Last Great Heavyweight Rivalry, Part IV: From Manila To The Bronx Via Nassau
(Editor's Note: Last month TSS columnist George Kimball was invited to participate, along with two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman and Dr. Robert Rodriguez, in a Boxing Symposium at the University of Kansas. Entitled "The Last Great Heavyweight Rivalry," Kimball's presentation at the KU event anecdotally compared the 1970s heavyweight nexus of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton with that of the middleweight rivalry celebrated in his acclaimed book FOUR KINGS: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing. That lecture formed the basis for the special TSS series which concludes with this installment.)
PART IV: FROM MANILA TO THE BRONX VIA NASSAU
(Coliseum, that is)
Somehow “It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorillla in Honolulu” just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.
In April of 1975, just a few weeks before Ali’s scheduled defense against Ron Lyle, Don King summoned the press for a breath-taking announcement. The long-awaited rubber match between Ali and Frazier would take place that September, opening a new, 50,000 seat stadium in Honolulu -- and that he himself would be the promoter of the extravaganza.
Although most reporters still regarded King as a self-promoting blowhard, he had retained some bona fides for his part in arranging the extravaganza in Zaire. King went on to reveal his plans for Ali to make an interim defense, against England’s Joe Bugner, in Malaysia that June, and if he’d stopped right there he’d probably have had his captive audience eating out of his hands. Instead, King went on to tell the press that day that, having assembled a consortium of Middle-eastern businessmen as backers, he was deeply involved in negotiations to purchase Madison Square Garden.
The notion that the Mecca of Boxing would be controlled from, well, Mecca, and that a huckstering ex-con would be its front man was difficult to swallow. Michael Burke, then the president of MSG, found it extremely amusing, but like everyone else associated with the Garden, knew of no negotiations to buy a building that was not for sale in any case. (Burke did, on the other hand -- with tongue firmly in cheek -- wish King all the luck in the world with his venture in Hawaii.)
One phone call to Honolulu similarly established that there was no deal to stage a fight there, either. Mackay Yanagisawa, the manager of the as-yet unnamed Aloha Stadium, said that was by no means certain that the new facility would even be completed by September. (Although the Hawaii option faded from view, the cover of the August 1975 issue of The Ring was a facsimile poster for Ali-Frazier III -- at Nasser Stadium in Cairo, Egypt.)
One of King’s seemingly fanciful boasts did come to pass when on June 30 of that year Ali defended against Bugner in Kuala Lumpur and won a unanimous decision, and another proved partially true. It didn’t take place in Hawaii and it didn’t take place in Egypt, but before the summer was out King had entered into an alliance with yet another Third World dictator. With Ferdinand Marcos assuming the role Mobutu had played in Zaire, and for pretty much the same reasons, a deal was struck for Ali and Frazier to consummate their trilogy in the capital city of the Republic of the Philippines.
The buildup to the October 1975 fight was dominated by two subtexts, both of which would have enduring consequences. One was Frazier’s reaction to Ali’s constant needling. If Smokin’ Joe had been ready to come to blows over being called “ignorant” before Ali-Frazier II, we can only imagine how he felt about being characterized as a gorilla at every turn in the buildup to this one. It was classic Ali gamesmanship, and he flung the term around so incessantly that it found its way into local English-language stories whose authors assumed it to be Joe’s adopted Nom de Ring. Thirty-five years later we can only speculate how the entire future of the Ali-Frazier relationship might have been affected had their third meeting taken place in a city that didn’t lend itself to such an easy rhyme.
The other pre-fight contretemps came because Ali’s traveling party included the lovely Veronica Porche. As a pre-med student at USC, the aspiring actress had met Ali in Zaire after winning a contest to become one for four “poster girls” for the Rumble in the Jungle, and had regularly been seen in the champion’s company over the intervening year. Since the American sporting press generally turned a blind eye to Ali’s womanizing the relationship had not been widely publicized, but it had been so brazenly conducted that Belinda Ali could hardly have been unaware of it, but she had apparently determined to keep her counsel for the sake of her family rather than be publicly embarrassed.
