These have been ignoble times for old heavyweight champions, a reminder of that lamentable era following World War II when Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott lingered far too long and paid the price.
There was Muhammad Ali, 38, sitting on his stool in a ring in a parking lot in Las Vegas just over a year ago, his eyes puffed and discolored, unable to answer the bell for the 11th round against champion Larry Holmes. There was Ken Norton, who said he was 35, pinned helplessly in his own corner in the first round in Madison Square Garden last May as young Gerry Cooney bludgeoned him senseless before the ref stopped it.
And last Thursday, in the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, there was yet another sorry scene. It was there that a smokeless Joe Frazier, 37, came back 5½ years after George Foreman pounded him into retirement at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. For the occasion Frazier chose as his opponent a lumbering, muscle-bound, unranked aurochs named Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, 30, who had a record of 17-1 after turning pro in June 1979 and who had spent the previous 12 years in Illinois' Stateville Prison for murder.
Though the fight ended in a controversial draw—referee Nate Morgan had Cummings winning 46-45, while judges Harold Marovitz and Collins Brown had it tied, 47-47 and 46-46, respectively—that verdict was the night's only moment of ambiguity. Poignantly clearer was the fact that Joe Frazier, the good and gallant Smokin' Joe, hadn't eluded the inexorable march of time.
Here was the fighter whose tireless legs and shoulder-rolling motion had tracked and hounded Ali from one end of the ring to another as he won a decision in their epic first match in the Garden in 1971. On Thursday, Frazier lost his legs almost completely when Cummings staggered him with a right uppercut in the third round, and often found himself pinned to the ropes and unable to spin out or, in fact, to move at all.
Here was the Frazier whose left hook had been a bullwhip, lashing Ali's jaw in that first fight, dropping him in the 15th round. Then—4½ years later—he pounded Ali so relentlessly in their third fight that Ali, though he won, said he'd never felt so close to death. Last week that furious and unerring hook, when it wasn't missing altogether, had no effect. Here was a Frazier who had fought by instinct and will, always going forward, but now was fighting as if from dim memory.
If this was painful to watch for the first few rounds, it became nearly unbearable in the eighth. Cummings is no banger—he's a reformed weight lifter, with bunched muscles, and his punches lack the snap of a heavy hitter—but by then he'd had Frazier's nose and mouth bleeding and left eye swelling.
Suddenly Frazier was in trouble in a corner. Both fighters were tired by now, but Cummings hit Frazier with a series of blows that sent him reeling. Lefts and rights caught Frazier in the body. He crouched and Cummings brought his punches up, pounding Frazier with lefts and rights to the head. A left and right staggered Frazier. His legs wobbled and he seemed about to fall. His head bob-bled like a spring doll's. His mouth was bleeding again. He pitched forward, his legs giving way, and he clutched desperately at Cummings, as if to hold on to what little remained of his boxing life. He was just able to keep his feet.
Frazier survived the round and the two that followed, but the sight of him on the stool, with an ice pack pressed to his head, was a sad reminder of the Ali of a year ago. Here was another Gatsby of sport who was trying vainly to recapture the past.
"I am one of God's men," Frazier had said repeatedly beforehand to explain why he had returned.
The heavyweight title is still divided between Holmes, the WBC champion, and Mike Weaver, the WBA champ, and the contenders are largely untested. "Nothing out there," Frazier said.
Holmes? "Take the jab away from Larry and he'll come down to where I am," Frazier said.
Weaver? "He'd be a pushover," he said.
Cooney? "A big kid with one hand," he said.
So Frazier came back, he says, to fill a void in the ranks. He received $73,000 as his purse, with $12,000 more for expenses, but he earns $70,000 a year from investments made in his glory days and he doesn't need to fight to live comfortably. Yet, he said before the fight, "I always need money. I love to spend money. I love to party. I have the ability, the energy, the know-how. Why take all that energy and know-how and party with it? Why waste it?"
The decision to come back was made last December, says Marvis Frazier, Joe's son, the heavyweight. But the old man had been thinking about it for at least a year before that. "It's not pride, not ego, not money," says his adviser, Sharon Hatch. "There's no Frazier out there, no Ali, no Joe Louis. He was restless, bored. He believes he can still do it."
Frazier never really left the gym after his retirement. He claims he has been training in his own place in Philadelphia the last few years, running with his fighters in the morning, working out regularly on the bags and keeping himself reasonably fit. To convince a reluctant family that he still knew what he was doing in the ring, he had his wife, Florence, and his three daughters, Welta, Natasha and Jonetta, come to the gym as he sparred with three heavyweights—Marvis, Pinklon Thomas and former contender Jimmy Young. "I was impressed," Marvis says.
After a couple of false starts, including a prospective fight with Scott LeDoux that never got off the ground, Frazier signed to fight Cummings. Jumbo says he grew up in Getback, Miss, and that his nickname derived from his prison days, when he weighed 275 pounds. He had slimmed down to 223½. Frazier was 229, 23½ more than when he beat Ali. Cummings' biggest fight, such as it was, came last March when he lost a unanimous decision to Renaldo Snipes, who lost to Holmes last month. Frazier and Cummings are amiable fellows, and there was about as much animosity between them as between Laurel and Hardy.
After the weigh-in, Ali called Frazier from his headquarters in the Bahamas, where he was trying to trim his bulk for his own strange comeback this Friday night against Trevor Berbick.
"We got to make the old men proud," Ali said.
"I hear you," said Joe. "I'm gonna hold my end of the deal up."
"We're old men and we gotta show the world we can do it," Ali said.
"Don't call me old," said Joe.
Ali was right. They are old men. In Chicago Frazier was without legs, reflexes, timing and that astonishing endurance with which he once celebrated his youth, his glory and his name. The trouble is, Frazier doesn't know he's old. He wants to fight for the title again. The problem is rust, he says, not age, and the answer is more fine tuning.
"Everything I wanted to do out there, I done it," he said, the day after the fight. "Last night I was just beginning to get back into what I wanted to do.... I went the distance.... You can't say at 37, 38 that I'm old. I feel sorry for people who believe they're old at 37, 38.... Anything my boys can do, I can do better. And longer. You hear me?"
And then the new refrain. "I'm one of God's men. Separate me from the rest of them. Things that happen to me don't happen to every man."
On to the Bahamas.