The late 1960s and early 1970s – in other words, what we now call the Nixon years – were very eventful ones in the history of American sports. So many names and dates, sublime and heroic and sometimes comic, come to mind. Bobby Riggs facing Billie Jean King before the largest crowd ever to see a tennis match in the United States, at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. Bobby Fischer becoming the first American to win the world chess championship in Iceland in 1972, and transforming the game from the pasttime of a comparative handful of eccentrics into a huge national obsession, if only for a while. Charlie O. Finley’s Oakland A’s, hair spilling from under their helmets and mustaches abristle as they triumphed in the World Series in 1972, 1973, and (shortly after President Nixon’s resignation) 1974. The New York Mets winning the series in 1969 after so many losing seasons, then nearly beating the A’s four years later. Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins going unbeaten, all season through, to victory in the Super Bowl. Lynn Swann, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Jimmy Connors, Mark Spitz, Chris Evert….these are very evocative names for anyone who lived in those times.
But the meeting of two men on one night marks the event that, above all else, is the highlight of sports in the years from 1969 to 1974: March 8, 1971, in a packed Madison Square Garden, when Muhammad Ali, once and future heavyweight champion, faced the titleholder, “Smokin'” Joe Frazier. The scale of excitement and anticipation surrounding that event defies description now, though if you find an old Life magazine with Frank Sinatra’s photo of the bout on the cover, it might give you some idea of how it was.
Today, when the average American no longer knows the name of the heavyweight boxing champion – except for a vague sense he is Russian or Ukrainian, since the most successful big fighters all seem to come from there now – it’s hard to remember a time when everyone knew the name and face of whoever was holding that title – and usually knew the names and faces of all the other champs down to welterweight and perhaps even flyweight.
Before television raised the profile of pro football in the 1950s, then pro basketball in the late 1960s, the biggest sports in America – in ascending order – were horse racing, boxing, and baseball. And if the heavyweight champion was charismatic enough, boxing was sometimes the biggest sport of all. Indeed, TV provided boxing with a renaissance, in the days when most sets were black-and-white and the dimensions of the boxing ring were well suited for what was then called the “small screen.” Right into the 1980s, when cable splintered the American viewership and the sport started to lose ratings appeal, boxing stayed on top.
And the reason it stayed on top was because of the people involved. There was Howard Cosell, offering his loquacious, multisyllabic, melodramatic commentary on ABC. There was Ferdie Pacheco, MD, the raffish yet well-informed “fight doctor.” (A few weeks ago, by chance while browsing at Amazon, I found out what Dr. Pacheco had been up to since vanishing from the airwaves: writing a book about big-band clarinetist supreme Artie Shaw. There’s an unexpected juxtaposition for you.) There were the trainers: Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee. From the mid-1970s on there was promoter Don King, who has stayed in the public consciousness long after many of the fighters he worked with have been forgotten.
But above all there were the fighters, and in those years, unlike the ones preceding and following them when middleweights and welters and light heavies got their fair share of attention, the focus was on the heavyweights: Jerry Quarry and Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young and Ken Norton, for starters. Three of those men were never champions and Norton had the World Boxing Council title for only a moment before Larry Holmes took him down, but their skills were such that, if any of them fought now in their prime, they could well gain the title.
Then there was big George Foreman from Houston, who gained the title two days after the second Nixon inaugural (and hours after Lyndon B. Johnson died) and still held it when RN resigned, thereafter losing it to Ali in October 1974. There was Jimmy Ellis, like Ali a native of Louisville, who had the World Boxing Association crown during the first year of the Nixon Administraton.
It’s surprising to learn that Ali was still the WBC heavyweight champion until March 1969, even though it had been nearly two years since his last fight; the other bodies sanctioning heavyweight boxing had stripped the former Cassius Clay of his title when he was indicted for refusing induction into the US Army, but this organization did not do so until he had qualified, at least on paper, to be listed as a champ of the Nixon Era.
But one man was undisputed heavyweight champion for the majority of Richard Nixon’s presidency: Joe Frazier, the South Carolinian-turned-Philadelphian who won the New York State Athletic Commission heavyweight title after it was taken from Ali in 1968, unified the worldwide title in February 1970 when he knocked out Ellis, defended it by beating Ali in a unanimous decision that momentous night in 1971, and went on to victories against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander before losing the title to Foreman in the first month of 1973.
Joe Frazier died on Monday in Philadelphia of liver cancer at the age of sixty-seven. He was a champ in an age of unforgettable champions in all areas of sport, but he stood out from the rest because he had, more than any of the others, qualities that could be called Nixonian.
Like the thirty-seventh President he grew up working for a living, and working hard. Like RN, he had a father who was stern but also determined to see that his son had opportunities in the larger world, and he had a mother who was quiet but very loving. Like RN, he focused on the task at hand and disdained the showier, extroverted trappings of his profession.
