The prizefight is a simple proposition of just two men, who are seldom simple, alone in the ring. All fight managers know this, even those who pretend to mysterious, unshakable theories known only to them—and to the last manager from whom the theories were stolen. The nonsense never moves the fighter; he knows the proposition. He carries into the ring only a dream, a heart and a style, and if all of this is real enough he produces a piece of work just as moving as a Goya or the sound of Coleman Hawkins.
Joe Frazier, the new heavyweight champion of Penn Station, is no Goya or Coleman Hawkins, but one is drawn to what he does in a ring. Madison Square Garden, now located at the station, created his title—no better than a Woolworth trinket—but Frazier's performance against Buster Mathis last week produced dignity and meaning where only cheap opportunism had existed before in the glacial atmosphere of the new Garden.
Each fighter must make his fight his own way. There are the dandies and the maulers, the meticulous craftsmen and the thrilling improvisers, but Joe Frazier is none of these. He is an honest workman, and if he is ever remembered at all it will be because he is such a fighter. He comes to work, and he gives the last measure of himself, however unaesthetic the workmanship may be. One can count on Frazier. He does not belong to the times.
"I earn what I win," says Frazier. "I punch and get punched; he lays it on me and I lay it on him. That's what fightin' is all about. The people, they pay. I pay."
March 18, 1968
Few today, whether doctor or lawyer, chef or shoemaker, can say the same, but Frazier can. He is not a special fighter, but no one has ever been more of a professional. He was neither a Nureyev nor a chilling executioner against Mathis. He was just beautifully implacable. Frazier's persistence, similar to that of a man hanging onto a massive marlin, eventually ravaged Mathis' questionable will, his thin confidence and, finally, his enormous body.
The body, 244 pounds, fell in the 11th round, but it came apart much earlier. Mathis, despite his indecisive punching—often he only slapped—and his staggering dumbness, carried an edge into the sixth round. Then Frazier turned the fight completely around. He was cutting the ring down on Mathis now, and it seemed Mathis was fighting out of a glove compartment. Frazier had been hammering away to the kidneys from the start, and now the tree-trunk arms began to drop.
Mathis' head was in a precarious position, and Frazier started to gamble for the big punch. He had taken a couple of good shots early in the fight, and he was convinced that Mathis could not hurt him. Defying orders from his corner, Frazier exposed his head more; he kept rushing down into the barrel of the gun. He dared Mathis to whack him, but the weary ballroom dancer (he'd be a darling at Roseland) could not unload. The fearful pounding at his body had taken his strength, destroyed his will.
A right hand sent him on his way out, and then a left hook, the trademark of all Philadelphia fighters, caught Mathis near the temple. He seemed to react as if jolted with electricity, hanging in the air for a long moment, then toppling over like the towering mast of an old frigate. He lay across a bottom strand of rope, his flaccid belly heaving, his mouth gasping for breath, his future as much in question as his strategy had been.
No one will ever understand the fight that Mathis made. True, he had never been in with opponents who were really anything more than YMCA amateurs, but he has definite skills. Why did he refuse to jab, move in, set up and punch? Frazier can be hit, but you have to tag him as he is moving in. Why did Mathis ludicrously insist on laying inside with Frazier? He was in there by design at first, but it was a mistake. One should never fight Joe Frazier inside. He is a dogged infantryman.
"It will take one hell of a man to beat Frazier," says Yancey Durham, his manager and trainer.
Durham, with his whiskey voice, measured each word in that line carefully. He is a man under constant pressure, and he seldom says anything that can be used against him later. The pressure, most of it real, some of it imagined, is there because of where he is from and who is behind him. He has brought Frazier along from the beginning with care and craftiness, but the town and the "white power" structure (the Cloverlay syndicate) that has Frazier's contract watch his moves.
