shorter, twice as wide. A cannon barrel.
“Well, excuse me,”he says. Giachetti keeps staring. “I said excuse me. What else do you want me to do?”
Steve Sass pats him on the ribs then. “C’mon Richie.” And Giachetti lets him go. The clerks are breathe again, people begin to move.
In the elevator, one of the me laughs. “I think he really meant it,” he says. The one who had looked into Richie Giachetti’s face doesn’t laugh. He knows he meant it.
The party after the race is at Jake’s house. Jake is Larry’s brother. Italian food, beer, fried chicken. Richie is holding Kandy Larie, and he and Larry are insulting each other. (Holmes has two other daughters who live in Easton with his first wife.) Nancy and Diane are sitting at the kitchen table. Larry looks at Nancy. “I can’t believe you don’t dye your hair,” he says. “Any woman been married to Richie 18 years got to have a head of gray hair.”
“I never understood it myself,” she says.
He thinks it over. “Richie,” he says, “I ought to kick your ass once for every time you done that woman wrong.”
Giachetti nods to Diane. “I ought to kick your ass for every time you done that woman wrong.”
Nancy and Diane look at each other. “Sounds like a whole lot of kickin’ to me,” Nancy says. Diane guesses about a month’s worth. The house is full of kids and noise. Larry’s brother-in-law is drunk in the corner, showing Earnie Shavers his fist. “When this lands, nobody gets up,” he says.
Earnie smiles, nods. “I can see, man,” he says. That is when Flossie Holmes comes in. She lives in a new house Larry built for her, 200 feet from Jake’s back door.
Giachetti hands Nancy the baby and leads Larry Holmes’ mother into the living room. “Here he is, Flossie,” he says, pointing at Shavers. “Here’s the one that knocked your boy down.”
Earnie puts up his hands. “Wait a minute, lemme explain….”
“He’s the one?” She takes a step toward Shavers.
“That’s right, Flossie, that one right there without any hair.”
Shavers says, “Please, it was just business, lemme explain….”
“You don’t look as big as you do on television,” she says.
The champ is in the kitchen, talking about Ali. “Back when I was sparring with him I thought I could’ve beat him then, but I never tried to hurt him or make him look foolish. Him or Joe [Frazier] either. They was the champions, and I respected them for that. But Ali’s mind made a date now that his body can’t keep.
“It don’t bother me that he’s gettin’ more money, $4 million is enough for me….”
Somebody asks if he thinks Ali will get hurt. Holmes turns loud, the way you sometimes do when you don’t want to hear yourself. “I don’t care,” he, says. “I don’t motherfucking care. I been in the man’s shadow too long, it’s time to come out. I will destroy him, I goin’ out there to take his head off.”
A tiny nephew—four or five years old—stands dead still in the doorway watching.
And out in the living room Earnie Shavers is explaining it again to Flossie Holmes. “It’s nothin’ personal in fightin’,” he says. “It’s just business.”
Two days later, on a Monday morning in April, Don King and a man named Murad Muhammad, who says he is destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s, sit down in front of 40 photographers to announce the fight. They have rented the Belvedere Suite, 64 floors above Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and are serving their guests wet eggs and cocktails.
The band arrives in a helicopter.
On either side of the promoters are the fighters. Holmes smiling, uncomfortable Ali looking at the table in front of him, maybe realizing what a bad and dangerous fight this is.
Murad introduces himself as a man about to promote one of the greatest fights of all time. A fight that will “set all kinds of records.” The most money, the most people, the most stadium. It will be the first heavyweight championship fight he and Don King promote together, the first heavyweight championship fight in Brazil. Murad says he has suffered to get where he is, he has toiled in the vineyard. He says the fight will settle one of the great mysteries of our time.
Ali wipes at his forehead.
The kid lasts 10 minutes and hands it to King, who is wearing a mink tie. “These are two great gladiators, as in Rome in their sparkling glory,” he says. “The champion is today, Ali is yesterday. This is the last hurrah, the song is over but the melody lingers on.”
And he says the fight will put the issue of heavyweight fighters to the “quiet solitude of oblivion of which it was to be.”
That’s what he says. Then he gives the microphone to Holmes, who is still thanking people five minutes later when Ali begins to snore. He tries to ignore it, Ali snores louder, pounds the table. “I can’t stand it. I tried to be quiet.” He stands up. “I tried, but you killin’ these people. You borin’ all these smart white folks to death….”
Holmes tries to stay in it. “You sayin’ our people is stupid because you got to be white to be smart.”