Like RN, Frazier turned seeming handicaps to his advantage; when he went into boxing he learned that his left arm, which had lost mobility after a farming accident, could still be fashioned to make for a powerful jab, and, polishing that jab by hitting a side of beef day after day – yes, this is where Sly Stallone got the idea for that scene in Rocky – he turned it into his most formidable pugilistic weapon. Like RN facing political opponents in an election, Frazier went into each fight thoroughly prepared, ready to give as good as he got, and, most of all, determined to stay on his feet and stay punching.
And one of the greatest parallels between Frazier and Nixon can be drawn in the way their efforts were received. Both had the support of people who saw their own lives in their stories: the hard-working members of “the silent majority” across the country. And both were verbally abused and vilified in other quarters, to a degree that now seems thoroughly unjustified.
As liberals in the affluent neighborhoods of America and in the media turned against the Vietnam War, more and more Muhammad Ali (who had been regarded by them in the Kennedy and early Johnson years as a charming and gifted personality, but also a disquieting one because of his embrace of the Nation Of Islam) became a hero because of his refusal to fight in that war.
During the late 1960s when Ali refused induction and went to the courts to fight his conviction. He finally prevailed in the Supreme Court – as it is now well established, partly because several of the Justices admired his pugilistic skill enough to overlook weaknesses in his lawyers’s arguments against the Selective Service Act. A good many poohbahs of the boxing profession in those days called him un-American, and even a few of his fellow fighters.
Joe Frazier always refused to join them. When Ali, as was often the case, was nearly penniless during his years of exile from the ring (he depended primarily on speaking engagements at colleges for income, and the summers were fallow times), he asked Frazier for financial help, and the man who had received his championship belts gave it. As soon as Ali was licensed to fight again in 1970, Frazier saw to it that he was given a chance at the title after bouts against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena.
Ali expressed his gratitude in private, at times, but in public it was another story. I grew up identifying with the “Louisville Lip” as they called him when he was young, and nearly every member of my family except myself has met and shaken hands with him, but it cannot be denied that from his earliest days Ali always needed to insult and denigrate his opponent, in a fashion he learned from such Golden Age wrestlers as Gorgeous George. He did this partly because he was not as hard a hitter or puncher as many of his opponents; after tiring them out with his peerless footwork, it was still necessary to put them at a psychological disadvantage before delivering the knockout blow. This was accomplished before the fight by putdowns, wild stunts, and other moves meant to put the opponent off balance.
So this modus operandi was well established when it came time for Ali to fight Frazier. But it turned out that for Ali, it wasn’t enough to insult Frazier’s looks and intelligence – he had done that before with some of those he fought, especially when he most needed to gain a psychological advantage, as was the case when he faced Sonny Liston. Ali took advantage of being lionized in the liberal media to systematically ridicule Frazier as a man – repeatedly calling him “ignorant” (as if it made that much of a difference that Frazier had left school to work at the age of thirteen, while Ali barely finished high school), claiming that Frazier’s quiet-spoken ways (compared to his own verbal fireworks, in that time before Parkinson’s rendered him almost silent) proved that Smokin’ Joe was “dumb,” and, most absurdly, calling Frazier, as determined and independent and un-subservient a man as there could be, an “Uncle Tom.”
Frazier took those insults with dignity at that time, but they rankled. After both men retired from the ring for good in 1981, their relationship, with a few thaws, was mostly frosty. Ali, when he could still speak with some of his old fluency, acknowledged to Frazier’s children that he had been wrong to say what he said but he never apologized to his onetime opponent face-to-face. And it was only in the last two or three years that Frazier seemed ready to extend forgiveness. But no final meeting and reconciliation took place.
For more on this story, I would recommend reading Joe Frazier’s autobiography; Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hauser which presents Ali’s side; and especially Ghosts Of Manila by the late Mark Kram, for many years the lone dissenter from the general Ali-worship in the Sports Illustrated staff. Also worth reading, this week, are some of the obituaries for Frazier that appeared in the newspapers of Britain, where Ali has always been loved but his greatest opponent has always been thoroughly respected in the press, in a way that American papers often would have done well to emulate.
The Guardian’s obituary finishes with these words, referring to the final, titanic Ali-Frazier battle in 1975: “He may have lost in Manila, and ‘great’ can be an overused word in sport, but Frazier showed that there can be greatness in defeat, and his contribution to boxing will never be forgotten.”
But a quotation familiar to readers of this blog seems an even better way to conclude. Some years back there was a book called The Tao Of Ali which presented old interview quotations from the three-time champ as a guide to life. Frazier was a man who spoke less but the words of Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, which RN invoked in his final hour in the White House, serve just as well to describe the life of this champion:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Update: After writing the above, I read this superb article about Frazier, and how his rivalry with Ali helped define the Nixon years, by my friend James Rosen, head of Fox News’s DC bureau and author of that fine biography of John Mitchell, The Strong Man. Not only does it tell the tale in fewer and more eloquent words than I could muster, it is accompanied by several videos of Ali and Frazier in the ring. However, I do need to correct Jim on one point: Ali was not the first heavyweight champion to regain his title after losing it. That accomplishment belongs to the late Floyd Patterson, who lost his belt to Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson on June 26, 1959, and regained it six days short of a year later.
Above Photo: Boxer Joe Frazier (AP photo)