Philadelphia has always been suspicious of those who represent it in sports. Its cynicism, for the most part, is justified. It has suffered Joe Kuharich and the Eagles far too long; it has been bored frequently by the Phillies and disappointed by a hundred fighters who came within a punch—and one too many nightcaps—of being champions. "It ain't easy to be out in front with a black Philadelphia fighter," says Sam Solomon, trainer of Ernie Terrell. "Everyone's watchin', waitin' for somethin' bad to happen. The black man always had the fighters here, but he always lost 'em. Durham is the first to go all the way."
Durham and Frazier are just one fight away from the top now. Frazier most likely will be matched with the winner of the Jerry Quarry-Jimmy Ellis fight—the World Boxing Association version of the championship—sometime in late autumn. Frazier is eager to meet Quarry. "I want him," says Frazier. "He's got a big mouth." Quarry may have a big mouth, but he also has the proper equipment to take Frazier. He is the deadliest and most instinctive counter-puncher in boxing today, and you can't knock him down with a baseball bat. He does have a stamina problem, though, and it is quite possible that if he could not bag Frazier inside of six rounds he would be beaten. Ellis, on the other hand, is a brilliant long-range puncher. Unquestionably, he is a threat to Frazier.
No matter who the opponent is, the fight will be tremendously rewarding for the promoter and undoubtedly the Garden will make a serious effort to lay its hands on the bout. It is swaggering now after its showing last week. A crowd of 18,096 paid $658,503 to see the doubleheader, and it was no accident that a man was selling binoculars in the aisle next to the $100 section. Of course, this was typical of the Garden, an organization whose attendants have long been among the rudest ever to block an aisle.
Despite Frazier's performance and the size of the crowd, the program seemed to lack that special electric quality of a fight night, and the 500 pickets, led by the ubiquitous Professor Harry Edwards, matched the mood of the evening. The picketing, without spirit and quite senseless, was being done in protest against New York's lifting of Muhammad Ali's title. "A petition," said Professor Edwards, the man in charge of sporting boycotts, "was submitted to Brother Frazier and Brother Mathis proclaiming Brother Ali to be the true champion. Both accepted the petition amiably and agreed. We are not here to embarrass Brother Frazier or Brother Mathis."
Neither brother seemed excessively embarrassed, but Emile Griffith should have been. If he and Nino Benvenuti ever fight for the middleweight title again, everybody should picket the Garden. The two have now met three times; the last two fights have been more than enough to gag a goat. Griffith, once an exciting fighter, has bored too many crowds for too long now. He is strong, a sharp puncher, but somewhere along the way—perhaps beginning with the night he killed Benny Paret—he lost his skills. His main problem, it seems, is more mental than physical. Often he goes into a trance and then he wanders somnambulantly around the ring. He did scarcely more than that against Benvenuti, who has to be credited with a clever performance.
Benvenuti's talents may be limited, but they were all he needed to regain his title. He broke out quickly in the fight, sticking to one pattern—jab, jab, hook, another jab and then a right hand. Then from the fourth round through the seventh, Benvenuti's legs seemed lifeless; he did not look as though he could last two more rounds. He rallied in the ninth, however, sending Griffith to the floor with a mediocre left hook, and he fought well through the 12th round. Then his legs began to weaken once more, and he was suddenly in trouble. Griffith, frantically charging and butting (he should have had a glove laced around his head), came on to win the final three rounds.
All three officials had the fight close, but there did not seem to be any question that Benvenuti had won. It was, despite his cleverness, a shaky victory. Still, unless he has slipped more than was visible during the fight, Benvenuti should retain his title for a respectable period. As for Griffith, who has been in 19 championship fights and held two division titles, his future is nebulous, and one guesses that his interest in boxing has dimmed; the foppish Virgin Islander never really wanted to be a fighter from the start. A generous, childlike man, Griffith has made close to a million dollars with his fists, but his personal extravagance and generosity to 14 relatives (at last count) has eroded his earnings. Who will pay him the price he commands or even continue to book a man who brings his body into the ring, but leaves his spirit behind in some dark, private world?
