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I don't know who the heavyweight champion of the world is.
I bet you don't know who he is either. And I'll bet without looking that, with so many boxing organizations, there's more than one.
It used to be that the Heavyweight Champ was the most famous man in America. The names still conjure up wonder and legend. John L Sullivan. Jack Johnson. Jack Dempsey. Rocky Marciano. Joe Louis. Sony Liston. Joe Frazier. George Foreman. Larry Holmes. Muhammad Ali. Mike Tyson. Tyson is probably the last one we all would recognize on the street. Even the hopefuls were great copy. Chuck Wepner, the "Bayonne Bleeder"....who was the blueprint for Stallone's "Rocky". Jerry Quarry. Ken Norton. Gap-toothed Leon Spinks. Since then, it's just been a blur of memories. Ears bitten off and that crazy Pole who kept hitting Riddick Bowe in the balls and kickstarted a riot in Madison Square Garden. Other than that boxing has largely receded from prime time, a lot of its popularity passed over to whatever they call the thing where you are allowed to kick the other guy and break his arm if you want to. I forget what it's called. Legalized Bar Brawling or something like that.
It's been 50 years since the first Ali / Frazier fight. The first "fight of the century". Frank Sinatra was a ringside photographer. Burt Lancaster provided commentary to the pay-per-view audience. The place was filled with afros and minks and tuxedos. That's how crazy this all was. ESPN ran it the other night and I watched again.....enthralled again. Two black fighters, but this was the racial divide. Ali made white people nervous. He was fearless. He was beautiful. He was a black Muslim who rejected what he called his "slave name". And he refused to be drafted into a war he did not believe in, losing years of his prime for his beliefs.
He could also be quite cruel, and in the lead-up to the fight painted Frazier (who vocally and financially supported Ali during his suspension) as an "Uncle Tom".....a man controlled by white businessmen. It didn't matter that Frazier grew up dirt poor in segregated South Carolina, and suffered indignities the comparatively middle class Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) could not have imagined. As champion of the world, Frazier once returned to his birth place and couldn't get a check cashed. Ali was a master at shaping the narrative, and on fight night Joe Frazier was turned into a Richard Nixon man....and everybody who loved Archie Bunker was in his corner.
Frazier was an enormously proud man, and never forgave Ali for the racial distortion...for repeatedly calling him "ignorant" and an "ugly gorilla". In 1996 the world watched breathlessly as Ali, shaking from Parkinson's disease, lit the Olympic torch. Frazier remarked that if he were up there with him he would have pushed Ali into the flame.
Frazier was all man. That left hook. It was said that people doubted that Frazier could even tie his shoes with his right hand. But that left remains the most fearsome thing I've ever seen. Even when it misses completely.....you can almost hear the whistle as it goes by. Repeatedly he nails Ali with it, until the final round, when he unleashes one so ferocious both of his feet were off the ground when it landed. Ali went down. And yet....somehow.....he's up before the count of 3. NOBODY could take a punch like Muhammad Ali. It's both the key to his everlasting greatness, and what caused him to lose his way and fight on.....way too long. Watching these old fights now.....and knowing what we know now, we cringe at each blow. We wonder....."how much time did that one take away?"
Both men ended up in the hospital that night, and Frazier's organs started to shut down. He was packed in ice while Ali prayed to Allah to save his rival. We'll never see the likes of this again.
Well we did actually....2 more times. The next fight was dominated by Ali....and the final in the trilogy, the "Thrilla in Manila", in which Ali himself admits was the closest he ever came to dying in the ring, Frazier’s handlers stopped him from going out there for the 15th round. Frazier later admitted that he was willing to die to finish the fight. There's an HBO documentary in which the filmmakers watch the fight with Frazier....and were stunned to hear that Frazier was largely blind in his left eye during his prime. His trainers kept it a secret and would help him cheat during the eye exam portion of the pre-fight physicals. Joe Frazier fought the greatest fighter who ever lived to a relative standoff without being able to see Ali's right hand. ALL MAN.
What a time it was.
And it all started 50 years ago this week.
In a bit..