And that is all Ali needs. He calls Holmes a peanut. He calls him a silly nigger, he calls him stupid. “I’m your daddy, I created you, I goin’ come out the rockin’ chair and whup your ass. Go whap, whap, whap….” He throws jabs, short right hands into the air.
Holmes says, “What I goin’ to be doin’?”
Ali does an impression of a man being hit on the chin six times.
It goes on too long, and in the end neither of them wants to be there.
A day later it will develop that King and the man destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s have forgotten to tell the talks down in Brazil they are coming. It will develop that a previous contract has been signed for Ali to fight Mike Weaver, who is the WBA champ.
But that’s tomorrow. For now, King and Murad Muhammad stand together, smiling for pictures. “This is what sports is all about,”‘ King says, “one hand helping the other.”
A man as gentle as Earnie Shavers might say it’s just business. But this time it’s more than that.
The promoters won’t understand it, but serious people have made commitments it hurt them to make. Commitments they will live with a long time past July, whether there’s a fight or not.
The promoters won’t understand it—they have no way to—but they are playing around with something that matters.
Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)
No Trespassing (Jim Brown)
The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)
Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)
LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More (LeeRoy Yarbrough)
The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)
Sports on Earth debuted yesterday and featured a Q&A I did with W.K. Stratton, author of a fine new biography of Floyd Patterson. Stratton is the author of four other books including Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. He also edited Splendor in the Short Grass, a terrific collection of Grover Lewis’ non-fiction writing.
In our chat over at Sports on Earth, Stratton–who goes by the name Kip–and I talk about Patterson’s relationship with Muhammad Ali. But there’s far more to Patterson’s career than his two fights with Ali.
So, dig in, and please enjoy the rest of our conversation.
Bronx Banter: Patterson has long been a favorite of writers like W.C. Heinz and especially, Gay Talese. Yet there haven’t been so many major biographies on his life. What drew you to writing about him?
Kip Stratton: In the mid-1970s, I took a college class with my mentor, Harry Ebeling, called Nonfiction Prose of Contemporary America. It was, in essence, a class in the New Journalism. This class introduced me to the writing of Gay Talese. One of the pieces I studied in that class was Talese’s masterpiece from Esquire, “The Loser,” which was about Patterson.
BB: Did you following boxing at that time?
KS: Oh, yeah. I was a boxing fan since I was a kid. Boxing was in a kind of golden age, which probably started around the time of the Patterson-Johansson rivalry and lasted until, say, the Leonard-Hagler fight–which, incidentally, I believe Hagler won–a quarter of a century later. Although Muhammad Ali is the best known there were many terrific boxers were during that time, including Patterson. But I didn’t know how complicated Patterson was until I read that Talese piece. After that, I picked up more and more about Patterson here and there over the years, all of it interesting. In 1988, I met him, briefly, at a celebration marking the centennial of Jim Thorpe’s birth. Something about him in person seemed compelling and that increased my fascination with him. Eventually I read his autobiography, Victory Over Myself, which appeared at the peak of his career and I was blown away by what I read. Then, Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography of Ali appeared, which included a quote from Ali in which he listed Patterson with Liston, Foreman, and Frazier as the best he ever fought. Patterson, but not Ken Norton. Patterson, but not Larry Holmes. Patterson, but not Archie Moore. Ali said Patterson had the best boxing skills of any fighter he met in the ring. That pretty well cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to write about him someday.
BB: Can you talk about the work Talese did on Patterson, both for The New York Times and Esquire and how that influenced your thinking on the fighter.
KS: Talese joined The Times as a sportswriter after he served a hitch in the Army; earlier, he’d had a job on the Times as a copyboy following his graduation from the University of Alabama. As I recall, he told me he intentionally targeted a job in the sports department because it would allow him to employ more stylistic freedom than other sections of the paper, which were very much locked into “Old Gray Lady” rules of writing. He said he admired what was going on in the pages of some of the other newspapers in the city at the time, in particular The New York Herald-Tribune. The sports pages of the Times would give him the same leeway writers at these other papers had. I read many articles he wrote for the Times’ sports section. They were experimental as hell for that paper. I remember one about the future light heavyweight champion, and future author, José Torres. The profile did not give Torres’ name until the last sentence! So Talese was doing this wonderful sort of creative nonfiction for the Times. To be sure, much of it was immature compared to the masterpieces he would later write. But it was interesting. So, here you have Talese, interested in taking this whole new approach to sports writing and he runs into Floyd Patterson, a whole different sort of boxing champion.
BB: It was as if they were made for each other.
