AN EYE FOR AN EYE AND A TOOTH FOR A...
The fight is two days off. I called on Joe Frazier at the Sheraton-Kingston Hotel. The champion was lying on his bed wearing a pair of boxing trunks and a T shirt. "How're you feelin'? How're you feelin'?" He has the habit of repeating his sentences. It was surprisingly hard to get him to talk about Foreman. He seemed almost to shrug him off. Frazier's manager. Yank Durham, had announced (utilizing the manager's traditional use of the personal pronoun), "I'm going to take him in the first round." I asked the fighter if that was right. "You better believe it," he said. "You better believe it."
Had he watched Foreman fight or studied films of him? Wasn't that important? Frazier shook his head almost contemptuously. "I'm concerned about preparing myself," he said. "What help is it to scout another man? Even sparring partners don't work like your opponent in the fight. So I work on my strengths. Let the other guy do the best he can." He folded his hands on his stomach. "I met George in New York. He said he was ready. In Omaha. He said he was ready. In New Orleans. He said he was ready. Saw him last Monday. He said he was ready. Well. I'm ready. You better believe it."
His room was filled with the paraphernalia of boxing—a small medicine ball, gloves for the light bag, sweat suits. Wires snaked from a small transformer on the floor to a cassette player. A Bible lay next to him on the bed.
February 5, 1973
"When the fight time comes, I hate everyone," he was saying. "It's the eight weeks of training that does it. You hate the man for making you spend the length of time it takes to whup him."
"Is it the roadwork that you dislike?"
"That's part of it," he said. "We run at five in the morning—all the fighters. It's black and quiet then, except for the dogs. A few people are going to work. A bus goes by. Maybe a cab. We can look over the hedge and see lights shining in a few of the houses where folks are getting up. The moon be up, very high. Sometimes we come around a corner and maybe a woman is waiting on a bus. She sees us and she don't know, seeing all these men running, if we're running away from someone, or maybe running at her, and she can get nervous. It's nice out there. The guy in the car following us plays tapes, so we have music to listen to when we run. Al Green's group...I'm Still in Love with You, Pretty Woman, Love and Happiness."
I said, "They don't sound like the kind of titles to pump up a fighter."
"It's the beat," he said. "You know what I mean. They got a good beat."
"Did you ever run into George Foreman out there?"
"He runs at 6:30. In Detroit once, we catch up to Bob Foster and pass him when he's doing his roadwork. We didn't say nothing. We just went right on by." He grinned.
"So you're ready."
"You better believe it."
Sandy Saddler, George Foreman's Assistant Trainer:
Frazier can fight only one way. He'll never learn another. His style is to keep on top of you. But Foreman is the biggest and strongest heavyweight around. It's a question of turning him loose. It's going to be easy...that's all.
Archie Moore, Foreman's Other Trainer:
We know that Joe Frazier can hurt him if he hits him. So we have to stop the Frazier barrage at arm's length—to meet it with the jab. George's jab was the weakest part of his equipment. He was dropping his hand after throwing the punch. We taught him how to work it like a piston—pop-pop-pop.
Howard Cosell, who will be doing the broadcast for ABC's Wide World of Sports, was sitting on the terrace of the Stony Hill Hotel, watching the lights of Kingston come on far below the valley. Cosell was wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts. He stretched his legs. "Take a gander at these limbs," he said. "At the PSAL championship held in 1931 at the 168th Street Armory in Manhattan, these legs carried me to a second-place finish in the standing broad jump. My wife wears the silver medal on her charm bracelet. Don't you, Emi?"
Cosell is a Foreman supporter. "I have been with George since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when he took out the Russian, Ionis Chepulis, on a TKO in the second round," he announced in the darkness, intoning the name, place and date with relish. "Tomorrow night, there are going to be some shocked people throughout the world."
Someone asked Cosell about the worst fight he had ever witnessed.
"The Fullmer-Benvenuti fight on Dec. 14, 1968 in a San Remo theater. I said at the time, and over the air, that what the fight fan was watching was a silent Italian movie."
He leaned out of his chair. "You're staying at the Sheraton? Look at this," he said, sweeping a hand at the opulent setting—wicker birdcages hanging among the palm fronds, gaunt wooden carvings standing in the shadows, everywhere the plash of fountains. "How inelegant and pedestrian to be staying elsewhere. Emi and I are living in the Errol Flynn suite where, I have been told by the proprietor of this hostelry, Flynn watched Beverly Aadland dance in the nude. We have a pet lizard that comes in from time to time. I have named him Roscoe."
"Because he is Roscoe," Cosell said, rearing out of his chair. "What other name is possible?"
Ken Norton, the seventh-ranked heavyweight, was talking about Foreman. "He stinks. He's going to need a bunch of luck. He's got a hard jab, but he misses it and goes off balance. And it's so hard that he can't do anything off it, like hook. And as for his big punches, you can pack a lunch before they get there. He'll last five rounds."
"If you're wrong," a Frazier supporter said, "I'm eating beans."
Over in the Skyline Hotel is a fighter who has been in a bout with George Foreman. He is a Jamaican heavyweight who fights out of Miami and is known as the Big Bamboo, a sobriquet invented by the group of stockbrokers from Toronto who discovered him. His real name is Stamford Antonarias, and everyone calls him Harris, or Two-O-Two, which is his weight. He is very popular among the cab drivers who stand in front of the hotels because he is a local fighter and has been in there with George, and what was that like? He has a round face, the size of a small pumpkin, with a few of his front teeth missing, and he has obviously suffered in the boxing wars, though he remains cheerful and honest about his record.
"I fought George Chuvalo in a main event up in Alberta and got stopped in two. I fought Jerry Quarry and got cut in six. I went against George Foreman and got knocked out in the first."
"It was the second," a bystander said.
"Oh yeah, it was the second," the Big Bamboo said gratefully. "To be in there with George Foreman and get away from his shots is very difficult. His hands are very fast. He punches...." He paused. "Oh, mon," he said in his natural lilt, which sounds almost Scottish. "To box with George you must get low and very close. He's dangerous at far range. If I ever fight him again, I'd fight him much closer." He looked very dubious about the possibility. "Yeah," he suddenly said brightly. "It was the second round. Sure, mon, it was." The Big Bamboo really seemed quite pleased with himself.
The Foreman camp has an odd gypsy air about it. It is full of soothsayers, dreamers, tea-leaf readers as well as self-styled motivators, who give a desperate quality to the Foreman enterprise, as if they were going to rely largely on a Jovian thunderbolt arching down from the hills to dispatch the champion. For example, Doc Broadus, the man who first tied the gloves on Foreman when he was in the Job Corps, told about a dream he'd had in which Foreman knocked out Frazier between the first round and the seventh; he hoped to have another dream before the fight to narrow that down somewhat. Archie Moore dreamed that it was going to be between the first and the fifth, and he said this morning that he'd asked Foreman to pick a number between one and five and Foreman had picked four. "So the knockout will take place in the fourth round," Archie said. He was very positive about it.
This gypsy atmosphere is certainly encouraged by the most important member of the Foreman entourage, Dick Sadler, the fighter's manager, who is a small round man of excessive carnival tendencies. Endowed with a husky circus barker's voice, he is driven by a compulsive need to entertain, a comic figure essentially, who often doffs his golfing hat in theatrical gestures, takes bows and makes curtsies. He breaks into a soft-shoe at unexpected moments, as if his feet were independent and dance-prone; in the Pub, which is the bar of the Skyline Hotel where Foreman is quartered, he sits at the upright piano in the late hours and plays splendid Fats Waller interpretations, with a few bawdy songs thrown in, all of which is greeted with tumultuous applause by Foreman supporters, a sound that must drift up the facade of the luxury hotel to where the challenger is trying to sleep on the top floor. What can he make of it all?
Even Sandy Saddler seems divorced from the boxing world. Thin as a stick, with black hair lacquered smooth against his skull, a gold religious medal hanging from his neck, he wears such a big easy smile that one forgets that in the ring 20 years ago he was as savage a fighter as ever lived. And Archie Moore, his partner, knocked out more people than any other fighter in the record books.
On Archie's bureau was a red rubber mouse, the type that squeaks when pressed. "George and I play Ping-Pong," Moore said, "and at certain points during the game we play for the mouse. The loser of the point has to pick up the mouse right there at the table and squeak it. That's right. Man or mouse. It's a good mental exercise. Every fighter must have a belief that he can do anything he wants. The mouse is helping." Moore picked it up and squeaked it. "I like the man who puts priorities in perspective. I like a man who wants to win the championship of the world."
Drew (Bundini) Brown went to see George Foreman in his last workout. He is Muhammad Ali's noted associate, an ebullient handler who made up the slogan "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." He favors Joe Frazier in this fight, since a Frazier victory will clean up the top of the heavyweight slate and leave a simple confrontation between Frazier and Ali that can only be resolved by a second "Fight of the Century." But Bundini likes Foreman and his style as a human, if not as a fighter, and the expediency of supporting Frazier has been difficult. In Foreman's dressing room Bundini watched Archie Moore tape the challenger's hands for his workout on the heavy bag. Bundini had never seen so much protective tape and gauze and bandage used.
"I think maybe his hands is broken," he whispered.
Dick Sadler and Bundini began talking about the hardest punches they had ever seen thrown. Both of them agreed that one of them was Rocky Marciano's hit on Ezzard Charles in their last fight—a blow, as Bundini described it, that landed under "the goozle pipe...which swole up so the neck and chin became the same." Throughout this Foreman remained quiet, watching Moore put on the tape.
Out in the gym it was Foreman's work on the big bag that was eye-catching, to say the least. He worked against a target held motionless, measuring every blow, and the concussive sound of each punch echoed in the vast gym.
Dick Sadler held the big bag for him, both arms clasped around it like a sailor clutching the mainmast in a hurricane, leaning into it, and when Foreman landed his enormous socking punches Sadler was jolted back and his white hat bounced slightly on his head. He wore a look of considerable foreboding as he held the bag. as if the force hitting it was ultimately unearthly and uncontainable. The drill was immensely impressive and brought to mind Sonny Liston's camps. One came away from them with an equivalent sense of a fighter's invincibility.
Bundini was scornful. "What good is that? He's hitting something that don't move. They should let the bag swing free. Frazier's not going to stand still for him. They're depending on his power alone. It's like a kid using a gun without a sight. He don't know what to hit. He'll hit the ropes, the referee." He shook his head. "But my goodness I can see why they bandage up those hands. That man can punch."
The weigh-in took place in the huge gym where Foreman earlier had been lambasting the heavy bag. In the distance old women in green smocks mopped the floor, heads down, as if the odd ritual was something beyond understanding. It is odd. Traditionally, the weigh-in exists for bouts in which there are certain weight specifications. For heavyweights, of course, that distinction does not exist. Still, the suspense was there. Foreman weighed 217½, Frazier 214, almost nine pounds over what he weighed for the Ali fight. Each fighter's weight was greeted with a predictable spatter of applause, although it is difficult to say why. Maybe a fighter should be applauded for making the weight in a certain class, and one could understand a reaction from the crowd if the announcer said, "Well, we have a little surprise here; Two-Ton Tony Galento is coming in at 130 pounds."
The staring at the weigh-in, which caused all the subsequent speculation, began when Frazier elbowed Foreman away from the scales, feeling the challenger was too close to him, and Foreman responded with a long even gaze, his jaw moving slightly on gum as he tried to catch the champion's eye. He finally did so, when he himself was on the scale and the champion was standing below him. A considerable height differential was involved, and it seemed that Foreman had won himself an enormous psychological advantage. He towered over Frazier to such an extent, being up on the scale, and taller anyway, that he seemed to be looking over a windowsill at the other man. They remained stock-still, locked in the tension of two chameleons staring at each other, with the writers gibbering with excitement, staring at them. Frazier turned away first. He had backed down.
Half an hour before fight time Howard Cosell came by, pink-faced from too much exposure to the Jamaican sun. Indicating the huge crowd back in the darkness (an estimated 40,000), he commented, "Boyle's Thirty Acres. Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier. 1921. But you know that. You were there." A cackle of laughter and he disappeared around the corner of the ring.
Back here in the hotel I have spent some time trying to decipher the notes scribbled during the four-odd minutes it took George Foreman to dismantle Joe Frazier. The first notations are relatively easy. Red Smith, the columnist for The New York Times, was sitting two tables ahead of me in the press section and, just before the fight started, a moth landed on the back of his seersucker jacket, on the right shoulder blade. I noted it, thinking if the fight were dull I could keep an eye on the moth to see how many rounds it stayed on Mr. Smith's coat. I did not think to look for it again. The allusion to the nightingale getting out of the ring is not as puzzling as one might suppose, it being a reference to the Jamaican ring announcer, Dwight (Nightingale) Whylie. He had never seen a major boxing event, much less announced one, and at the moment the two fighters were waved together by the referee to begin the bout Whylie was standing inside the ring, leaning on the top rope and seemingly about to raise his arm to wave to someone he had recognized in the $75 seats. Perhaps the tremor of the ring under those first quick steps of the fighters alerted him. I don't know, but the smile froze on his face and, without daring to look around, he ducked through the ropes.
The next note is "huge right hand," which I set down because Foreman led with it, one of his first punches, which presumably would have opened him up for a counter by Frazier's most fearsome weapon, his left hook. Schoolboys are taught not to lead with the right hand. "F. down" refers to a Frazier knockdown, and "Keeps his mouth shut...Mandarin" was to remind me of Foreman's composure at that time—aloof, cool, in such contrast to his opponent, who was stumbling, the glazed smooth white of his mouthpiece showing.
The next block of scribbling describes the second round. "F. down" is, of course, a reference to another Frazier knockdown. What one can decipher of the next sentence alludes to the terrible something-or-other "we heard in the gym"—that Frazier was being subjected to the same awesome blows Foreman delivered to the big punching bag. The question marks that follow "left" and "F's left" probably refer to the inability of Frazier to do anything with his famous left hook. I remember watching it in that second round, and seeing it flail a few times, but it was in the throes of his dilemma, like a dying animal's tail flopping over, and after the fight Foreman was reported to have said of the punch, "You mean that thing was his hook?"
