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Ghosts of Manila
By Mark Kram
Reviewed by Tom Donelson
"Fighters know how to suffer. They demagnify pain and seldom talk about it. Though some fighters have been called "bow-wows" within the sport, thresholds of pain are hard to detect in fighters....Eyes, nose ears, larynx, kidneys, they all take horrific beatings. But their faces tell where fighters have been, the potholes over which they had to rattle, from the small arenas with the single light bulb and a backed-up toilet in the dressing rooms to the flooding light of the big time" -- Mark Kram
Mark Kram has produced the politically incorrect but a more accurate picture of the Ali-Frazier rivalry that not only shaped a sport but a society as well. There was a time in which the Heavyweight champions was as famous as the President and there was no one bigger than Ali. Ali matched superior boxing skills with a PR machine that was not seen before or since in the boxing universe. Even today, Ali is treated more as a Greek God than a popular sporting figure. For many, he has become a symbol of the rebellious 60's.
Boxing heroes are usually defined less by the ease of their victories than by their defeats and their various comebacks in the course of a career. Fighters are made through the brutal confine of their sports, in which they nearly see death approach, in which their blood is splattered and yet they somehow preserve. Brutality sells tickets but more importantly, it seals one's fame. For Ali, Joe Frazier was his ticket to fame.
There was two Ali careers. Before being forced into boxing exile after refusing induction into the armed forces, Ali easily dominated the heavyweight scene with ease. Rarely did he have to work up a sweat and his athletic skills dominated over the universe he saw. Even though he did outsized most heavyweights, his hand and foot speed was that of a welterweight. His athletic skills allowed him to break all of boxing rules and as Mark Kram observed, he rarely listened to his corner man, Angelo Dundee, one of boxing greatest. He marched to his own beat, never really learning the basic boxing tenets only because his speed allowed him to break all rules.
The Ali that came back from exile was little less fast and suddenly, he was faced with fighters, who would have been great in any other era. George Foreman, who would win the heavyweight title a second time at the age of 45, was one of the most feared sluggers of his era. Ali merely made him look silly. But it was Joe Frazier, a fighter whose own greatness was overshadowed by Ali, who pushed Ali to his limits of endurance.
Joe Frazier, like Foreman, would have dominated in most era of boxing. He was the Mike Tyson of his era, a man whose left hook crushed anything human that it came in contact with. He was a perpetual machine, always moving, always punching, never stopping. He was the foil that made Ali great.
Mark Kram demystifies several myths about Ali. He leaves no doubt that the Black Muslims of the mid 60's were of violent bent . Ali was their tool, their PR machine that they used to their advantages. It was Mark Kram contention that the Muslims engineered Ali opposition to Vietnam War and later, his refusal to join the army. Sugar Ray Robinson, the great middleweight and one of Ali's mentor, always suspected that Ali feared his own Muslin friends and his stand on the military may have reflected his relationship with the Black Muslin. The late Malcolm X warned Ali when he joined the Black Muslin, "Nobody leaves the Muslims without trouble." Kram own impression of Ali early relationship with the Muslims was that Ali "had no import in Muslim decision-making; he was a useful idiot with a name to them."
Ali myth making was a product of the media then and now. Mark Kram writes, "The press coverage of Ali (seldom called by that name) and his troubles was as misguided and excessive as the throwing of flowers in his path today." Much of his negative press had less to do with racism but to a divide that existed between the traditional liberals, who were veteran of World War II and Korea and the hard left that dominate the media today. Many of Ali media opposition were card-carrying members of the Democratic Party of that era. Kram noted that reporters "didn't prattle absolute role models. Hardly saints themselves, their private sins were ignored. If they had a central complaint against Clay, it was they believed him to be a phony and sin of all sins, unheroic." There were media leaders who sided with Ali as well.
Howard Cosell made his fame and reputation of Ali but as Mark Kram reports, Cosell did not initially risk his media career to side with Ali, but came aboard when it became apparent that it could be a career maker. Kram was no fan of Cosell and found Cosell relation with Ali as more self-serving than heroic. Kram considers Cosell, " a horn poseur, a formerly dismissable amoeba in the lawyer chain who found TV and one day would think he was a worthy of being a senator. Those who came after him world imitate and amplify his cheap theatrics, then liken him to the Edward R. Murrow of sports. He became the pioneer for their license to break through their puffed hair and crayon content and to be real journalists. A mode who, with faux outrage and oily uninformed syntax, could not lay the slightest claim to even the more base rudiments of the craft."
He is even more harsh of a young Bryant Gumbel, who as the editor of the Black Sports not only worshipped the ground of Ali but always willing to strip more flesh off his most notable rival, Joe Frazier. Kram opinion of Gumbel was not very high to say the least as he accuse Mr. Gumbel of being a "mediocre writer and thinker, excellent qualifications for the large success he would have television's Today Show with a shallow hard-worked ultra-sophistication, a cool broker of opinion next to Howard Cosell's weaselly conniving."