KS: Gay wrote more than four dozen bylined Times pieces about Patterson that I found. I’d never met Talase prior to starting research on the book, but he was nice enough to offer me some time for an interview after I approached him via a mutual acquaintance.
BB: You went to his brownstone here in New York?
KS: I arrived at Gay’s house on the Upper East Side on a day when he suddenly had crushing deadlines of his own. But he granted me time. I think he was impressed that I had dug up all those old Times articles. He was an absolute gentleman–of course attired in finely tailored clothes. He presented me with an inscribed copy of his newest book, which I totally did not expect. We talked and talked, not just about Patterson and D’Amato and company, but about Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and John Gregory Dunne and two of Gay’s great friends, David Halberstam and Ben Gazzara.
BB: Wow, I knew he’d been friends with Halberstam but not Gazzara.
KS: Yeah, Talese and Halberstam were friends from when they came to know each other as young reporters on the Times. Gay thought Halberstam was the greatest reporter of their generation, and I think he’s undoubtedly right about that. Gay told me that he and Gazzara followed the fights together, among other things. I also read a quote of Talese’s in which he said something like Gazzara, once he became prominent as an actor, let a whole generation know it was okay to be Italian-American. Something like that. It would have been great to have hung out with Talese and Gazzara to listen to them talk about boxing.
BB: And women. Where’s Casavetes when yo need him?
KS: Talese invited me downstairs to his basement office and showed me his archives. Like Mailer, he’s kept everything. Using large sheets of paper, he storyboards his articles as if they are three-act dramas. He showed me his actual storyboard for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which some of us think is the best magazine article ever written by an American. And he showed me the storyboard for “The Loser,” that piece I studied in Harry’s class all those years before. I was flabbergasted to actually see that relic from all those years ago. Talese and I also talked about his collaboration with Patterson for the Esquire article in which Floyd called for people to try to understand Muhammad Ali, not just jeer him, one of the first sympathetic Ali articles to run in a mainstream magazine. So I felt as if I had Talese looking over my shoulder the whole time I worked on this book. You know, this notion of, You better not fuck this up because there are high expectations whenever you take up the subject matter of Patterson.
BB: And he wasn’t alone, right?
KS: Talese, yes, but also Heinz, Mailer, Baldwin, Hamill, Oates, Schulberg–writers of that caliber. So I felt as if I had a standard to meet. Beyond that, Gay gave me a lot of insight into the Patterson saga through his comments in the interview, in particular about D’Amato, a character who merits a great deal of examination.
BB: Patterson had an unusual sensitivity and honesty for a fighter of his caliber, didn’t he?
KS: Let’s start with the instructions given by the referee before the opening bell. Nowadays, this is the time for the absurd exercise in posturing known as the stare-down. It wasn’t quite like it is now in Patterson’s day, but it was still expected that a fighter look the man he was going to battle in the eye. Patterson never did that. He stared at the other guy’s feet. He couldn’t look into the eyes of someone he was getting ready to hurt. If he did that, he wouldn’t be able to fight. He cradled Ingemar Johansson’s head after he knocked Ingo out. He helped an opponent recover his mouthpiece after he, Floyd, knocked it out.
BB: He was also candid, especially with Talese.
KS: Patterson was perhaps the most eloquent champion ever when it came to mining deep feelings and expressing them. He spoke honestly about fear, about cowardice — he described himself as a coward once. At the same time, he was reclusive and seemed to like to stay silent most of the time. He was not comfortable around people, an introvert, yet he did as much charitable work as any champion in history. He lived a conservative lifestyle in that he didn’t drink or do drugs or make the party scene very much, and he held conservative stances about other things, yet he was an early and outspoken liberal when it came to the civil rights movement. He lent his name and gave money to desegregation causes. He went to Alabama with Martin Luther King. He was often, to quote Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction.
BB: Patterson’s accomplishments in the ring tend to be overlooked these days. How much of that is due to the huge impression that Ali left?
KS: Patterson was the bridge between Rocky Marciano and Ali. The year Patterson won the heavyweight title, you had Humphrey Bogart appearing in The Harder They Fall. The year Patterson fought his last pro fight, you had Ron O’Neal appearing in Super Fly. Because of this, it’s hard to really associate Patterson with an era in the way you can a Dempsey or a Louis, and I think that’s allowed him to slip through the cracks to a certain extent.
BB: He gets lost.