Buster Mathis' fate is equally uncertain. The tendency is to dismiss Mathis, who is often rapped for his lack of ring character, but he has ability; how much will be revealed in his next fights. Sympathy for Mathis is difficult (he received $75,000 for a fight he never deserved), but as one watched him lying on the canvas there was an enveloping sadness. "It is too bad," said Cus D'Amato, the manager who once tutored Mathis. D'Amato, boxing's mad scientist who was fired by Mathis' owners, was watching the fight through binoculars, because he was far away and because he enjoys reading lips in the ring, a talent he developed while working with deaf-and-dumb fighters. One wondered if D'Amato's sadness was genuine or whether he was just camouflaging his bitterness.
Like the Boy Scouts who own Mathis, D'Amato did his share in helping to put the huge fighter on the floor. Never having cared much for Mathis as a person, he kept him in leg irons for a long time. Mathis had many problems—fear in the ring, obesity, constant anguish over his appearance—but D'Amato chose to be derisive in his confrontation with them. And although it was obvious that Mathis was not ready for Frazier, Jimmy Iselin and his partners moved him out anyway. Were they desperate to recover the $150,000 invested, or did they just want to prove to D'Amato and boxing their genius as managers? The Frazier fight only corroborated their amateurishness.
For one thing, the fight plan for Mathis revealed gaping flaws in judgment. The plan was riveted to the assumption that Mathis could run for 15 rounds. Not even the superbly conditioned Ali, the best trackman in the history of the heavyweights, would consider such folly; certainly Mathis, because of his size and inexperience, should never have. Mathis is no Ali as an orchestrator of his talents, but he did have two good weapons. He had a jab to ease the constant pressure from Frazier, and he had a right uppercut to effectively counter Frazier's crouches. Mathis simply forgot about the jab, and he only used the uppercut sparingly.
The architect of Mathis' ring plan was Joe Fariello, a former student of D'Amato, and he, too, must share the responsibility for his fighter's failure. The trainer is a curious figure in boxing. Some trainers are teachers, others are excellent conditioners and many more are just good con men. The master trainer, practically extinct today, combines all three of these qualities. No man in a camp is closer to the fighter than the trainer. He listens to the fighter's sadness, laughs at his bad jokes, absorbs his flares of temper and always watches to see that the fighter's ego remains balanced.
Fariello's record as a trainer is suspect. He handled José Torres for his second fight with Dick Tiger; Torres, jabless and listless, lost. He had a bad experience with Joe Shaw when Shaw was once blatantly fouled and then received no protection from his corner. Mathis obviously liked Fariello personally, but it was just as apparent he had little regard for him professionally. Perhaps with good reason. No trainer eats a loaf of bread in front of a fighter in training, especially one like Mathis who dreams of food constantly. No trainer calls a fighter dumb, particularly a Mathis whose ego is always tottering.
The trainer did his best to bail himself out after the fight. Mathis, he said, "had a false sense of security" after 23 fights with compliant opponents.
The fighter, as always, is the only victim. Mathis is now a perfect advertisement for Black Power advocates. He gets whipped and suddenly he is alone, indeed publicly disgraced by the people he needs desperately. "We're taking Buster's name off the gym, and we're taking his pictures off the wall," says Iselin, who longed to be out in front, to be the manager of record, the spokesman and guide for the future heavyweight champion of the world. But Iselin never even earned his cut. The cardinal rule of the manager is "protect the fighter." This is one of the ways the manager earns his cut. To expose Mathis to ridicule is not only juvenile and unprofessional, it is bad business; Iselin's reaction to defeat only succeeds in depressing the market price for Buster Mathis.
Perhaps Iselin was just despondent over the fact that he is now stuck with all the items (lighters, pens, etc.) he employed to merchandise the name of Big Buster. "Why doesn't he sell them to the people buying up all the Romney buttons?" someone suggested. One thing is certain: Mathis does not want to be near anything with his name on it. He is emotionally stunned by his loss to Frazier. He walks the lonely woods near his camp in upstate New York and then returns to his room. He sits there for long hours, silently thrashing about in a hell that he alone did not make.