Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 1970-1979
It was an ending only Muhammad Ali could have given us and the greatest jewel in the shining crown of the greatest heavyweight of all time…
When you’re a kid, you like the heavyweights best. They compare with the characters in the cartoons in their huge displays of strength, the ideal, often, of what a young man feels a grown man should be. But the heavyweight does not normally remain the ideal, not for the boxing fan. Sooner or later most will realize that most heavyweight contests and boxers do not even deliver on the ideals of their own sport.
Welterweights, middleweights, lightweights, the smaller men, are better movers, combination punchers and are faster. These are the reasons that mean the real boxing fan generally leaves the heavyweights behind as a favorite, a little like those cartoons.
Not me. The heavyweights are my favorites. That crash-boom-bam, man—it can’t be beat.
So it should come as no surprise then that the latest instalment of this series is laden with heavyweights, the greatest heavyweight from the greatest heavyweight decade—here are my pick of the five most heart-wrenching, stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping, air-punching, on-the-edge-of-your-seat heavyweight moments delivered to us by the greatest sport in the world between January 1, 1970 and December 31, 1979.
The little guys just didn’t measure up his time.
#5 “This should be one whale of a finish!”—Bob Sheridan
We begin at the end.
In truth, eighteen months of the decade remained, but in the summer of 1978 the last bell was being tolled on a decade the likes of which the heavyweight division had never seen before and probably never will again. Muhammad Ali, now hurt and showing it, had been confounded by a perpetually wayward Leon Spinks earlier in the year; Joe Frazier had retired to his Detroit home to seethe over the perceived injustices produced by one of the few heavyweight decades a man of his abilities could not have dominated; George Foreman had enjoyed a brief conversation with Jesus during the shower that followed his surprise defeat to Jimmy Young and promptly retired to preach and propagate. The bones were ready for picking.
Instead, two men stepped forwards to create a new legend.
It is typical of an era which produced brilliance at every turn that even as the last rights were being read over its mighty cadaver it produced the best fight of the decade. The war between Ken Norton and Larry Holmes, was worthy of that title.
The first five rounds produced a dynamic that might, in retrospect, have been expected; Norton stalking Holmes with that untidy, almost lurching style, moving forwards behind a magnificent engine, his gears of war all shifting hands and head, a winging right, an unpredictable jab. Holmes picked off that jab with relative ease, speedy hands, concise punching, dominating the early exchanges with speed and skill.
In the sixth, there was a shift.
Holmes was a precision instrument. Norton was more jagged, less hewn, not quite a battering-ram or tank but something in between, a mobile battlement tillered by a steady hand. The medium-hot pace of the fight took it out of both men, but it did less harm to the rough edges of Norton than the mathematical precision of Holmes, who now fell a fraction of a second short getting his hands up, moving his head, dropping the boom. When Norton found the range for his marauding right in the ninth it seemed that Larry’s new age was going to fall foul of the death throes of the last; his late rally was hugely impressive.
That rally peaked in a terrifying thirteen, a round of such summary destruction it is incredible to think Norton survived it; but he did survive it. When Holmes offered almost nothing in a gift-wrapped fourteenth it seemed he might be spent.
“This should be a whale of a finish!” predicted Bob Sheridan, commentating for American television—it served as a fitting epitaph to both the single best fight of the time, and the decade that birthed it.
Watch the close up of Norton’s face before the bell rings to open the fifteenth. He looks dead—the dread note is tolled and he comes to life. They touch gloves, a universal sign of respect between warriors. Then, they try to kill one another. They do it with art, with science, but it is brutality. For each man, the other is almost incidental. The swings in fortune and dominance are so frequent and distressing that we have no room here to recount them so instead let’s revisit those final desperate twenty seconds. Holmes lands a flush right hand of such savagery only the floundering communications between Norton’s brain and his body explains his enduring it; then he lands another. Norton, instead of dropping prone at his feet, fights back. Holmes abandons footwork and fights, slugs, a precision instrument no more but as primitive a tool as man ever used, a club, a brick picked up by the stunned victim of some fierce mugging taking place in a lost back alley a hundred miles from anything and lashed at some unseen attacker. Norton stops, stock still, but the pathways in his boiling brain transmit the signal to punch, and punch, and punch, and then mercifully, tragically, the fight is over.
They called Larry Holmes the winner. For me it is forever a draw.
#4 “Stop it or I’ll kill him.”—George Foreman
“Everybody’s always talkin’,” said George Foreman in January of 1973. “They think they can talk me out of winnin’ a fight. Talkin’ don’t mean nothing.”