KS: Absolutely, the light of Patterson gets lost in the glare of Ali. Patterson brings speed into the heavyweight ring that no one had ever seen before, revolutionizing the possibilities for a heavyweight fighter. But then Ali shows up with hand speed that matches Floyd’s and has even faster ring mobility and is taller and weighs more. Makes it easy to overlook Patterson. Floyd is good in interviews, eloquently giving well thought out answers. Ali takes control of interviews, makes them his own, makes them funny, makes them memorable for years to come. Patterson’s a good looking guy. Ali has movie-star good looks, one of the handsomest men to grace the public stage during the 20th century. Patterson has great wins over Moore and Johansson, but Ali has monumental victories over Liston, Frazier, and Foreman, and, indeed, Floyd himself. Mailer writes a significant article about Patterson but writes a significant book about Ali. On and on. The Greatest was and is The Greatest. But I think enough — or more than enough — has been written about him. I think it’s time to look at some of these other figures. Patterson. Joe Frazier. And so on. You go to a bookstore, and often the only boxing titles you see are about Ali. That’s not right. Elvis was the king of rock-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean that Buddy Holly and Little Richard aren’t damned significant figures. So be it with Floyd Patterson.
BB: What is it about stars of the 1950s and early ’60s being forgotten?
KS: Well, again, I think Ali has something to do with it. People became so fixated with him. We’ve now had a couple of generations of American boxers come along, many of whom don’t know how to keep their hands up or are otherwise lacking in boxing fundamentals because Ali didn’t do it that way. But they’re pretty good at pulling off ring antics of some sort. This is part of the downside of the Ali legacy. Ali became sloppy about staying in shape–of course I’m talking about fighting shape here–in the second part of his career, and that became part of the negative legacy too. And one thing Ali did was that he made the fight be something more than the fight. Often it seemed that the sideshow was more important to the fans than the fight itself. That’s carried over to subsequent generations of fighters.
BB: How so?
KS: Floyd Mayweather is a brilliant boxer, but it seems that his fans are more interested in the gangsta production surrounding the fight than the fight itself. Well, Mayweather understands that expectation and delivers time after time. The fights of the pre-Ali era was something entirely different. Flourishes occurred here and there among the boxers, and fairly often when you talk about Archie Moore, who was a different sort of character for the 1950s, but the fight itself was the thing. Beau Jack headlined the Garden 21 times during the 1940s and ’50s and brought no show except his boxing skills. That was enough for the time. Fighting well. And the fans would stream in to see it. Now there has to be more. Showbiz. Glitz. Outrageous haircuts. Bling glittering off trunks. That’s the expectation. Modern fans don’t resonate with many of those older, pre-Ali fighters who did nothing more in the ring than just fight. In order to have resonance with modern fans, the older boxers have to have a hell of a back story, like Floyd Patterson.
BB: I think it’s interesting that Ali mentioned Patterson over Norton who fought well against Ali, arguably better than Patterson did.
KS: Floyd had a great trainer in Dan Florio. It is doubtful that any heavyweight champion had better instruction in and subsequent competency at the rudiments of boxing than Patterson. You know, how to set up a right cross with a left jab. How to set up a right uppercut. So I think in part what Ali was saying is that Patterson was the best schooled of any boxer he faced. Beyond that, if you watch the film of the first Ali-Patterson fight, you see that Floyd’s hand speed was something Ali was unaccustomed to encountering. Ali lived and died by his jab, but Patterson had the speed to catch a lot of Ali’s jabs in that first fight. Now, don’t get me wrong: The fight was a mismatch from the get-go. Ali was bigger and younger; Floyd was injured and shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place. But in those early rounds, Floyd does a very respectable job taking Ali’s jab away from him by blocking them with his right hand. I think those are the reasons Ali had so much respect for him.
BB: Since Ali has cast such a large shadow over Patterson, and a host of other fighters, can you talk about how Patterson stands up on his own, without comparing him in any way to Ali.
KS: First, let’s talk about Floyd the amateur. Pete Hamill has said that Patterson was one of the great amateur boxers in the history of American sports. Hamill’s right. Patterson’s record in the Golden Gloves and the AAUs is very impressive, especially when you consider he was 16 and 17 years old when he was scoring all those victories. Then he went to the Olympics. The 1952 US boxing team at the Helsinki games is a great story. The United States had never performed particularly well in Olympic boxing prior to 1952; our teams were dominated by white collegians before that. But in 1952, you had a team whose dominate fighters were inner city guys who were tough and talented. That team brought back five gold medals to America. Five! And all five of the gold medalists were African American. This was at a time when big league baseball and pro football were barely integrated. It would be twenty years before some Southwest Conference football teams integrated. This was a huge event in the history of sports in America. And Floyd Patterson was the star of that team. To the end of his life, Floyd said that winning a gold medal in the Olympics was his proudest accomplishment.