All of that changed when Veronica accompanied Ali to an official function at the presidential palace. Ms. Porche’s presence might have been innocent enough (she probably just wanted to compare shoe collections with Imelda Marcos), but in the course of the state visit, Ferdinand Marcos introduced Veronica as “Mrs. Ali.” Ali himself certainly had the opportunity to correct him, but when he did not, stories describing her as his “wife” were circulated all around the world. A steaming Belinda Ali was shortly on a flight to Manila, and after a noisy and unpleasant confrontation at the champion’s hotel, departed again.
It was the end of Ali’s second marriage. He would marry Veronica Porche in 1977, a union which produced two daughters -- Hana Ali, who would write The Soul of a Butterfly, and Laila Ali, who would accumulate a 24-0 record as a professional boxer.
The turmoil surrounding Ali’s personal life so dominated the run-up to the Manila fight that many assumed it would prove a distraction; even Frazier joked about it. When he encountered Tom Cushman he indicated the lady next to him and said, “I’d like you to meet my girlfriend. Florence is also my wife.”
The bout was held outside Manila, at the Araneta Stadium in Quezon City. Television was once again calling the tune, and it commenced at 10:45 in the morning, Philippines time. Officially, Ali (224 1/2) and Frazier (215) were significantly heavier than they had been for the earlier two meetings; there’s no telling how much they weighed at fight time since the weigh-in was conducted five days beforehand. There were 28,000 eyewitnesses, including the Marcoses. The referee, a little-known Filipino named Carlos Padilla, would capitalize on the exposure he received in the Thrilla by moving to Las Vegas soon afterward, and by 1975 was working high-profile bouts in his adopted hometown.
There were three distinct phases to the Thrilla in Manila. Ali dominated the first act, outboxing Frazier while he peppered him with long-range jabs and combinations to the head, simultaneously negating Joe’s favored weapon as he grabbed him behind the neck before he could unload with the hook.
Act II, comprising the middle rounds, went to Frazier almost by default once Ali wearied and stopped punching. Joe had opened the sixth by landing three solid hooks to the jaw, any one of which, in his own estimate, “could have knocked down a building.”
As he took one of them, Ali supposedly said to Joe, “And they told me you was all washed up,” to which Frazier replied, “they lied to you, didn’t they?”
At this point Ali once again retreated to his refuge on the ropes, but if the Rope-a-Dope had been an inspired tactic in the Foreman fight, it was all wrong for fighting Joe Frazier, who was not only much better conditioned, but seemed to delight in the opportunity to punish his despised rival without meeting serious resistance. Ali appeared ready to quit after both the tenth and eleventh, but Dundee was able to haul him off his stool and force him back into the ring.
After eleven rounds in the hot, late-morning sun, both men seemed exhausted, but Ali summoned a second wind that saw him take the fight to Frazier. By now Frazier’s eyes were rapidly closing, and he occasionally looked like Mr. Magoo in the ring, turning the wrong way in his confusion. “He can’t see you!” Dundee shouted to Ali from the corner.
Ali appeared to stagger his foe several times in the 12th, and in the 13th he unloaded a punch with such ferocity that Joe’s mouthpiece threatened to go into orbit. The mouthpiece, which had landed in the audience, was not replaced until the end of the round, and after 13 Frazier’s mouth had accumulated several new lacerations. By the 14th Ali’s punches had completely closed Frazier’s left eye; the right one wasn’t much better. The scorecards would later confirm that Ali’s lead at this point was virtually insurmountable -- he was up 66-60 on Padilla’s, 67-62 and 66-62 on those of the two judges. In other words, Frazier’s only hope lay in a knockout of a target he couldn’t even see, much less hit.
When the bell sounded for the final round, Frazier could be heard pleading with Eddie Futch, saying “I want him, Boss!”, but the trainer held Frazier down, saying, “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today,” as he motioned to Padilla that his man had had enough.
