No one expects fights to be held on river barges as sometimes happened in John L. Sullivan’s day. A little imagination, however, in selecting venues would be nice and probably good for boxing. Alas, the money trail always seems to lead to hotel casinos.
Muhammad Ali took boxing writers to equatorial Africa. OK, so that would be a reach for today’s heavyweights. Who in equatorial Africa would want to see them?
Promoter Don King put on shows on an aircraft carrier and behind prison bars. Even Roy Jones Jr., who always seemed to be fighting in a Connecticut bingo hall, performed in the Radio City Music Hall, and some heavyweights, who would have had trouble doing the elephant walk, strutted their stuff in Roseland dancehall.
The Rumble in the Jungle
Muhammad Ali’s upset of George Foreman in the early morning hours on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo and now the Congo, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once was enough. I have always said I would not even fly over the country again because I might crash and live.
It was part circus, part twilight zone. There were dancers in tribal costumes or pre-fight entertainment and soldiers with automatic weapons at ringside for security at the Twentieth of May Stadium in the capitol city. The stars, of course, were Ali and Foreman. In important supporting roles were promoter Don King and Zaire president Mobutu Sese Seko. Also in the cast were the characters in the fighters’ camps and Mandugu Bula and Tshimpupu wa Tshimpupu.
I first met Bula, counselor to Mobutu, during a media trip to Ali’s training camp at Deer Lake, Pa. Someone asked him if he was upset about “The Rumble In The Jungle” slogan or by Ali saying Howard Cosell, a sportscaster, was going to be boiled in oil. (By the way, Cosell did not attend the fight). “No,” Bula replied. “You must remember, Mr. Ali is an American, not an African.”
Tshimpupu, president of the African Sports Union, was in charge of handling the media and he, unintentionally, provided much-needed comic relief. To any and all questions about any problem, Tshimpupu’s answer always was, “No problem.” He also walked around wearing a fur hat.
The fight originally was scheduled for September 25, but it was postponed when Foreman suffered a cut over his right eye while sparring. During our nine day stay for the fight in October, each member of the media at N’Sele, the presidential compound where Ali resided and trained, had his own two-room bungalow with a shower and a refrigerator for Simba beer. Ali, members of his group and publicists Murray and Bobby Goodman stayed in villas facing the Zaire River. We ate at a large dining hall, and monkey usually was available. It does not taste like chicken.
Ali took over N’Sele, and by the time the fight arrived people who worked there often were heard chanting, “Ali, bomaye! (Ali, kill him).”
The weigh-in, like almost every weigh-in for an Ali fight, was chaotic. The ring at the stadium was jammed with people, and there was a moment of panic when Foreman lost his pet German shepherd in the mass of humanity.
Everything was fine when I opened a phone line to The Associated Press office in New York shortly before the start of the fight at about 4 a.m. (about 10 p.m. EST). Once the fight started, however, I could not hear anybody on the other end because of the roar of some 50,000 fans. Finally, after dictating a round-by-round and most of my lead, I heard a voice. Talk about relief. If I had been the late Jerry Lisker, a New York writer, I would have cried. Lisker opened a phone line, he thought to New York, and asked, “Can you hear me?” The answer was yes, but when Lisker looked up he saw a telephone technician on the other side of the ring waving to him. He did not get through to New York.
The fight, of course, became legendary. While Ali’s corner pleaded for him to stay of the ropes, Ali quickly realized that being there gave him his best opportunity to defuse Foreman’s power with what became known as the rope-a-dope. By the time Ali, a 5-1 underdog, became champion again with an eighth-round knockout, Foreman had punched himself to the point of exhaustion.
Not long after the fight ended, it rained so hard that there were seven inches of water in the AP photo darkroom. By the time I got back to N’Sele, Ali was holding forth on the front lawn of his villa. Later that morning I heard a maid singing to herself: “Ali, bomaye.”
Ali got me to two morning fights in 1975 that started at the more reasonable time of about 10 o’clock locally. On July 1, he outpointed Joe Bugner over 15 tedious rounds outdoors at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On Oct. 1, he stopped Joe Frazier after 14 rounds in the Thrilla’ in Manila that lived up to its name before an indoor crowd of about 25,000.
Off we go into . . .
Promoter Don King turned to a naval officer with a chest full of ribbons and introduced to the media “the man who made this possible – the common-door.” The commodore smiled.