BB: And that’s all before he went pro.
KS: That’s right. He won the heavyweight title at age 21, the youngest man to do so. His record stood for around three decades before Tyson won it at an even younger age. Patterson won the title, lost it, then regained it. He was the first person in history to win the title twice. This was something that boxers the likes of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis couldn’t do. He came damned close to winning the title a third time in his fight against Jimmy Ellis. At around the halfway point of his pro career, he, an African American fighter, fired his white manager and became his own manager. He did all these things showing a high level of fair play and honor. For instance, everything was set up for him to be able to avoid fighting Sonny Liston. Many people inside and outside the boxing world believed Liston’s extensive criminal background was justification for keeping him from competing for the crown. Floyd could have bought into that argument and every sanctioning body would have supported his decision. But Patterson believe Liston had earned a shot at the title, that he deserved it, and Patterson gave it to him, even though he knew it would spell his doom as champ. Remarkable, just remarkable.
BB: And he had a complicated relationship with the trainer Cus D’Amato.
KS: Patterson had to paired with just the right mentor if he was ever going have any success fighting. I believe it could not have been anyone else other than Cus D’Amato. I spend a good deal of time in a boxing gym and I hear the same thing over and over: Boxing is mostly mental. Boxing is 75 percent psychological. My friend Anissa Zamarron, a two-time world champion female boxer, says that a successful boxer has to take on the mind-set of a rooster in a cockfight whenever the bell rings. Well, getting Floyd to be a rooster psychologically took some doing. I’m not sure anyone other than D’Amato could have taken Floyd that far. He was a very talented amateur psychologist, I believe, especially when dealing with young boxers, teenaged boxers. Floyd came from a large family and his father was usually absent, out working, holding down two or more jobs, and because his father worked so much, I got the feeling that Floyd didn’t receive very much fathering from him. Floyd was closer to his mother. D’Amato became this sort of surrogate father figure.
BB: Your portrait of D’Amato could be a book on its own.
KS: D’Amato was pretty messed up himself. He was regarded as a mystery figure during his prime–some writers wrote that he had no family, stuff like that. But I dug up quite a bit about him. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, lost his mother at a very early age, had a beloved brother, a boxer and a talented artist, shot and killed by a New York cop. D’Amato went through serious depression as a kid, obsessed with funerals and all that. He also told stories about himself as being some sort of vicious street tough, which were probably exaggerated or made up entirely. He was a ne’er-do-well who couldn’t keep a job, a dabbler in city politics but not too successful in that either. But then he stumbled into the world of boxing, and though he was no athlete himself, certainly never boxed, he found himself in this world of prizefighting. Boxing was completely mobbed up in New York at the time, and D’Amato willing “did business,” in his early days when called upon to do so. But then he eventually very publicly set out to expose the mob’s reign in boxing with an attempt to dislodge; at the same time, he continued to associate himself, secretly, with some powerful organized crime figures. Complicated man. He had no interest in making money for himself, but I think he was a kind of publicity hound. He always wanted it known that he was the brains behind Patterson. He brought Floyd along brilliantly through the amateur and early pro days. No one could have done a better job. He and Dan Florio were able to pick fighters that stretched Patterson, helped him grow from a middleweight to light heavyweight and then to a heavyweight contender. Cus was great at building up Patterson’s confidence. So a father figure, a confident, an adviser, a spokesman–all those things. But there were also problems.
BB: Was Patterson’s break from D’Amato necessary in him becoming his own man?
KS: Once Patterson won the world title, it became apparent that D’Amato was a bit in over his head in handling a champion at that level. He made mistakes on contracts that ended up costing Floyd money. That sort of thing. Just making a fight was a tortuous process for him. The business decisions were what Patterson pointed to when he eventually talked about why he fired D’Amato and took over his own career. But there was more. I think part of it was the need for a son to break away from his father, figuratively speaking, for Floyd to prove that he was his own man. D’Amato’s hesitancy to match Patterson with some of the ranking contenders of the late 1950s made it almost seem as if Floyd were afraid to fight them. Well, one thing you didn’t do to a proud black man was put him into situations in which it might seem as if he were a coward. Jesus, that harkened back to way too many old American stereotypes. I’m not sure D’Amato ever got that, however.
BB: You write about how he have made some unwelcome advances though Patterson never called him out publicly on that.
