I've been searching for something to write about for my last post of the year, and I haven't really found it. So I'm going to fall back on something I'm always ready to write or talk about, the Greatest Fight of All Time.
It's a good year for such talk; the fight happened 30 years ago this past September. It was the third meeting between Ali and Joe Frazier, and every single thing about the fight was absolutely perfect.
It's actually almost weird when you start running down the various aspects of the whole spectacle, and realizing that even in hindsight there is absolutely no possible way you could have ever made the fight better.
The fight itself was great enough, and we'll get to that. But just the setup was incredible. Here's a quick list of things that happened before the bell ever sounded to set up the greatest fight ever.
1) Both guys in the best possible shape.
Anybody who watches modern heavyweight boxing knows that nowadays this basically never happens. Part of that is the fact that modern heavyweight boxers generally aren't that athletic; if they were they would be linebackers. But even for the era, the shape Ali and Frazier got into was breathtaking. Ali looked like a god. Frazier's cardio conditioning and weight management was probably the best anybody has accomplished in the history of the sport.
All you really need to know about the shape these guys were in was an exchange between Ken Norton and Don Dunphy before the fight started. Don speculated that Ali would be coming in at 219 pounds on fight night, and Norton corrected him, saying that given the conditions in the arena Ali probably needed to come in with a little extra weight to sweat off. Norton said Ali was probably coming in at 220.
Nowadays if a heavyweight fighter comes in in no more than 5 or 6 pounds over his normal fighting weight, he's considered to be in OK shape for the fight. Ali and Frazier's weight was being managed right down to the ounce.
2) The Ringside Announcers
If he hadn't soured on boxing and gone into hiding after his third fight with Ali (he did continue to compete), I truly believe Ken Norton could have become the greatest color analyst in boxing history. He has a beautiful voice, he's incredibly intelligent, boxers really like him so they tell him all kinds of inside stuff, just a perfect combination of attributes for somebody in the booth.
Meanwhile the blow-by-blow was being done by Don Dunphy, who was an old boxing guy from way back who had been at basically every significant heavyweight fight going back to the beginning of Joe Louis' career. He wasn't a great broadcaster by this point, so late in his career (though I'd be excoriated by a lot of boxing people for saying that), but his august presence was really felt at key moments in the fight, and his objectivity became a great foil for Norton's obvious pro-Frazier point of view late in the fight.
3) Ali's Prefight Antics
Without #1, this would have been just the same old shit Ali always pulled. But given the training he put himself through to get in that kind of shape at 33, you know that Ali was taking the fight very seriously, and that he knew he would have to be at his very best to win. Yet before the fight he's as loose as can be, clowning with the crowd and even going so far as to run over and steal the gold trophy that Ferdinand Marcos had made for the winner. A real comic moment, especially given the fact that the promoters obviously didn't think it was very funny.
Whenever I watch that I think of an interview I saw with Bruce Lee once. Lee talks about the fact that one of the big things people do that hurts them in fights is they are very tense. And when you're tense, you are basically blocking your own punches, making them slower and less powerful. When you throw a punch, only the muscles involved should be tense, and then only at the exact moment of striking.
Ali was like that just as a matter of personality. He understood the gravity of the moment better than anybody, but it wasn't yet time to strike. So he relaxed, and waited for his chance. Amazing.
4) The Two Idiots
For some reason, the broadcast team consisted not only of Norton and Dunphy but also of two other guys: Flip Wilson, a sort of B-list comic actor, and Hugh O'Brian, who was a biggish action star at the time (he was actually in Game of Death with Bruce.) These two guys bring nothing to the table at all in terms of analysis (though Wilson at least prerpared a catchphrase, "Joe is starting to smoke!") but they are essential to viewing the broadcast because they give some perspective on what it was like to be a regular person there watching this ridiculous fight.
Dunphy and Norton are both pretty reserved. Both do describe the fight at one point as as one of the greatest of all time, but for the most part their professionalism keeps them on a pretty even keel. Whenever they pass the mike to Wilson or O'Brian, they are just flabbergasted with how incredible the fight is, almost to the point of speechlessness. O'Brian at one point says of Frazier "It's unbelievable the amount of times he got hit on the head, that he could keep coming," which despite being a pretty clunky comment sums up Frazier's performance pretty well. What's really incredible is that he says this I think at the end of round 9 or 10, when the worst of the beatings (in rounds 11, 13 and 14) are yet to come.
5) The Conditions
The fight was contested in Quezon City in the Phillipines, just north of the equator, inside a building just large enough to hold the spectators, and the building did not have air conditioning. It was so sweltering that spectators were passing out from the heat. For that reason you can't really get a total sense of what the fight was like on television, because you had to be there to appreciate the extraordinarily tough conditions under which these guys were competing.
6) Historical Implications
It's easy to forget that at the time the fight was made, Ali was still fairly fresh off a spectacular but very weird win over George Foreman in a fight in which Ali had been a fairly heavy underdog. In the months then Ali had turned in lackluster winning performances against a couple of B-minus type fighters and appeared to have lost a lot of his skills. Frazier and Ali's second fight had been OK, but it wasn't a great fight and it was marred by some poor refereeing.
