Since this appears to be the week to discuss sports and second-guess people, I figured I’d weigh in. No, not on the Penn State thing; that’s been beaten to death and will continue to be.
Hey, don’t get me wrong: Raging against a pedophile and those who were within five miles of him is easy. Very few people are going to disagree with you.
(In a Twitter jihad, one person I follow noted that Joe Paterno should be in prison. When someone else had the temerity to ask why, the “How could you defend Paterno? What if it was your kid?” tweets set my iPhone on fire. If it were my kid, I’d want to strangle Jerry Sandusky. I’d want to rain vengeance down on him that would make Marcellus Wallace say, “Holy shit, are you demented!” This is why we have courts: So that crime doesn’t perpetuate rage which then perpetuates more crime and so forth. It’s also why I shouldn’t route Twitter into my iPhone.)
You can convict him before a court of law does, or as some columnists have done, figured anyone around him is fair game.
I’m quite surprised that Sandusky’s postal carrier hasn’t been indicted for something…
He fought Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Jimmy Ellis and more, but he couldn’t fight hard enough to get his own trainer to believe in him.
If you want to talk about a legacy changed or an image altered, forget Joe Paterno and look at Joe Frazier.
Last night, I got a chance to catch a documentary on the Thrilla in Manila, the final fight of the Frazier/Ali trilogy.
Each man had won once. This third fight was for more than the heavyweight championship. As Ali biographer Thomas Hauser once explained, “They were fighting for the championship of each other.”
For Frazier, it was much more than that.
He beat Jimmy Ellis in 1970s to unify the heavyweight title, claiming the title Ali was forced to vacate when he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War. In many people’s eyes, Ali remained the true champion.
In the 1971 “Fight of the Century,” Frazier and Ali met for the first time.
Frazier held on in a 15-round unanimous decision, flooring Ali with a wicked left hook that should have taken Ali’s head off.
Frazier was desperate to hear Ali provide him with some level of respect after defeating the former champion. Prior to the fight, Ali had said if he lost, he’d crawl across the ring and admit Frazier was better. Instead, he and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, took to the media room and told the press they had no idea what the judges saw.
It wasn’t a loss, they explained. It was an error. And it stung Frazier.
The 1974 rematch wasn’t much to write home about. No title was on the line and experts noted that it matched two former champions who were both past their prime. Ali earned a unanimous decision, with the fight going the distance.
The “Thrilla” would settle the issue, but this time with the title on the line. Ali had dethroned George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
In the build up to the fight, Ali called Foreman stupid, ignorant, ugly, an Uncle Tom and worse.
He told people it would be a Thrilla when he beat the gorilla in Manila. He went as far as to carry a rubber gorilla to meetings with the press.
Say what you want to about the greatness of Ali and his impact on American culture over the span of his life, but this clearly crossed a line. It was one thing to want to kick someone’s ass in the ring. It was quite another to go where Ali went.
The fight took place on an oppressively hot morning. People who attended the fight said they were unable to even breathe and all they had to do was sit there. Frazier’s companion said she had no idea how her guy could breathe, let alone fight.
Peter Bonaventure once described the battle as a fight in three parts:
In the first four rounds, Ali dominated the fight. He often grabbed Frazier, smacked him around and the evaded the giant left hook that Frazier threw with ferocity. By about Round 5, the referee started separating the fighters each time Ali put his hand on the back of Frazier’s neck.
Able to move inside with impunity, Frazier cut off the ring, pressed forward and was tearing Ali apart. While head shots often make for good-looking punches, body shots kill a fighter. Frazier took to the body, punishing Ali’s lungs, kidneys and liver. He punched Ali in the hips, causing huge hematomas and slowing down the quicker champion.
Hauser once explained that in those rounds Ali tried to regain the psychological edge by whispering to him, “Joe Frazier, they told me you were washed up.”
Frazier’s response? “They told you wrong, pretty boy.”
Despite his proclamation that a sledgehammer couldn’t stop him, Frazier found himself fighting against his own blindness more than Ali as the fight reached the final four rounds. His left eye had been damaged in 1964 during a sparring session, leaving him mostly blind from that side. His right eye, pummeled by Ali, was slowly but steadily closing.
By the 13th round, Frazier couldn’t see Ali. He would use his body and head to weave near Ali, wait for Ali to hit him and then counter.
Ali wasn’t doing much better, telling his trainer, “I think I’m dying. This must be what death feels like.”
When the 14th round closed, both men were crippled by exhaustion, pained from the beatings they had inflicted and uncertain if they could continue. Ali went back to his corner, slumped down in his chair and told his trainer to cut the gloves off of him. He was finished.
Dundee screamed at him and prodded him to continue, but Ali wanted no part of the 15th round.
In Frazier’s corner, legendary trainer Eddie Futch told Frazier he was throwing in the towel. In recalling the conversation years later, Frazier said Futch told him, “It’s over, Joe. You can’t see him and I know it.”
Frazier shook his head no, “Don’t worry, I can visualize him.”
The last living member of Frazier’s corner remembers a far different conversation:
“Joe was telling Ed, ‘Don’t you dare stop this motherfucking fight. Don’t you fucking think about stopping this motherfucker.”
Frazier had the guts and the stamina. Ali was ready to quit.
Instead, Futch stepped in and called the fight. Moments later, Ali attempted to stand and collapsed in the middle of the ring.
Frazier had lost. Ali kept his title. History was written.
Shortly before his death, a reporter asked Frazier if he would have been willing to go on, even if it meant he might die. The usually verbally challenged Frazier, who often sounded like a mix between Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” uttered a single word in perfect clarity:
Futch, who died 2001, refused to second guess himself for stopping the fight. He once recounted to sports writer Jerry Izenberg the eight men he had watched die in the ring. One more would have been one more too many, he explained.
I understand that and yet it’s not his call.
As adults, we all have the right to write our own life story. The choices we make lead to certain outcomes and those outcomes have consequences and those consequences shape the future.
Frazier understood this. He was a Philly fighter, a man for whom nothing was easy.
When Ali was out of boxing, Frazier supported him publically and privately, providing him with positive attention and cash. He refused to enter the 1967 tournament that was held to decide who should receive Ali’s belt, arguing that it would be an ill-gotten gain.
When Ali came back, Frazier could have made him wait around for a couple years for a title shot.
“Oh, you want a shot at the title, Muhammad? Fuck you, Mr. “I don’t have to do what other people say.” Wait your turn. I’m fighting Jerry Quarry.
To pay him back, Ali belittled him, marginalized him, dehumanized him and turned an entire race of people against him. Joe Frazier knew he could give three more minutes of his life to regain all Ali had taken from him.
Had Futch just let him stand up and answer the bell for the 15th round, the world might have seen Frazier for who he always was.
The stronger man.