KS: I discovered in my reserach there was a lot of whispered speculation about D’Amato’s sexuality in some quarters. D’Amato had a long-time relationship with Camille Ewald, but she usually lived apart from him. In the 1950s, a man was expected to be married with children or have a very visible girlfriend or, in the world of boxing, maybe both. Cus didn’t do this, so he was suspect. For a time, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with Jim Jacobs. That too spurred whispering. I mention this because in the context of the times, this was a big deal. Then there was the event about which Patterson told Talese. D’Amato was so obsessive about “protecting” Patterson from enemies, real or imagined, that he took to sleeping the same bedroom with him. And then in the same bed with him. One night, Floyd told Gay, Patterson awoke to feel D’Amato rubbing Floyd’s leg with his foot. Floyd feigned sleep and didn’t react in any way. Nothing like this ever happened again, as far as I could find out. And who knows? D’Amato may have been sound asleep himself and it was some sort of reflexive thing. I mention all this only to portray just how closely, how intimately if you will, connected Patterson and D’Amato were at one point. It went beyond the typical manager/trainer’s relationship with a boxer, and because of the nature of the sport, that’s always a pretty intimate relationship anyway.
BB: Still, Patterson need to break from him eventually.
KS: Floyd could never become what he did had it not been for D’Amato, but he also had to break with D’Amato if he was to grow into a man fully in charge of his life. Floyd broke with Cus and drove his career where he thought it had to go, the fights with Liston and Ali, the defeats, the dethronement, the tarnished legacy. To me this is what Aristotle was getting at when he wrote about tragedy. To me, Floyd Patterson is a tragic figure in this regard. And if it was cast into the tradition five-act form, D’Amato would be a key figure in “The Tragedy of Floyd Patterson.”
BB: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about your book of poetry, Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. How did you get into poetry?
KS: Poetry was the first thing I wrote in earnest. In high school, I had a teacher, Kenny Walter, who turned me on to contemporary poetry in a serious way. Now, where I came from, it wasn’t exactly okay for a guy to be interested in something like poetry, under normal circumstances. But Kenny had been something of a star athlete in my home town before he went off to college and came back a teacher, and he was still a serious weekend basketball and tennis player and a serious bird hunter. So he showed you could be into poetry and still be “manly.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a pretty remote place–rural Oklahoma—inhabited by a lot of people with backwards notions. So Kenny made poetry accessible, and I sure as hell was interested.
BB: What poets did you read early on?
KS: The big poet who fascinated us at that time was James Dickey, again, a former athlete, a guy who seemed to know a lot about the woods, a guy who seemed to know a lot about things like archery. Since then I’ve learned he was in part a fraud, a damaged person, but, again, he wrote about things I could relate to. Anyway, through that portal, I entered this whole world of verse. I was so damned naïve—I didn’t realize there were all these competing factions in that world. The portal through which I entered was one dominated by some poets who would be classified as Academic poets: Dickey, Richard Hugo, William Stafford. Stafford eventually became a friend of mine for a while, a kind, generous man. Also Robert Lowell during his confessional period—I still think “Skunk Hour” is a terrific poem. Elizabeth Bishop.
BB: When did you break out of the “academic poets”?
KS: That came later and was a liberating experience. Here were a bunch of people writing verse that came from the truest artistic inspiration. Sometimes the verse ended up being, to my taste, not completely successful, but, damn, you could not deny the spirit and the true artistic inspiration behind it. Other times the verse exceeded what the Academics could pull off at their best. I remember well watching a black-and-white PBS documentary about Charles Bukowski at a time when Bukowski was hardly known. It was fascinating and led me to seek out some of his early verse, which was not easy to find in a place like Oklahoma City at that time. As I said, it was liberating. So I just kept writing verse, never stopped. I write poetry that’s not destined to end up in The New Yorker or Poetry. I came in through the Dickey-Hugo-Stafford portal, and their influence is still on me, but I think I wound up writing more in the Outlaw Poetry tradition.
BB: What did you write about?
KS: I wrote a series of haiku about boxing, in part as a sort of satire on the form. Seriously, boxing haiku? Sports infiltrates the verse. I write about rodeo. I wrote a poem about learning at a football game about the suicide of a girl I knew and dated some as a teenager. I wrote poems about a lot of hard slices of life, about dumping my father’s ashes in a stream in the Cascades, about my stepbrother’s death from AIDS. I wrote poems about Merle Haggard and Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates and Dennis Hopper. I wrote about beer joints. I wrote about a Mexican food place in Uvalde, Texas.