On Jan. 16, 1977, King launched his ill-fated U.S. Boxing Championships on ABC-TV on the flight deck of the USS Lexington docked at Pensacola, Fla. It was a cold Sunday afternoon, and the promoter wore an ankle-length fur coat.
In the main event on a card of six scheduled eight-round bouts, Larry Holmes scored a decision over Tom Prater. It was the future heavyweight champion’s 23rd fight and his first since he injured a hand in outpointing Roy Williams 8½ months earlier.
Covering the show for Newsday was the late Bob Waters, who was in the Marine air force in World War II, and who for a time had been stationed at Pensacola. Waters did some boxing, and for a Marine vs. Navy boxing competition he drew as an opponent a sailor named Tony Zale, who just happened to be the middleweight champion of the world.
As Waters told it, Zale was taking it easy when near the end of the first round he hit Zale with what he called a snappy left hook. “You ****** I’m going to kill you,” Waters said Zale told him. The bell rang and Waters told a cornerman to cut off his gloves. When asked why, Waters said he replied, “He said he is going to kill me, and I believe him.” It was announced that Sergeant Waters has injured an ankle and could not continue.
It was a homecoming for Don King when the second U.S. Boxing Championships show was held on Sunday. March 6, 1977, at the Marion (Ohio) Correctional Facility. Former inmate 125734 was back where he had served four years for manslaughter.
“King’s back. We told you so,” read on sign held by one of the about 1,300 inmates attending the show. Another sign welcomed ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell: “Howard, you got in. Will you get out?”
“This looks like an easy place to break out of,” I said to King. “It wasn’t,” he replied. King drew cheers when he told the captive audience, “I look around and see many familiar faces. I am one of you . . . . I am happy and proud to be able to bring back some entertainment.”
There were two heavyweight fights on the card. In one of them, Michael “Dynamite” Dokes stopped fat Charlie “Big Tuna” Jordan in the third round of a scheduled four-round fiasco. “This fight belongs here,” said Vic Ziegel, then of the New York Post.
After three passive rounds in the other heavyweight bout between Kevin Isaac and Stan Ward, in which Ward won and eight-round decision, a fan shouted, “Come on. I only got 20 years.”
Five months earlier when Muhammad Ali had successfully outpointed Ken Norton in a title defense at Yankee Stadium, fans had been mugged by hooligans who got into the ballpark because of a New York City police strike. It made me think that not only was the security at Marion much better than that in Yankee Stadium, but that there also was better class of people
After one more show, on Feb. 15, the U.S. Boxing Championships were dropped by ABC because of phony records and charges of kickbacks. The network committed $2 million for 1977 in hopes that in future years the made-for-television series would gain in prestige.
The last show was at U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. I was not there and so I missed heavyweight Scott LeDoux, still in the ring after losing a controversial decision loss to Johnny Bordeaux, accidentally kick askew the toupee of Cosell, who was standing below LeDoux.
There I was on stage before a packed house in the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Of course, I was sitting down surrounded by fellow scribes and noticed by almost no one.
The occasion was the first live boxing card in the famed show palace on Jan. 15, 2000, and most of some 6,000 in attendance had to be there for that reason. History in the making, not boxing, was the main draw.
Featured was Roy Jones Jr.’s defense of the undisputed light heavyweight title against David Telesco, and the setting was just the mustard hot dog Jones craved. While Telesco waited in the ring, Whitney Houston sang “God Bless America,” a version that seemed long enough to have gotten in a four-round bout. Jones, decked out like a Las Vegas lounge act, then did some steps with the Rockettes before being led into ring by two rappers.
Now to watch the Rockettes doing their high, long-legged synchronized kicks is fun, but to watch them do the routine for 36 minutes might become a bit tedious. That’s sums up the fight. Each of the 12 rounds was the same, with Jones dancing in and out and around Telesco and peppering him at will. Each of the three judges gave Jones every round.
There have been numerous fights at the Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan in New York City. Maybe a guy is dancing with another guy’s girlfriend or wife and exception is taken. Or maybe alcohol fuels an argument. That is why there are bouncers.
But there never was a live boxing match in historic dance hall until Dec. 8, 1998. What I remember is that entire six-bout card was marked by plodding, not dancing, and that I got a pounding headache from the mind-numbing music that blared through the packed hall before the show, between fights, and even between rounds.
By the way, in 10-round heavyweight co-features Al Cole and Kirk Johnson fought a draw and Jesse Ferguson won a split decision over Obed Sullivan..