The talking that was bothering George on this day was the speculation as to whether or not he was up to the challenge of facing reigning all-time great heavyweight champion and vanquisher of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier.
Frazier bizarrely labelled George “like Chuvalo, maybe a little slower” and got on a plane for Kingston, Jamaica where the fight was to be staged.
Foreman did his talking in the ring.
His menacing demeanor was no different for this fight than it had been for so many other knockout victories, his indifference the very thing that made him appear so terrifying.
At bell Frazier burrowed his way to the center of the ring, but he took a surprising leap back as Foreman looped out a right to the body—not the type of punch you normally throw at a heavyweight champion—almost as though he realized, suddenly, what he was sharing a ring with and that it was certainly not another George Chuvalo. He gathered himself and landed that left hook, a punch that tended to cut the bigger men he shared the ring down to size. Now it was Foreman’s turn to take an unexpected step back.
An unanswered question was beginning to develop in the ring. It was unclear what was happening because nothing decisive was happening. Foreman was landing blows but seemed unable to follow up with anything other than an amateurish shove, manhandling Frazier back or away then starting the whole uncertain mutual stalk once more. In fact, that shove was a core part of Foreman’s strategy to keep the threshing machine out of his space and make space for his booming uppercut.
When Frazier was caught by that uppercut, after a mere 100 seconds, he was caught mid-ring, hurt, and something malfunctioned. His normally arbitrary head movement deserted him and instead he started dipping violently at the waist, straight down and then back, down and then back, and Foreman responded to that invitation with a boots-bidden uppercut and Frazier crumbled down and to his right through his knee, as though it had been shot out from under him, crumbled just like that question was crumbling because the answer was plainly Foreman.
Foreman’s punches were discharged into a vessel not large enough to absorb them; Frazier’s rampant drive through the toughest heavyweight division ever assembled was about to be ended by the laws of physics.
Foreman missed more than he landed trying to follow up and the Frazier hook made him nervous in its impotent rage, but when he dropped another uppercut, Frazier turned immediately to rubber sinking to the canvas, utterly abandoned by his body. He mastered it again quickly but and was swiftly re-introduced to the canvas.
Frazier did get up, he always got up, but on this night it was only to be knocked back down. One blow sent him skipping into the air and down to the canvas on one knee, an involuntary reprisal of hero James Brown.
“Stop it or I’ll kill him,” said Foreman. It is possible that no great heavyweight has ever been so completely mastered.
Foreman KO2 Frazier is a result that has been overshadowed by Joe’s trilogy with Muhammad Ali and by the Rumble in the Jungle. This is unfair. If you assemble a full list of candidates for a top ten heavyweight list, you will see that only one of them was stopped in the first or second round during his twenties, and that is Frazier.
And that is no reflection on Joe. It is a reflection on the decade’s own boogeymen, George Foreman. There were some that thought he would rule for twenty years.
#3 “They told me Joe Frazier was washed up…”—Muhammad Ali
Picking apart the history of the most hateful vendetta in boxing is almost impossible. Even the men and women who watched from the sidelines as an uneasy friendship descended into the madness of the blood-feud are compromised by perspective. For the rest of us, a best guess is all we can hazard. Mine is that the madness began in 1969, almost an entire year before Muhammad Ali reclaimed the license he had been stripped of when he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam; Frazier, who by this time held the title Ali had at that time been stripped of, was keen to do business with the disposed and undefeated Ali and the two made noises to this effect. As early as 1967, Ali had recognized that Frazier would be the toughest fight of his generation and Frazier certainly wasn’t going to say no to the money the two could make together. Up until Ali’s appearance on Philadelphia’s WHAT radio programme, it was all mutual respect between the two, Frazier lobbying on behalf of Ali and his licensing problem and according to the myth, even giving a struggling—and he was struggling—Muhammad Ali financial assistance.
That night, something changed.
I’ve never heard the broadcast for myself, but I understand that it was the first time Joe Frazier heard Ali call him “Uncle Tom.” It may even be the first time Ali had used the phrase in relation to Frazier. Pandemonium ensued as Frazier answered Ali’s call to meet him in a local gym. One of the confrontations Ali specialized in followed, all heat and no light, but according to Gypsy Joe Harris, he accompanied Frazier to Ali’s home for a less well documented confrontation later that night.
“Showin’ me up like that…right here in my hometown…calling me names, coward, Uncle Tom…It gonna stop right here,” Frazier is supposed to have told Ali. He was always uncertain of his standing in Philadelphia, was concerned about it. He was right to be. The statue that was erected to the fictional Rocky Balboa in the space Joe Frazier’s statue should so obviously have stood is testimony to that.