BB: And then…Peckinpah?
KS: I’ve long considered the director Sam Peckinpah to be a kind of poet, when he was at his best. He created his metaphors in the mixed media of film rather than by writing them down as lines on paper. I’ve thought a lot about Peckinpah’s work over the years, read a lot about him. I had a poem that included in a line the phrase “dreaming Sam Peckinpah.” I thought for a long time it would be a good title for a book. Well, I had all these poems I’d written, one or two going back more than thirty years. And one day it occurred to me that they could be arranged in a thematic way, sort of in the way a rock concept album from back in the day would be arranged. So I did that, drawing on quotes from or about Peckinpah, and, damn, if I wasn’t happy with the results. About that same time, a wonderful small press publisher had told me he’d be interested in something like what I was working on. Things clicked. And that’s how Dreaming Sam Peckinpah came to be.
Over at Grantland, here’s a terrific piece by Dave Kindred.
And at SI, dig what Richard Hoffer has to say:
Lest you think Dundee was merely a stagehand, a lucky accomplice, somebody fortunate enough to latch onto a rising star, consider the rest of his career. Having taken Ali to the top, in the middle of that ruckus for 21 years, he then joined another Olympic phenom, Sugar Ray Leonard, and helped pilot him to multiple championships. Once more, Dundee adapted himself to the fighter’s natural abilities, allowing Leonard’s stardom to develop. But in at least one fight, just as he had with Ali, it was Dundee who may have saved the day. With Leonard flagging in his back-and-forth fight with Tommy Hearns, Dundee got in Leonard’s face after the 12th round and, in no uncertain terms, called him out. “You’re blowing it, son.” Leonard famously rallied.
There were others as well: De La Hoya for a while, and even George Foreman when the big man regained his heavyweight title in his comeback. There was always somebody, though. Dundee was a boxing man, destined to carry a bucket, happiest when he was swabbing cuts or taping hands. Long after the line of champions had ended, he was still in his gym, his bubbling optimism creating contenders out of anybody who walked through his doors. He was training until the end.
But it was those years with Ali, that incandescent time when boxing was last important, that we remember him for. What a time. What a pair! They would have been an odd couple in any case, the young fighter’s flamboyance and braggadocio in outlandish contrast to Dundee’s puckish demeanor. But they were more simpatico than most would have guessed, sharing their love of boxing, but also a capacity for hijinks. Ali recognized in Dundee a kindred spirit, after all, and was not above rigging the hotel curtains with a long rope, pulling them back and forth in a spectral fashion, until the little trainer exploded from his room in fright. They were a pair.
Would Ali have been The Greatest without Dundee? Maybe, though probably not. Would he have been as much fun without Dundee, certainly an enabler, if not quite a co-conspirator? Absolutely not. Ali’s tendency toward meanness, his inexcusable treatment of men like Floyd Patterson or Frazier, was an innate and probably important part of his personality. But that meanness was alloyed by Dundee’s presence, had to have been. Dundee’s influence, his unabashed sweetness, was its own kind of smelling salt in Ali’s career, the sort of freshener that cleared his head from time to time, restored his goodness, if not his greatness.
From a wonderful, in-depth interview with our man Schulian by Pete Croatto, who runs a great site:
Yes, Ali was unspeakably cruel to Frazier in the build-up to their fights, calling him “a gorilla” and, worse, an Uncle Tom. But no one ever said Ali was perfect. He was as flawed and complicated as any other human being, with his mean streak and his public philandering and, for all I know, his snoring. He may not have been a Rhodes scholar, either, which was a point Kram hammered relentlessly. But somehow Ali always managed to find his better self when the occasion demanded it. Rising out of a business in which men are paid to destroy each other—Ali-Frazier III is a classic example—he performed acts of charity, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Some were high profile—opposing the war in Vietnam, championing black pride—while others were small personal gestures, like financing soup kitchens or building homes for poor families. Ali may have been acting on instinct instead of intellect in some cases; in others he may have seen his selfishness morph into something good. Who knows what was going on inside his head? All I can say is that I saw him do far more good than bad, and when he was done, he had become far more than a heavyweight champion. He had become a great man.
It seems anticlimactic to say he was great to cover, too. A writer’s dream. He was funny and irreverent and brash and, when the occasion called for it, humble and sensitive. There weren’t many people in the sports media whose names he remembered—Howard Cosell, naturally, and Dick Young and George Plimpton, whom he called “Kennedy”—and yet the media flocked to him because they knew that when he was around, something was going to happen. He might trade insults with Bundini Brown, the shaman of his entourage, or back up a prediction with a goofy poem. When he took a vow of silence before his first fight with Leon Spinks, he slapped a piece of tape across his mouth—and even then he was more interesting than anyone who was talking.