The next fragment, "Sadler gestures uppercut," recalls a vivid picture—the little manager on the steps in his corner, his face contorted, his arm pumping up, and then Foreman, looking directly at him, following orders and producing the uppercut that sent Frazier down for the last time. It was at this stage that Foreman looked into the Frazier corner and began shouting, emphasizing what he was saying with a little shake of his head. He was shouting at Yank Durham, unheard in all that tumult, but his lips could be read: "I'm not going to kill him! I'm not going to kill him!" Apparently I read Foreman's lips wrong. Afterward, he declared he said, "Stop it; or I'm going to kill him."
The fight was stopped. The new champion was enveloped, and Archie Moore, in his blue wool ski cap, kissed his pupil on the cheek.
"Melancholy" is the final word on the pad, used not because of dashed support for the beaten man, but because what we had seen was so quick and devastating, so one-sided, that it had none of the esthetic niceties of, say, the psychodrama of the Ali-Frazier fight, which could be studied like a good piece of theater. The crowd stood there a long time, not sure how to accept it, looking up unbelievingly at the ring, so crowded with humanity that it bulged at the ropes. We had been witnesses not to a fight but to an execution.
When we took off his left glove we noticed a hole in the leather. I said, "Look at this." It was from hitting Frazier in the mouth. One of his teeth made that hole. I'm telling you I never seen anything like that. Never!
Yank Durham was out of patience. His dressing room, which was next door to that of his fighter, Joe Frazier, was as hot as jungle undergrowth. Only one writer was still in there, his shirt plastered against his back, and he was pressing Yank to find out what had happened and why. Durham was dressing as he answered, wrenching his belt tight in a gesture of petulance. "What a stupid bunch of questions! What happened? He got hit. Didn't we all see the same fight? He got hit and he fell down. What happened to Marciano when he got hit? What happened to Joe Louis? He fell down. It's no mystery."
The dressing-room door opened, a quick glimpse of policemen outside, and the last fighter on the night's card came back from the ring, Willie (The Worm) Munroe, a promising middleweight from Durham's stable.
Yank Durham looked up. "How'd you do, Worm?"
"Left hook. Took him with the left hook."
"That's good, Worm. When?"
"Good work, Worm."
The fighter, wearing a green-trimmed robe, sat on the edge of the rubbing table. He wanted to exult, but the mood of the room was thick with despair.
While the newspaperman continued, I asked Willie the Worm, "Did you happen to watch the main event?"
"No," he said. "Not really. I heard everyone hollering, and I came running out to the top of the runway and peeked, and I saw Joe down—the second time, I guess, he went down in that first round I took one look and ran back to the dressing room. I didn't want to get my mind messed up. I didn't want to see no more. I couldn't believe my eyes."
Outside, the lights were still on, illuminating the center of the infield. People remained seated around the ring, many dozens, as if there were some ceremonial yet to come, some act of punctuation that would close off the evening. Back in the stands in that vast circle were hundreds more, sitting in the darkness—this a long hour after George Foreman had done his work, long after the Worm had done his.
After the first round I said to him, "You can't do it any better. Apply the pressure." Well, he responded, didn't he, with a shot that resounded around the world. Quite something. The fight surely should motivate any young violent-prone person in Jamaica to try on the gloves. Watch them in the streets tomorrow. You'll see hundreds of re-creations, people staggering around who will be Frazier, but most of all will be the kids who want to be Foreman. Yes sir. We showed George how to put Frazier on Queer Street.
The new champion the morning after was sitting on the terrace of his 10th-floor suite, high above the countryside with a direct view to the high hills inland from Kingston. His people had been throwing flyers with his picture off the balcony. They had been fluttering down into the street below for almost an hour, and across onto the tennis courts. Foreman lolled back in his chair, a portrait of contentment, master of all he surveyed. He talked about his three advisers. "Archie Moore was necessary, all business. He balanced Dick Sadler, who knows me best, but is lighthearted about some things. Sandy Saddler was one of the most cold-blooded fighters ever, and he kept that idea around. The team was right."
What instant of the previous night would he remember above all others?
"The next-to-the-last knockdown," he said. "I knew then that I was going to be the new champion, that there was no way Frazier could get up and come back. I knew because I looked and I saw on his face that he was staring around for help."
How much had rage and hate to do with this devastating power?
"Oh, I like Joe Frazier. I pray for him. I always pray for him. I pray twice a day, and I pray for the people I'm conscious of. I've been conscious of Joe Frazier for a number of months. So I prayed for him."