Talk turned to Ali’s religion, and Muhammad supposedly warned Frazier off:
“Don’t talk about my religion.”
To which Joe replied:
“Fuck your religion.”
This is said to have happened in front of two armed bodyguards (“Those guns don’t mean nothing to me.”), members of the ludicrous UFO worshipping cult Ali had aligned himself to. Like that, the fuse was lit.
Frazier was as typical a working-class black as could have been imagined. He was dragged up in the Deep South and sent packing by his own family for fear of white reprisal against a hard-headed boy quickening into an unbreakable man. He worked beef for a living and came back from the Olympics with a gold medal and absolutely no future. But he battered his way to the greatest title any man ever wore. He was less an Uncle Tom and more a proletarian hero for the age. But the age was changing and the world needed a new hero. That hero was to be Ali; the anti-establishment warrior prepared to suffer for something he believed in. Just as Ali took it to a new place by calling Frazier an Uncle Tom, Frazier took it to a new place by dismissing Ali’s religion.
They had a fight; then they had another one. Each won a victory without unmanning the other, Ali piled humiliation upon humiliation on Frazier’s head; by the time of their third clash in Manilla, Frazier was a “gorilla” —there are polite corners of the world where the phrase “Uncle Tom” may need explaining, but nobody was or is confused about the racial ramifications of calling a black man a gorilla. Ali seemed determined to undermine Frazier’s blackness first time around but by their third fight he was hanging upon him names that sought to make of it wickedness.
Such niceties elevated, or denigrated, depending upon your point of view, what took place in the ring on October 1, 1975, to new heights. It is the most brutal record of boxing that exists in color. It took Ali “through a trapdoor” to a new place in his own experience. There are stories that he was begging, at the end of the fourteenth, for his own gloves to be cut from his hands such was the terrible misery Frazier inflicted upon him. To my knowledge he has refused to this day to watch The Thrilla In Manila; the memory of “Hell”, according to Mark Kram’s Ghosts of Manila too painful.
Frazier waited some time to watch it too; thirty-three years to be exact. You can see him do so for the first time in HBO’s 2008 documentary on the fight. Joe’s first words post-bell are telling: “Too far away…yeah, too far away, Smoke!” Indeed, Frazier was separated from Ali by a distance equal to the Champion’s perfect range. He brutalized the challenger for those first nine minutes, Frazier’s countenance beginning even then to hint at the lopsided swirl of a face he would end the fight peering out of.
He clambered out of the strange dark pit he inhabited in the fourth round, snarling like the Frazier of old. The balance between fighters is the most sensitive equation in sports. There are a dozen cosmological constants holding the pattern boxing is fought under together and the small desertion of Ali by his legs suddenly brought Frazier roaring back to his prime. Fuelled by hate—why, why Ali had baited him so in Manila is beyond my understanding; some primal need to dominate only the worthy or the masochistic streak buried deep are only possible and partial theories—Frazier reared up and charged, cramming, two-handed, as much pain into Ali’s midriff and internal organs as he could.
“They told me Joe Frazier was washed up,” Ali stated in the sixth, as though speaking to some great arbiter who could perhaps explain the madness into which he was descending.
“They lied,” Frazier replied, and inflicted upon him the most devastating round of his career up to that point. In a sense it summed up the private side of their rivalry almost completely. Here, in a nutshell was Ali’s certainty of his superiority—racial, physical, fistic—and Frazier’s dogged refusal to ever, ever back down.
What they did to one-another in that stifling heat had lasting consequences for both. Ali struggled to get out of his corner for the eleventh. He looked a beaten man. But another shift occurred, this one inexplicable to the eye and the mind. Ali rallied. Silent now for the first time in the trilogy he cut the good flesh from around the tumor and offered up all that there was of himself to give—the “closest thing to death” he would ever experience and it was enough. Eddie Futch famously, and justifiably, pulled Joe Frazier from the fight whilst Frazier spat blood and begged, begged to be allowed to continue despite his near total blindness. “You can call the shots to me Eddie.”
In the other corner, Ali recovered from his post-fight collapse and named Frazier “the second greatest fighter of all time.”
#2 “Lord, you in the wrong place tonight.”—Joe Frazier
Their first fight had been even better.
Not in all respects—they both offered up more of what their respective Gods gave them in the third fight, but the first was for many the single greatest sporting event in history. Two undefeated all-time great champions near their peaks duking it out for the undisputed heavyweight championship at a time when Ali and Frazier were, respectively, wedged into convenient roles as anti-establishment and authoritarian; the new ways and the olds; self-determination and slavery; the elegance of independent thought and the animalistic desire to perform. It was nonsense, all of it, but it brought to the ringside seats the great and good in a way that no fight ever had. The men, to Ali’s delight and Frazier’s general confusion, fought to prove who they were as much as what they were, namely pugilists of the highest order.