I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Ali was a once-in-a-lifetime subject for a sports writer, maybe for any kind of writer. I know he was that way for me, and I always prided myself in saying the story came first. But he made me care about him in a way no other athlete did. It was his charm, his courage, his audacity, his greatness in the ring. When I saw Larry Holmes destroy him in Las Vegas, it was like watching an execution. It was the worst night of my life as a sports writer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I felt bad for myself, of course, because I knew I wouldn’t be writing about him for much longer. But I felt worse for Ali because of the way he’d been beaten. Even though Holmes did what he could to hold back, he had to keep fighting until Ali’s craven manager, Herbert Muhammad, told Angelo Dundee to stop it. By then Ali had been damaged in a way he will never get past. All these years later, the memory still haunts me. Maybe that’s the measure of just how special he was.
[Photo Credit: Thomas Hoepker]
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.
“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”
Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)
John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.
BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?
JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.
I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.
BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?
JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?
BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?
JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.
BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?
JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.
No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.
In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
Priceless. And there is sure to be more where that came from in Lipsyte’s new memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter.”
And here’s a nice write up on “At the Fights” by Lupica:
Finally there is George Kimball, a character from journalism as big and colorful and wonderful as any in this book. I have known him since he hired me at the Boston Phoenix a thousand years ago. Now all this time later, he is a fighter himself against illness. Big George keeps coming, keeps writing for the Irish Times, and his own boxing books such as “Four Kings.” All he did on Warren Street was steal the show.
George writes in “At The Fights” about Hagler and Leonard, and his piece includes this line: “It was Leonard who dictated the terms under which the battle was waged.”
In the late rounds he brings those words to his own life. People saw for themselves with George the other night how much he loves the sport, loves this book he worked so tirelessly to assemble, loves good writing most of all. Saw a boxing writer as tough as anybody he ever covered.
Nice job by Lupica. It was a wonderful night and I’m just sorry that it didn’t go on longer. A lot of the men in the audience, and on the panel, talked about how boxing was a common bond between them and their old men. Friday night fights, golden gloves. Kimball said that during the Vietnam War boxing was the only thing he could enjoy with his father, period. The only thing that was missing from the event was a cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the room.
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.
From the New York Magazine archives, here’s the late, great Vic Ziegel on Ali-Spinks II:
he copy of Money magazine offered to Leon Spinks during his flight to New Orleans was full of splendid suggestions for a new career. Soccer coach, that was something the heavyweight champion might want to think about. Nowhere is it written that soccer coaches have to run through strange cities at five in the morning. Or spend great hunks of each day inside expensive hotel rooms that offer baskets of apples and Gouda instead of X-rated film selections. And there aren’t small armies of people telling the cover-boy soccer coach to kick this, do that, no this, no, no, no . . . armies that depend on the heavyweight champion to provide their per diem expenses.
The magazine went unread, of course. Leon Spinks was in Louisiana to defend his title against Muhammad Ali, a 36-year-old body with the staying power of Tutankhamen. Ali was the favorite. Ali was the attraction—the once, twice, and future champion. Leon Spinks? Come on. Just another name on an expired driver’s license.
“Did you hear what Spinks did when he came off the plane?” The lawyer is talking to a sportswriter after the fight. The party is at the Windsor Suite of the New Orleans Hilton. Sportswriters are badly outnumbered by designer suits. Worse yet, the lawyers had heard all the best available fiction.
“Spinks gets off the plane and he does an interview. Everything’s cool. No problems. And then they hustle him into the sheriff’s private car to drive him to the hotel. The first thing he does—this is in the sheriff’s car, right?—the first thing he does is take out a joint and light up.”
[Art by Neil Adams]
There used to be a spot in the Times Square subway station where dance crews used to set up and perform for the tourists. It’s right as you get off the Shuttle train to Grand Central. Now, an electronics store is there instead, but they still draw a crowd because a famous fight is always playing on the flat screen TV in their display window. The first couple of times I noticed a crowd huddled around, the Ali-Forman fight* was playing.
Nothing brings men together like a fight.
Last weekend, I saw them playing the great Hagler-Hearns bout. One guy watching served as the commentator.
I remember seeing the fight when I was a kid, and being electrified by the fury of violence. Here it is, brief, savage, and bloody: