This much is certain: there are no yesterdays in New York; it is a town without attics. Only the old remember, and they do not seem to count for much, either. For this is a city that obliterates time, and only the now matters: the new face, the new place, the new phrase, the briefest craze. Living there, as once was suggested, is like improvising the concerto of one's life on a violin, the strings of which are fastened only at one end.
Yet—like a sad spring fog suddenly in from the East River—the past does sometimes brush up against all of this white-hot immediacy, although should one reach out to touch it, he would find a special-effects machine, the stomp of marketing or Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali in the second Fight of the Century on Jan. 28 in Madison Square Garden.
No labels, cosmic or otherwise, will bring back what was surely one of New York's most dramatic moments when Frazier met Ali in 1971. All the junk handbills and the electric-colored placards will never reproduce the equation to match that one: two undefeated heavy-weight champions in a $20 million sorting out of a title that aroused the passions of even those who were indifferent to the boxing ring; it was theater on a grand scale, it was NOW at its most combustible.
The components of their styles were compelling. Here was Ali: pure silk...the superman finally at bay. "Speed," Sonny Liston once snorted. "How fast he go? He faster'n the wind? He kiss a bullet? He run through hell in a gasoline sport coat and live to talk about it?" And here was Frazier: a cheerful masochist whose work in the ring had a cumulative, percussive urgency, a mounting, destructive rhythm. "I like to hit guys and see their knees tremble," he used to say. "I like to feel my strength and go for broke."
January 20, 1974
The action did not disappoint. Even in retrospect it does not diminish, nor does it need embellishment. From the opening round—and except for several peculiar antics by Ali designed to steal time—it was undistilled fury, two big men engaged in the kind of violence that chilled the body, then left it damp and limp. In the end, the murderous fluency of Frazier's left hand achieved its conclusion: the messianic aura of Ali was no more.
Scenarios of this sort are rare, and not much of what was will be visible when Frazier and Ali come together again. For this will largely be a script of pride, profit and decline, two men on a precipice, and possibly only one will pick up the remnants of his talent and go on. It still will be a special New York night, but none of the flaming emotions, the social consciousness, the vise of expectation that steadily closed in on them the first time will attend this return. The metaphysicians and the makers of myth will all be out to lunch for this one.
Neither, it has been shown, is divinely insulated against calamity, and right there is a deficiency not tolerated by those who must yap at the heels of excess. Frazier, of course, never did believe he was descended from the gods; he seemed always to have a field hand's view of himself and his work. On the other hand, Ali, who dreams himself anew each morning, believes he is a religion unto himself. Each time he steps into a ring he is dead certain that there is, say, some old Sherpa up in the Himalayas praying for him and waiting eagerly for the news.
Ali still addresses mankind, but something has gone out of him. There is a vulnerability about him now, and not because of his deeply stained talent. Looking at him, one gathers that there is a sense of imminent danger in him, that something is on his trail and he cannot shake it. Often, after one of his long and, by this time, dull monologues about "blue-eyed, blond white devils" and the face of Joe Frazier—"ugly, so ugggly"—he seems to become strangely silent.
Ask him what is on his mind, and he will try to take you on another tour of his camp, or he will rhapsodize about the "strength of rocks," the virtues of log-cabin life. Ask him again what he often thinks about these days and he replies quietly: "Age. Things gone. People dyin'. People bein' born. Don't know what it all means." Then he will go running through his lines again, hitting on Frazier with racial invective—"he not black, he white"—lashing out at how unsightly a fighter he is. "You know he got no sense. You hurt his feelin's if you don't hit him up alongside his head."
Ali likes to create the impression that he bears nothing but malice for Frazier, but that is far from what he truly feels. He is incapable of hate or genuine meanness, and what he says does not come from the heart. It is aimed at his public, those who will fatten the closed-circuit receipts. Like this bit of doggerel: Save all your bread/Your ones and your fives/Ali's comin' back/To end all the jive. But the words—as they always have—sting Frazier, intrude on his generally benign disposition.
He was quite hurt and nearing a trembling rage following the press luncheon announcing the bout. It was similar to the feeling he had when Ali came down to North Philadelphia before their first fight. When Ali left the gym where Frazier trained, close to 2,000 people followed him into Fairmount Park. "He says he's the champ," said Ali. "Well, let him prove it here in the ghetto."
Frazier did not go with Ali to the park, but the incident left its mark on him. He was being made to look the fool once again, the ghetto people—like most all others—are impressed by the appearance of things. The encounter at the recent press luncheon was somewhat the same. Once more Ali mercilessly laced the pride of Frazier with the same material: the quality of Frazier's blackness, white man's lackey, on and on he went. It was the kind of flap that only an incomparable dummy would believe, or even listen to anymore, for Joe Frazier is never far from the hell of his people.
Riding home after Ali's fusillade, Frazier turned, his voice quivering, and said: "Look at this, will ya, and tell me if I'm color blind." He rolled up his sleeve, moved his hand across his face. "Now, is that black? Why, he don't have a black spot on him." Then Joe fell silent, opening up only once more during the drive to say: "Why, just look where we both train. He up there with the bears and I'm down here with the people. Shoot, he don't know nuthin' 'bout any ghetto. How many tickets he gonna give to people in the ghetto?"
Frazier's gym is smack in the fire of North Philly, a place of flash violence and numbing deprivation. The gym is lavish, complete with a secretary, wall-to-wall carpeting, lots of baby-blue phones. A former ballroom, it has to rank as one of the better facilities in which a fighter ever trained. The proprietor, Joe himself, is not as effusive about his place as Ali is about his mountain, but that is not his way; he could train in a palace and it still would be only a shop in which he must work. This is where he has been cruelly flogging himself since October, and this was where not long ago a small exchange with a detective told maybe all there is to know about Joe Frazier.