And they proved it.
The bell that rang at around 2245, March 8th, 1971 signalled the beginning of what many are content to call “The Fight of the Century” and astonishingly it lived up to billing. In Manila, Ali was overweight and many years past his best whilst Frazier was taking multiple injections for pain and was mostly blind in one eye. That blindness, although present, was less complete in 1971 and whilst he already suffered with high blood pressure the joint and back trouble that would come to haunt him were in his future. Ali was more compromised, floating between identities, no longer the dancing master of his youth and in the very fight that was to confirm him as the iron-man of his second career. Still, the heavyweight division is not known for skill, and here was perhaps the greatest heavyweight exponent of the pressure style ever at the weight versus perhaps the best heavyweight boxer.
Ali won the first two rounds, movement and handspeed the keys, but in third, Frazier began to rev. Clowning, shaking his head that no, he wasn’t hurt, Muhammad nevertheless found himself at Joe’s crossroads, back to the ropes and only eight minutes of fighting had elapsed. The Frazier hook landed in earnest; it was a punch Ali had somehow underestimated, a punch he would later deem “evil”, a punch that “set off bells in my head.”
“Don’t you know I’m God?” Ali demanded, ludicrously, brilliantly at the beginning of the fifth.
“Lord, you in the wrong place tonight,” Joe replied, beautifully, and for perhaps the only time in their bitter association, winning the war of words with his nemesis: “I’m kicking ass and taking names.”
Frazier perhaps did take Ali’s name, but he couldn’t quite trap him. He mocked and brutalized his foe in the sixth, the round in which Ali had claimed he would score his KO, but even he was at a loss to understand what kept his opponent alive at the end of that round. In the ninth, Ali performed what was in the context of the fight a legitimate miracle, rallying to make a war on Frazier, a war that didn’t budge the warthog that sought him with sharpened tusks, bringing upon Ali the realization that his perpetual foe was “ready to die.” This shared knowledge drove them to new heights.
Frazer summited the higher of the two. In the final round, he found some of the most savage hookery of his career, dipping, sliding, banging the body and then, almost nonchalantly, he cracked Ali on the jaw with a cannoning blow that drove all the way through, and he was on the ground looking up, legs high, head low, the tassels on his boots dancing. It was as iconic a moment as the sport has produced, although almost as admired is Ali’s easy reclaiming of his legs, his uncertain relationship with gravity set to continue.
Ali dropped the decision, and some say Frazier wept in the dressing room and called out to Ali, demanding that he crawl as he said he would if he lost. Others said that he lay in hospital upon a bed of ice, his life hanging in the balance as his tortured body courted a stroke.
Whatever the truth, he climbed no higher than he had in the ring that night; there was no higher to climb.
#1 “Oh my God he’s won the title back at thirty-two!”—Harry Carpenter
People say that Muhammad Ali was being brutalized by George Foreman in Zaire, in “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the most famous fight in history, but I don’t have Foreman winning a single round. They say that Foreman was the overwhelming favorite, and I’m sure, as champion, he was a favorite, but there were also many boxing people picking Ali, among them Ken Norton who knew more than most about both men.
And, of course, Ali’s ubiquitous head trainer Angelo Dundee picked him.
“Sure, Foreman is a killer if you stand still and let him beat you to death. But who is crazy enough to think Muhammad would do that?”
Who indeed? And yet that in essence, is what Muhammad Ali did. Can it be that Angelo really did not know what his most mercurial and unpredictable fighter had planned, and that those terrified cries of anguish (“Careful Ali, careful! Careful!”) are in earnest? Ali had told us, always, that he would dance. In truth, he knew as early as the first Liston fight that he would not be able to dance for a full fifteen rounds and trained accordingly. The first proven lie, told for his fight against Frazier made disbelievers of many; Ali could not be trusted to tango through fifteen rounds of heavyweight action. He was, in the end, just a heavyweight. Ali’s answering pathology was terrifying, impossible.
Foreman trained to pin Ali. He, too, likely knew that the man he called “a better talker than a fighter” could not dance for fifteen and that sooner or later he would feel the ropes at his back. Foreman, the bull Foreman, would then give this washed up matador both horns. So he sparred, yes, with Ali impersonator Bill McMurray and with the highly ranked Henry Clark, but two things from Foreman’s training stood out. First, what Norman Mailer called “the balletic art” of quartering the ring, cutting it off, trapping a fleet-footed boxer all the sooner. The second was altogether more disturbing, Foreman’s extended sessions on the heavy bag. Here, Big George worked on what he would do once the cornering was complete. Huge broadsides aimed for the main part at what would be Ali’s body, punches that surely, no man could possibly be expected to absorb.
The question Ali had decided to pose, then, was this: what would happen if he gave George Foreman everything he wanted without making him fight for it?
After a famous first round during which he landed the hardest punches he could get away with throwing (in the main the now infamous right hand lead), Ali, throwing fast, slashing punches all the way, backed up to the short rope near his own corner. When he escaped—could it be anything other than a frantic escape?—he moved immediately and directly to the opposite rope.
“I could have killed myself dancing against him,” Ali explained later. “I was a bit winded after doin’ it in the very first round.” Ali’s long-term tactical realization and short-term concession to his physical inferiority led to the astonishing sight of his lying on the ropes letting Foreman hit him. Most disturbing is the relationship between Foreman hitting Ali and Foreman hitting the heavy bag; in terms of form and action the two sights are near identical. What is crucial to understand, something that perhaps nobody else in the entire world understood, was that for Foreman, psychologically, this was a case of total wish fulfillment. Foreman, in the language of American philosopher William James, was able to stand by one of his selves only. In other words, he couldn’t be the stalker and the destroyer. His mission to walk Ali down was complete. He saw in front of him all he ever wanted. Now, it was time for him to embrace his more natural state.
The jab was abandoned. Defense was abandoned. Any sense of pacing was abandoned. Foreman spent the remainder of the fight trying only to knock a stationary Muhammad Ali out. For this, he cannot be faulted.
Astonishingly, Ali outfought him every step of the way. Leaning way back and across the top rope he stretched as far as his balance—a physical attribute that had not yet abandoned him—would allow. Slipping headshots thusly, he dropped his elbows to his lowest rib and tried to take the edge from the heavy-bag body-blows raining down on his kidneys, liver, gut. Ali was placed to punch throughout, and this he did, sniping, and stabbing at the monster in front of him, the man that had destroyed Frazier, the man that had destroyed Norton, the man that had destroyed his own nemeses and for me he did not lose a single round.
Ali tried to knock Foreman out either twice, or three times. In the first round, he certainly pursued him with every drop of that underrated power and although it is perhaps a reach to suggest that any hope that he had that Foreman may have fallen was little more than a forlorn wish, and that he knew that, in the fifth, he tried in earnest.
Ali was an absolute expert in reading the signals of physical distress any opponent sent. It was the source, I believe, behind his astonishing rallies in the first and third fights with Joe Frazier. He felt something we couldn’t see and he recognized that the time, if there was a time, was now. Foreman’s signals were big, snorting, and related closely to exhaustion as early as the third round, but Ali did not commit. In the fifth, he hardly fought, his large butt perched ludicrously on the second strand of the long rope as Foreman was allowed to measure before he teed off, which he did for minute upon minute. Late in the round Ali pecked him twice and Foreman’s counterpunches were nothing, they held less steam than the shots he’d thrown when he was warming up in the ring, and Ali suddenly stood bolt upright and shot out a staving straight-left and then he cracked Foreman with unanswered punches, or rather punches that were answered with a dull echo of Foreman’s feared offense and I think then Ali knew.
With forty seconds remaining in the eighth, Foreman sent another signal. As Ali held him gently, almost tenderly behind the neck and around the head, Foreman placed love-taps on his belly, punches that even a sparring partner would be ashamed to throw, and Ali read Foreman’s message loud and clear:
“I’m done. Put me out of my misery.”
When the referee separated them, Ali showed Foreman a little angle, sliding his butt along the long rope, poked out a double jab, and when the referee parted them again he took to his feet, flat, a clear signal that Foreman was too far gone to read. He threw a one-two and then a right hand over the top of the exhausted Foreman’s flailing left and all of a sudden he was the Ali of old, and he was in the ring with Terrell and Folley and Williams and describing the combinations that Ali threw would take too many words than I have to spare because when he punched like that he was fast and beautiful and the important point is this: in two terrible stages Foreman crashed to the canvas.
Racial politics of that era were probably as confusing to those that lived them as they are to us retrospectively. Here though is the defining moment of two black men who returned to Africa “in an aura of glory and splendor,” as Don King put it, to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Yes it was bankrolled by a despot and promoted by a murderer, and yes there are arguments about the count, the location, whether or not Foreman was drugged and a dozen other aspects of what was a murky promotion of a wonderful fight with a magical ending.
It was an ending only Muhammad Ali could have given us and the greatest jewel in the shining crown of the greatest heavyweight of all time.