Had Ali lost the fight, he probably would have gone down as maybe a top-five all-time heavyweight, behind Marciano and Louis and probably a couple other guys, maybe even Floyd Patterson.
After the fight, there was no question that Ali was either the very best ever or just slightly behind Joe Louis. With one great performance fight Ali leapfrogged over almost all of boxing history.
The Fight Itself
I encourage people to watch the fight, so I won't describe it in detail. If you are interested in seeing it let me know; I can arrange it. The list I'll provide here can function as sort of a viewer's guide to help you get the most out of your viewing experience.
1) The First Round
After the first round Flip Wilson proclaims "I do NOT think this will go fifteen rounds." It's a humorous statement for two reasons - one, it's completely obvious, and two, it basically turns out to be wrong. In any case the first round is among the fastest first round in the history of heavyweight championship fights. There is no "feeling-out" period of any kind; the fighters just go at it.
2) Frazier's Fight Plan
Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer, came up with a great fight plan for Frazier, and he executes it extremely well. Basically the idea is to wear Ali down with precise body punches without throwing himself out when Ali is shelled up in a defensive posture. In theory, Ali should run out of gas in the middle rounds, which actually happens more than once, but Ali is too great, and he's in too good of shape. Joe can't quite take advantage and Ali recovers quickly each time.
3) The Middle Rounds
The middle rounds are easy to overlook when you know the outcome, but it strikes me each time I watch the fight just how close Frazier is to turning the fight around in the sixth, seventh and tenth rounds. If he could have landed any left-right combinations he could probably have knocked Ali out. Unfortunately for Joe, he lands punches only one at a time.
4) The Final Rounds
Though Frazier's performance was great for a lot of reasons, the most amazing thing about it is the fact that he was able to remain on his feet for the whole fight. In the 13th round, Joe is hit with so many brutal punches that even knowing the outcome it's easy to think several times that he's going to go down. The 14th round is even worse. An unrealistic beating.
5) Norton and Dunphy
Norton and Dunphy are a great pair in this fight because Dunphy has gotten old and a little blind (on the two separate occasions that Frazier loses his mouthpiece as a result of a right hook from Ali, Dunphy misses both), but is very objective, while Norton is in his physical prime but is extremely pro-Frazier.
The upshot of this is that in the early going, Norton's analysis is right on and he is able to correctly call a few things that the other announcers miss. After the eighth round, for example, Dunphy seems convinced that Frazier won the round or possibly evened it up in the final minute, but in reality Ali landed many, many more clean shots in the round and was definitely ahead, which Norton points out. This is actually the beginning of Norton's bias seeping through, as he says pleadingly "Joe has got to find a way to stop getting hit so much."
(It's worth noting that the judges did award some even rounds and 8 was probably one of them. The Filipino judge actually scored three rounds even, which is insane in a fight with this much action, but Dunphy wasn't totally off base.)
In the later rounds, though, as things start to get a bit desperate for Frazier, Norton stops being able to see the most ominous developments for what they are. The clearest example is after the 12th round; Dunphy observes that Frazier seems finally to be tiring, and that when he had Ali on the ropes he didn't seem to be able to generate any power. Norton counters by saying he thought Eddie Futch had told Joe not to throw himself out on the ropes, just to score to the body. But Futch must have known by that point, as Norton did, that the chances of Joe winning a decision were essentially none. His only hope was to knock Ali out, and he wasn't going to do that by throwing shoe-shiners to Ali's ribs.
In reality Dunphy was wrong, too; Frazier's conditioning never gave out in the fight, but Ali had landed a right hand to Frazier's jaw at the end of the eleventh round that didn't look like much, but which was essentially the straw that broke the camel's back. Joe is't tired in the 12th so much as his coordination is shot - he is never quite able to shake the cobwebs after that punch (which came at the end of a long series of scoring combinations by Ali.)
You can't fault Norton too much for rooting against Ali - Ali had taken an extremely close split decision from Norton in their rematch in 1973, in a fight that many people (including Norton) thought Ken had won. After Norton got knocked out by Foreman and Ali regained the title, Norton felt that Ali was ducking him, and even up to the Thrilla in Manila Ali was saying that he planned to rematch Foreman and then retire, without fighting Norton a third time. In a little "insult to injury" moment the previous March, Norton had knocked out Jerry Quarry to win the shitty alphabet belt Ali had vacated when he recaptured the world title from Foreman.
Add to that the fact that Norton and Frazier were close friends, and that Norton was a Marine and Ali was the poster child for the antiwar movement, and you can see why Ali was not Norton's kind of guy.
In the end Ken would get his wish. Almost a year to the day after the fight in Quezon City, Norton and Ali fought a rubber match for Ali's world title. They fought in Yankee Stadium in New York, about two weeks before I was born. It was a great fight, but sadly, we're out of time. Maybe next year.
Happy New Year everybody.