Ali could have been speaking for both of them when he pronounced the experience “the closest thing to dying I know of.”
For all rancor that had passed between the two, Ali said afterward, “If God ever calls me to a Holy War, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”
* * *
Ali had followed the Thrilla in Manila by making three title defenses (against Jean-Pierre Coopman, Jimmy Young, and RIchard Dunn) in the first five months of 1976. Frazier didn’t fight again until the next June, when he was matched against Foreman at before just over 10,000 at the Nassau Coliseum in what may well have been the least-memorable of any of the ten bouts between the members of the quartet. The meeting of the two former champions was even overshadowed by Ali’s “fight” against the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo three nights later.
(Trivia Question here: Who was the last opponent to have Ali on the floor? A: Inoki.)
The Long Island fight was promoted by an odd coupling of Jerry Perenchio, the Hollywood guy who had staged Frazier-Ali I, and Caesars Palace. Foreman had sent Sadler, Saddler, and Moore packing after the debacle in Zaire, and while he would team up with Hall of Fame trainer Gil Clancy later that year, Charlie Shipes and Howie Albert were in charge of the Foreman corner.
Frazier was actually the bigger of the two for this one, at 224 1/1 outweighing Foreman by half a pound. A boxing apothegm holds that people round don’t die square, but Joe attempted a complete makeover for this bout: He had shaved his head, could be seen woofing and jabbering away during the referee’s instructions, and had even jettisoned the boxing style with which he had been identified throughout his career in favor of a bobbing, weaving,and sometimes even dancing approach.
Foreman (“I was under the impression Frazier could only fight one way”) admitted that he was surprised to find himself facing this strange new opponent, but while what Eddie Futch termed “a change in tactics” made Frazier marginally more elusive and difficult to hit, his most feared weapons were also left without a launching pad.
Foreman had dominated each of the four completed rounds, and the more punishment Frazier took, the more he lapsed back into the Frazier of old. In the final minute of the fifth Foreman crushed Frazier with a short right. Joe stopped moving and provided a stationary target as Foreman followed that by using Frazier’s head for a speed bag, and when Foreman landed a sweeping left hook it knocked Frazier off his feet; all four limbs flailed simultaneously as he sailed sideways across the ring.
Frazier bounced up, but then delivered himself straight back into the fire. When Foreman put him down with a left uppercut, it was looking like Round One in Jamaica revisited. Frazier made it up at seven, but Harold Valen’s decision was made for him when Futch came up the steps and raced along the apron, imploring the referee to stop it.
Foreman was encouraged enough by his own performance that he spoke of being ready to challenge for the title again, but he was solidly outpointed by Young in Puerto Rico and would hang up his gloves for the next ten years. Frazier formally retired immediately after the Nassau fight, but five years later came back to meet Jumbo Cummings in Chicago, and was probably lucky to escape with a draw. Smokin‘ Joe had been 29-0 when he stepped into the ring against Foreman. In his last eight bouts he was 3-4-1.
* * *
The third match in the trilogy between Ali and Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976 rang down the curtain on the ten-fight series. As had been the case with its two predecessors, there wasn't much to separate Ali and Norton in this one, either. No one could have known it at the time, but while the House that Ruth Built would endure for another three and a half decades, Ali-Norton III would be the last boxing event ever to take place there.
As fate would have it, the bout was scheduled in the midst of a job action by the NYPD, and the only visible police presence inside or outside the stadium were those walking picket lines, and chaos reigned. Pickpockets and small-time hoods operated with virtual impunity; The Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Red Smith wondered the next morning what the fellow who stole his wallet would buy with his Brooks Brothers charge card -- and several scribes on their way through the press gate had their tickets ripped right out of their hands by brazen thieves despite the presence of picketing cops just a few feet away.
