Whatever else the ring was in the late decade, it was splendid theater. It became a strange arena, a dim stage on which Floyd Patterson chased a torment known only to him, on which Sonny Liston stepped, the personification of evil, only to leave as a pathetic figure, his menace forever stripped. Then came Cassius Clay, assaulting the sensibilities of a nation and transcending the ring-stage to move into history.
Goodby to all of that, and what has gone is in sharp juxtaposition to what awaits the ring in the new decade, an era that begins with the heavyweight title fight between Jimmy Ellis and Joe Frazier next Monday night in Madison Square Garden. They are two fighters who will at last restore order to the ring, and may move the sport in a new direction, away from social revolution, racial invective and participants who are characters out of Dostoevski.
For the first time since the unconscionable scuttling of Ali, the title—split asunder by New York and the WBA—will be reunited. Though lacking theater on a grand scale, it is a fight that has long been anticipated, a meeting of two men who come with passions that more closely correspond to the plain, hard conventions of the ring. The immense backdrop of the past somehow obscures their presence, but what Frazier and Ellis will bring to the Garden will be real, unornamented and, perhaps, even truly memorable.
Without doubt the fight is a release for them, an exit out of limbo. It is their chance, so long denied and impeded, to unburden themselves of pressures, first begun by the taunts of Ali himself, then continued by the shadow of Ali and finally by the mere existence of each other. The sense of the moment is obvious in their camps, and each feels it in his own way: Ellis, often anxious but now unaffectedly confident and jocular; Frazier, unusually tense and withdrawn and again talking of early retirement. Neither is concerned that both are scorned or ignored by those who are perpetually entranced by the inflated romance and myth of other times.
Nobody, it appears, really knows their names, but this is not because of any lack of talent on their part. Ellis and Frazier are private people, unwilling or unable to talk of what they are about and of who they are, the kind of people who have moved through their lives of no issues and small demands and hoped for just any old slice of the American Dream. It is difficult—for all their once-impoverished lives—to separate them from that gray and last bulwark of the Protestant ethic, the America of fervent belief in virtue and hard work and warm family life. "I've never seen anything like it," says one boxing manager of the Doc Kearns tradition. "I don't know what's gonna happen to boxing. These guys are so unknown that the governmint don't even send them income tax forms."
True, it may be that the heavyweight division, which is boxing, cannot afford the absence of theater, the lack of a dimensional, commanding figure at the top, but Frazier and Ellis are rare in their own way. On honest toil and sheer excellence of craft, neither can be suspect. Frazier and Ellis need only remember all of the pedestrian performers immediately before them already being celebrated by imaginative recall. Hopefully, in the future, no one will have to embellish Frazier vs. Ellis.
In the argot of the gym the fight itself, which is expected to draw a house in excess of half a million dollars, is "uneasy," meaning that the price, at present 4 to 1 Frazier, should be much tighter. It also means that nobody is seriously studying the form on Ellis, who would qualify as a sensible wager at even money. For those who have trailed Ellis across the last three years, it is not at all inconceivable that he could knock out Frazier inside of 10 rounds, maybe quite early. It is not exaggeration to say that Ellis may possess one of the quickest, most punishing straight right hands ever seen in a ring. Leotis Martin, once a very destructive gentleman, would support that assessment. Those who were present will not forget the flash and crack of that right in the Martin fight, the punch that started Martin toward a dressing-room table where he would lie seven rounds later, his face devastated.
Comparing records is often dull and unilluminating, but certain evidence evolves from the charts of Ellis and Frazier. First there is Ellis, who thrashed Martin at a time when Frazier would not walk on the same side of the street with him. Later Ellis did the best piece of work anyone has ever done on Oscar Bonavena, then he beat a misguided Jerry Quarry in a disciplined, dreary bout for the WBA title. His first and last defense of his title was against Floyd Patterson in Stockholm, a fight which he won—if he won, and I think he did—in the final minutes. Patterson was the one bad fight for Ellis. Because of the obstinacy of many people (including, possibly, Ellis himself) and the collapse of several promotions, Ellis has not fought in more than 15 months. He has never lost a fight as a heavyweight, though as a poorly handled middleweight he was beaten several times.
Joe Frazier, of course, has never been beaten. The champion of six states, he won his title in a bout with an uninspired Buster Mathis. In July 1967 he disassembled one of the great catchers of all time, George Chuvalo. In this fight he accomplished the unimaginable—he made Chuvalo want to quit. Frazier then came back against Manuel Ramos, Oscar Bonavena and Dave Zyglewicz. Ramos, gallant enough, tried to bang with Frazier, and Zyglewicz, well, he was just a victim. Jerry Quarry, once again misguided, was Joe's last dissection, last June. The one fighter who has been troublesome for Frazier is Oscar Bonavena; he has fought 25 rounds with Oscar, who is strong but quite ineffectual. In their first fight, during Joe's incubation period, Oscar knocked him down twice in one round. In his title series Joe's one bad fight was again Bonavena.
What do the records reveal? Of Ellis, we know this: he is extremely dangerous, especially early in a fight. He follows instructions closely. He can be vicious with either hand, and the straight right is the kind of punch that can reach Frazier. Ellis is not easily intimidated. He can take a good wallop, and his valor is unimpeachable; with a broken nose and bruised hand, suffered early, he still fought off Patterson. On form, one can expect Ellis to try to be careful and intelligent against Frazier. He will not box him for 15 rounds but will choose to fight him at his own convenience. His main concern, though, will be the destruction of Frazier's rhythm, which he will try to achieve by spinning or taking a half-step to the right or left as Frazier advances. On the timing of that simple maneuver (see drawings) much depends.
We know this, too, of Frazier: he is ubiquitous, relentless and a thrilling puncher of volume to the head and body. His best weapon, the one that is just as crippling as his bearlike swipes, is his rhythm—that pace is directed by a music he alone hears. It is intimidating and, if you are not of a proper professional mind, the starkness of it alone can be defeating. He is a special fighter, one who makes us all feel better for being in his presence, a producer who will try to give us—for $100 as it is now, or $3.50 as it was not so long ago—the best of what he has, and this in itself is something we so seldom see anywhere.
There are only a few questions. Will Ellis, who has had a stamina problem on occasion, handle the sheer physicality of Frazier? Can he "mess Joe around"? As for Frazier, predatory and erosive, can he deal with the strokes and style of an Ellis, can he cope with the frustration of attacking a disciplined, discreet opponent? It took Frazier six losing rounds before he finally frisked an unintelligent and then suddenly comatose Buster Mathis. This fight is, in the end, a fine sorting out, a primordial, un-theatrical moment for two men who have survived a testing of spirit and will tread firmly—and maybe indelibly—in boxing's next decade.