Doug Jones, suddenly too old and too vulnerable too soon, is on the floor, his chest heaving, his right hand standing limply, seemingly letting go of a once boundless, sweet but now unendurable dream.
Joe Frazier is across the ring, his big-boned body suspended high in the smoky gauze, both of his arms stretched up and reaching for the roof and a peg to hang the world on.
Neatly destructive and animal-like, Frazier had caught Doug Jones on the cheek with a heavy, body-twisting left hook. Spittle flew from the corners of his mouth and his head flopped, like a scarecrow's. Jones, his hands down, just stood there, stone-like. Frazier looked at him, and then Jones started descending slowly, his body disassembling. He landed on the middle strand of the ropes, and his head, bleeding at the mouth, dangled there. His face, with those brooding eyes of an M-G-M Mexican busted in a crap game, gaped out at the crowd.
No one—except some insensible dude—could miss feeling the moment near the end of the sixth round last week in Philadelphia: one moves up and one moves down, a theme, with all its endless variations, as old as hell. A theme that belongs to all the old birds who sit in the public parks and play checkers and rail against that one brief moment when some kid lays a gold watch and handshake on them—and then says thanks, sorry and goodbye.
Frazier's victory has made a sharp and real impact in the heavyweight division. Forget about those who scoff at Muhammad Ali's skilis, call his opponents stiffs before they ever see them and speak of long-gone club fighters and other old toothless soldiers as monarchs. Frazier is genuine, and even now, because of his style, his attitude and firepower, he is an immensely better fighter than any whom Ali has defended his title against.
The 23-year-old former Olympic champion has improved rapidly with each of his 14 pro fights, 13 of which were won by knockouts. His jab, a weapon he never knew how to use, is now crisp, and he uses it intelligently. The right hand no longer looks as though it had been manufactured in some boys' club gym. The left hook, which has been shortened up, is swifter and more punishing than before, and Frazier is thinking constantly. Against Jones he set up numerous openings, and in the second and sixth rounds he threw right-hand uppercuts when Jones appeared to be covered against hooks and straight punches.
None of these improvements are altering his natural and primitive style, a type of offense similar to Rocky Marciano's, and one that many think will topple Ali. A short, marauding fighter—he now fights at 205 pounds—Frazier crowds his opponent and moves inside the natural line of punches. Like a drum roll, his punches start at the body and end up with striking velocity and violence at the head. The punches are unremitting, and he knows the only way to move—right at you.
"He's like a leech," said one of Jones's handlers. "You can't get away from Frazier. This guy is Murder, Incorporated. Jones, the poor devil, had to change styles every round. Frazier just took the fight away from him. There was nothing he could do."
This seems to be a more accurate analysis than the charge by some of the press that Frazier was being fed another "body." Jones certainly fits that description now, but there was never any indication of this before the fight. Nobody had labeled him a setup or a tapped-out scuffler in his fights with Ernie Terrell and Thad Spencer. Indeed, Jones prepared for Frazier more carefully than he had for many previous fights. He knew this was his one—maybe last—chance to stay near the big money, and a chance, however remote, for a shot at the heavyweight title. He was no longer cheating on his roadwork or malingering in the gym. He was certain he was too fast for Frazier.
Jones did move, more than he had in recent years, and he did land several good right hands—Frazier is not a difficult target—but his calculations had sold Frazier short. Frazier was no longer the rough, predictable fighter who had twice been knocked down in one round by Oscar Bonavena last fall in the Garden, the fight in which he proved he could take a lethal punch. He had worked long and hard in the gym and, even more important, he had listened, and then executed the moves that he was taught.
"The one thing I didn't have to teach him," says his manager and trainer, Yancey Durham, "was moving at the other guy. He doesn't know what it is to move back. That's why he's got to take the other guy out. Joe's just a sweetheart. He does what he's told. No back talk. He does his job. That's why he looked beautiful tonight. Two weeks workin' in camp, he ate what was placed in front of him, and he ran in the snow. When I gave him a day off, Joe said, 'Thank you.' He appreciated it. If you haven't been around fighters, you don't know what it is to have a boy like Joe."
Not many fighters, to be certain, are like Frazier. He is a basic, uncomplicated person. Deal around him with the wine-filled late nights and the people who come at you with the big, false smiles. He does not want approval or distraction—just results. He is obviously now far removed from the kid who used to slop hogs on his family's patch of land in Beaufort, S.C., but he still yearns for that atmosphere, that simplicity and the smell of chitlins wafting out of the kitchen.
"I'm gonna go back there and live some day," Joe said in his hotel room the afternoon before the fight. He was lying on the bed and counting money.
"What you doin', boy, with all that money, gettin' yourself all confused?" said Durham, who was on the other bed. "See if you got any lucky bucks," he added.
"I ain't got no luck," laughed Frazier.
"Oh yes you have, boy," said Durham, "but even if you don't, you not goin' to need any in the ring when the big prize comes along."
Durham, of course, was referring to the time when and if Frazier ever fights Ali, but after the Jones fight he seemed to smolder at any mention of the champion in the dressing room. He sidestepped and parried, but he could not avoid the unavoidable: When will Frazier fight Muhammad Ali?
"I don't need Clay right now," Durham replied sharply. "We ain't ready for Clay. Sure, I know he's pushing. He wants me now, but when I take the fight it will be a war between equals. Right now Joe is still learning. Tonight he graduated from high school, and I want him to go to college before he takes on Professor Clay." Durham blamed the press for the pressure being heaped on him and Frazier, but he was wrong. Ali is responsible.
All week before the fight the champion had spoken of Frazier as a possible victim in 1967, perhaps in the summer. Infuriated at the reports, Durham began talking absurdly about fighting Ali six years from now, and then he cut it to two years, which is equally ridiculous. The struggle, it was apparent, had begun, and Durham and Frazier will be even more troubled to hold out for another 12 months.
Over in the other dressing room, there were no such problems. Doug Jones should be through struggling in boxing. He had been unconscious in the ring for nearly two minutes, and now he was sprawled on a table like some vagrant napping under a tree. Nobody in the room said anything.
"From now on," his manager, Alex Koskowitz, finally said, "he fights his wife. He's through. I don't want him fighting anymore."
The doctor then walked in, and Jones eased his body up and sat on the edge of the table. The doctor went to work. He tapped the fighter's knees, beamed light into his eyes, used a tuning fork around the bones of his ears and had Jones spread his arms and bring each finger to his nose. Jones missed once.
"I'm all right, Doc," said Jones.
"I know you are," the doctor whispered. "You'll be fine."
The doctor left and the questions fell.
"How do Frazier's punches compare to others you've fought?" he was asked.
"Not any harder," he answered haltingly.
"What kind of future does Frazier have?"
He rolled the question around in his mind and then said: "All fighters have a future."
Not, alas, Doug Jones, for whom there is nothing left but endless thanks, sorry and goodbye.