And on this night the robbery was by no means the exclusive province of the purse-snatchers. In several otherwise close rounds Ali staged showy flurries just before the bell in the hope that that was what the judges would remember, and he appears to have gauged their response accurately. Although their third fight produced the only unanimous decision of the Ali-Norton trilogy, the bout was in many respects even closer than the two split decisions had been: Mercante, the referee, had Ali up 8-6 with a round even, while Harold Lederman and Barney Smith both scored it 8-7. Switching just one round (and there were many extremely close ones) on the judges’ cards would have tilted the decision to Norton.
At most of Ali’s bouts for the previous decade he had enjoyed the support of the crowd, but the audience seemed almost divided in its loyalties. Given the pervasive atmosphere of danger hanging over the ballpark that night, it occurred to me that ringside probably wasn't going to be a great place to be sitting when the verdict was read; I'd already began to ease my way toward safety as the 15th round played out.
As I quickly made my way to the home team dugout along the first base line, where a tunnel offered the best means of escape, the angry mob was already laying siege to the ring. Behind me I could hear the recitation of the scorecards periodically interrupted by the splintering of wood as they surged forward, climbing across the makeshift plywood tabletops that had been installed in the ringside press section.
In lieu of credentials, the working press had been issued red, white, and blue baseball caps bearing the fight logo, presumably to make us more readily identifiable to the skeleton crew working security that night, and when I reached the tunnel the preoccupied guard waved me on through, simultaneously denying access to a squeaky-voiced fellow wearing a suit, but lacking the requisite baseball cap.
"But you've got to let me through," I heard him pleading as he peered nervously over his shoulder. “I’m one of the judges.”
I turned to the the guard, and pointed back toward the ring, where utter chaos now reigned.
"I think you'd better let him get out of here. Now," I said. The security man relented, and the judge followed me through the tunnel to safety.
And that was how I met Harold Lederman.
* * *
Although their shared rivalry in the ring would end with the debacle at Yankee Stadium, the boxing world hadn't seen the last of the four.
Ali lost and regained the heavyweight championship in fights against Leon Spinks in 1978. That his once remarkable skills were deteriorating was evident when he fought twice in the 1980s, and lost both times. A year after he was battered into submission by Larry Holmes in their 1980 fight at Caesars Palace, he traveled to the Bahamas and in a ring erected atop a dusty softball diamond outside Nassau, lost a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick. Because the fight's amateurish promoters had failed to provide a regulation bell, the end of Ali's career was signaled by the clapping of a Bahamian cowbell.
More universally beloved today than at any point in his fistic career, Ali, his hands trembling as the result of the Parkinson's that had claimed his body, poignantly climbed the stairs to ignite the Olympic torch to begin the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Knocked out by Gerry Cooney in less than a round in his final fight, Ken Norton's post-boxing career was dramatically altered by a 1986 automobile accident that left him in a coma for three years.
Neither did Joe Frazier ease gracefully into old age. More than five years after losing what seemed to have been his final fight against Foreman, he re-emerged to participate in an embarrassing sham of a fight in which he was awarded a draw against the portly Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings. Frazier's obsession with Ali has hardened into a bitter animus that does not serve him well. Frazier sometimes sounds as if he's claiming credit for Ali's Parkinson's, which he sneeringly describes as "Joe Frazieritis" and "left hook-itis."
After watching his old rival light the Olympic cauldron that night in Atlanta, Smokin' Joe told Bill Nack, "It would have been a good thing if he'd lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance I would have pushed him in myself."
If Ali, Frazier, and Norton had each overstayed his welcome in the fight game, that Foreman had not did not become apparent until 1986, when, following a hiatus of ten years, he returned to the heavyweight stage for a second career that was in many respects more remarkable than its predecessor.
The menacing figure that had intimidated reporters and opponents alike had disappeared, replaced by the roly-poly "Punching Preacher" who claimed that he trained on cheeseburgers. Foreman had initially returned because his Houston Youth Center was low on funds, but as the exercise continued well into his forties, money was the least of his worries, as the comeback led to roles as a television pitchman for everything from fast-food and auto-repair chains to the George Foreman Grill, which earned him several hundred million dollars.