"Joe," said the detective, "I think we got a good lead on who robbed the gym the other night."
"Uh-huh," said Joe. "Who was it?"
"We think it was a friend of yours. Fellow in a quilt jacket. Always been around the gym. You know him, right?"
"Yeah, I gotcha," said Joe.
"We'll pick 'im up."
"No, leave 'im be," said Joe. "Jis drop it."
"All right, Joe, if that's the way you want it. It's dropped."
"Yeah, thank you," said Frazier. "Don't hurt anybody. Can't go around hurtin' anybody."
Frazier then took a long drink of ice water and let his hard body drop into deep relaxation. "These are like old times, real old times," he said. "I enjoy runnin', enjoy hittin' people in the gym every day." That much was evident as he worked eight furious rounds, "throwin' and catchin' all the way." This, too, was obvious. Frazier never alludes to retirement. Once it was always on his mind and he would often recite a litany of miseries: "People look and say, 'My, my, look at that boy, he has a $125,000 house, a motorcycle, big cars.' But nobody thinks of the aggravation, people don't know 'bout the gym and the rooms with walls just lookin' back at you."
Now he acts like a man who has lost something he thought he did not love, only to discover soon afterward that he did truly care. Frazier desperately wants his title back, and most of all he wants to erase the heavy rumors that he is a sick man, the whispers that suggest he was ruined by the punishment dealt to him by Ali, or that the vision in his right eye is severely impaired. "I can't remember when I been in better shape," he said, "and I kin give a whole list of doctors who'll say the same thing."
His body seems to bear out his optimism as well as the volume of his punches, once the most thrilling part of his brilliance. Down to a hard 210 pounds, Frazier seems to be working on himself like a man hammering a strip of hot steel. There is a dark storm of meanness gathering in him, and it is completely real and unsudden. The winds of discredit and rhetoric will not blow it away. In the practice ring there is still a jungle quality to his work, but something of the student is in him, too. He is concentrating on the hard and tiresome details: position, balance, six-punch combinations vitally placed, and that shocking right hand that used to set up his evil hook.
"We're doin' nothin' new," says his tutor, Eddie Futch. "Just tryin' to do the old things well again. Tryin' to get him down more, so he nullifies the other guy's height and can slip that jab a lot easier."
Futch is not a new figure in Frazier's camp. He has always helped to prepare Frazier, but now he has much more of a say in Joe's career. The old voice, always mellifluous and cool, is gone now; Yank Durham, a welder in a railroad yard who took a fat boy from a slaughterhouse to a world neither of them could have conceived of, died recently. Charm and cunning were Durham's strong suits, and he thought of Frazier as his son. Like all sons, Frazier would bridle occasionally, though not for long. As unions between fighters and managers go—classically abrasive to both parties—this one was a model of justice and uncommon respect.
With Futch, Frazier remains in good hands. Others may get more publicity, but the little trainer has no peer as a technician and strategist in the general orchestration of whatever talent a fighter may have. All one has to do is look to Ken Norton to see the touch of Eddie; once considered a desultory journeyman, Norton finally joined the elite of the division, and promptly fired Futch, an action that baffles Frazier. "He some thick," says Joe who, better than anyone, knows the value of Futch. Futch seems to have gotten Frazier back on key again. "Joe's been a troubled man, even long before the George Foreman fight," says a friend, without elaborating.
Why, one wonders? He has always seemed mentally sturdy. Could it have been his growingly confused thoughts about the ring, the pressure from his wife to retire? Or was it the moves of Durham, who vaguely conveyed more than once that he would sooner quit than see his fighter hurt, who felt that Frazier had his money and did not need the pain anymore? Eventually, Frazier had to overrule Yank in the matter of whether he should fight Foreman. No one really knows, and yet Durham's guarded apprehensions must still linger in any mind looking at this fight.
The question is, then: what toll on Frazier have all those wicked head shots taken? He has fought one fight since Foreman, and that was against Joe Bugner, whom Ali worked listlessly across 12 rounds. In the bout with Bugner, Joe was not unimpressive. He was physical. He was out for the hunt. Then, during the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds—the frames in a fight when he had always been notoriously cruel—he had nothing left. A good puncher should have put the Englishman away. Even so, Quarry, who has fought both Ali and Frazier, has no doubt about the outcome.
"I'll be surprised to see Frazier let him go past eight rounds," he says. "Ali is shot. I'd like to have Frazier back, now, too."
It is not a stroke of gifted perception to note that the decline in both has been sharp. The fights with Norton removed any doubts about Ali. It is only Frazier who remains the puzzle here. It is not a question of whether he has slipped—but how far has his talent been eroded? In view of this, the humanitarians among us cannot understand the purpose of the bout at all. The money—$850,000 each? Well, that may mean more to Ali than Frazier; Joe is a wealthy man, thanks to the direction of his syndicate, Cloverlay.
Thus, it is pride that is the force behind this rematch, and those who denigrate it should consider that two flawed masterpieces are better than no genius at all. As for Ali, he does not want to part with the universal attention he hungers for, cannot imagine a life without his constantly articulated fantasy that when he puts his invincible self on the line, the world holds its breath. On the other side, Frazier is a lover gone wrong, a man who had the prize of his craft and abused it by his indifference. He wants it back badly—that and the final word with those who listened when Ali tried to steal their first fight through the press and on television. But the trouble is old lovers seldom make it back, and invincible is a word that no one hears anymore. There are no yesterdays in New York.