Gumbel is representative of Ali supporters then and now. He, like others, is responsible for covering up Ali's own cruelty to selective opponents. Gumbel authored a piece after Frazier victory over Ali in the first of their trilogy, "Is Joe Frazier a White Champion in Black Skin?" One of most interesting ironies of Ali career is that he dissed his black opponents far more than his white opponents. He tortured and taunted Floyd Patterson in their first fight and he literally beat the life out of Ernie Terrill in their match in 1966. In Ali defense, these opponents were dismissive of his conversion to Black Muslims, and his battles against them were as much a holy war than a boxing match. But his worse treatment was reserve for Joe Frazier. While Frazier originally supported Ali cause after Ali was stripped of his title, their relationship would soon switch to outright hate, especially from Frazier point of view. Ali, in gearing up to the first match, uses racial epithet in describing Frazier, declaring him an Uncle Tom. As one Ali corner man would say later, Frazier was raging black, force to leave from his native South Carolina due to trouble with the local white constables. When he was not calling Frazier an Uncle Tom, he was calling Frazier stupid and ugly. Later Ali would claim this was to draw attendance, but Joe Frazier viewed this attack personally. His children would feel the brunt of Ali attacks with attacks on their own from their school buddies. For Frazier, defeating Ali was more than keeping his championship, it was about restoring his honor.
The first fight was a brutal affair with both men in the hospital after it was over. Ali began the fight quickly and dominating the early rounds. Frazier took control after the third round, dominating with a vicious body attack followed by thunderous left hook. Ali came back in the 9th round to win that round with massive punches to Frazier's face but the 11th saw Frazier nearly ending the fight with a left hook. Ali took the 14th but Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th with a left hook wound up from South Carolina. Ali finished the fight on his feet but Frazier won the first fight in their trilogy. For Frazier, this was his high point as a fighter. He was never better against the probably the greatest fighter and he would never again reached these heights.
Frazier won the fight but somehow, Ali won the crowd. For many, it was defeat that signified the victory of the establishment. Within the shadow of the Vietnam conflict and the onset of the Nixon era, this fight was more than sporting event, it reflected the divide of the society as a whole. Frazier was carocatired as the protegee of the establishment, and his victory would taint him as a tool of White America. Both fighters would continue with their career but Ali would continue to overshadow Frazier in defeat as in victory.
Frazier would beat a couple of stiffs before losing his championship to George Foreman. Frazier was not strong enough to handle the heavy punching Foreman. His second fight with Ali was seen at the time, a battle between two washed up champions. The fight lacked the sizzle of either the first or third fight but seen today, it merely prepared us for the final act between these two men. Ali started this fight similar to his other fights by dominating the early rounds. He almost knocked Frazier out in the second and won the decision.
Ali then upset George Foreman in the "rumble in the jungle." Using his tactical skills, Ali had Dundee loosen the ropes. Following a page from the old Mongoose, Archie Moore, adopted his rope-a-dope. Foreman punched himself out and Ali knocked the young slugger out. With this background, the third fight promised to be a quick night for Ali. Frazier was considered over the hill and no match for Ali. The drama that preceeded the first fight was not thre, but match proved to be even more brutal, possibly the most brutal heavyweight championship fight in history. For both of these men, this fight was not about the championship; it was about the control of each other. For Frazier, he meant to beat Ali or die trying and he almost got his wish.
The fight followed the patterns of the other fights. Ali started out fast, hitting Frazier with every imaginable combination. Frazier, starting in the fifth round, dominated the middle rounds with some of the most viscous body punches seen in Heavyweight history. By the 10th round, Ali could barely return to his corner and Frazier was on his to victory. In every fighter's career, there is that moment that a fighter goes beyond the pale to find what deep in his reservoir. Ali in the 12th round, came out with one last rally, hitting Frazier with combinations to Smoking Joe's face. Frazier left eye closed and now he was vulnerable to Ali right. In the 13th, Frazier mouthpiece ended up in the seventh row and by the 14th, Ali was hitting Frazier at will. Kram, covering the match for SI's, counted nearly 30 right hands finding their target upon Frazier's face. Eddie Futch, Frazier long time corner man, stopped the fight. He could no longer stand his fighter plight and refuse to allow any more torture. Frazier would never forgive his corner man for this but Futch was right. Neither man had much left. The Trilogy ended.
Ali continued to reign as champ for nearly three years, but he was not the same fighter. He barely escaped with a decision over Ken Norton that could have gone the other way and was punished by Ernie Shavers before winning that fight. He managed to win his title back a third time from a non-descript Leon Sphinx before retiring. His subsequent comeback against Larry Holmes ended in humiliation. His final misguided effort was a loss to Trevor Bobick.
Joe Frazier own career shortly ended as well. George Foreman pounded the proud gladiator during the American bicentennial celebration and then five years later; Frazier fought some pug to a draw.
Today, Ali suffers from Parkinson a direct result from his boxing career. He is but a shadow of his former self. As for Frazier, the bitterness of fighting in Ali shadow and the torment he suffered from his rival still stings. A champion in his right, he was a survivor. But in many ways, he was a tragic figure; denied his status as a great heavyweight. Ali recognition would not have occurred without his classic battles against Frazier and Foreman. Kram dismisses Ali as a voice of a new generation but he can not dismiss Ali greatness within the ring itself. Frazier was a great fighter in his own right but Ali was the greatest to wear a boxing glove. Frazier curse is that he boxed in the shadow of another man greatness. Ali curse was that his career was sacrificed, in part, to causes of which he had only a rudimentary understanding. For both men, there is nothing but permanent scars. Ali shuffles like an old man, his brash rap reduced to a stammering mumble. Frazier bitterness is still palpable, a fixture of his retirement as it was of his career. Both men represented both artistry and brutality of their sport, leaving nothing back in the ring and paying the price with their lives. For the rest of us, their struggles, human and pugilistic, are an epic that reaches beyond boxing.