When he was accused of hand-picking opponents, he would smile and reply, "They're only saying that because it's true," but for the most part Foreman was not seeking out soft touches, but opponents who were stylistically suited to his particular talents.
In his 40s Foreman could punch as effectively as he had in his 20s. The one thing he could not do was chase an opponent all over the ring, so his preference was to take on opponents who, it could reasonably be inferred, would actually try to fight him. But guys who had never taken a backward step in their lives abruptly turned into acrobats and ballet dancers when placed in the ring with Foreman.
Despite losses to Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison, on November 5, 1994 Foreman found himself the challenger to 26 year-old Michael Moorer, an undefeated southpaw from Pennsylvania who that April had defeated Holyfield to win the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles.
I’d just checked into the hotel, and hadn’t even visited my room yet when I ran into Foreman. We chatted for a few minutes, and then I told him I had gone on record in my newspaper picking him to win. Big George seemed to think that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard, and next thing I knew he was laughing so hard he wound up flat on his back, rolling around on the carpet. It wasn’t that he didn’t think he could win himself; he was merely suspicious of whatever thought process I might have employed to arrive at that conclusion.
“You’re not the first one,” he explained. He’d finally stopped laughing but the tears were still coming down his cheeks. “A bunch of you old guys are picking me. Everybody wants to roll back the clock.”
For ten rounds against Moorer it looked as if the clock had caught up with George. The seat next to me was vacant, and seemingly every round either Mort Sharnik or Bill Caplan would slide into it, watch for a few minutes, and ask how I had it scored. My recollection is that I up until then I hadn’t given Foreman a round.
Foreman’s face, as it had in the Holyfield fight, had accumulated a ghastly collection of lumps, and both eyes had been reduced to narrow slits, as if he were wearing some particularly gruesome relic left over from Halloween. The younger man had simply been too quick for him. In Teddy Atlas’ game plan Moorer was able to get in, land a couple of quick punches, and get out before Foreman could even set up behind his jab. And the boxer George Foreman had become at 45 could still pulverize you with his right, but he needed to be able to land the jab to do it.
Then in the ninth round the voice next to me was the first to take note of the almost imperceptible shift in the action. Because Moorer was not being hit by any clean shots, most people, including the television announcers, didn’t even notice, but while he was still unable to get to Moorer with the full force of his punches, the champion had slowed just enough that Foreman was for the first time all night able to jab -- and each jab was the first half of a one-to combo.
“That’s it, George. That’s it,” the barely audible voice to my left. “You’ve got him now.”
And if you’ll watch the tape carefully now the shift in momentum is retrospectively clear. Even though Moorer was blocking everything Foreman threw with his gloves, he was still feeling the impact, because each time Foreman hit Moorer’s gloves with that thumping left-right combination, Moorer’s gloves hit Moorer -- sometimes hard enough to snap his head back.
By the time Caplan arrived in the tenth he was also beaming at what to him loomed a foregone conclusion. To the crowd, and to much of the ringside press section, it might not have been clear that Foreman had just taken over the fight, but he had.
There was more of the same in the tenth. Moorer, winded, could no longer get in quickly enough and still keep himself out of harm’s way, so he was no longer an offensive threat. He had all he could to do keep his hands up to ward off the bombs Foreman was throwing his way, but he was paying a price for that as he continued to absorb the punches second-hand.
The ending came swiftly. Foreman threw another left-right, and this time managed to split Moorer’s gloves to land the jab, and came right around them with the right that immediately followed. A look of surprise came over Moorer’s face, and his gloves dropped just enough for Big George to find the opening. He cracked Moorer with another jab and came right up the middle with a right hand, and the next thing anybody saw was Michael Moorer, stretched out on the canvas while Joe Cortez counted over him.
More than twenty years after losing his title in one of the more improbable upsets in heavyweight annals, George Foreman had at 45 done what many considered impossible, but for all the drama that accompanied that emotional moment, when I look back on it 16 years later, as I often do, the knockout punch isn’t what springs to mind.
* * *
Hours later, I’d filed my story for the paper, but as exhausting as the evening had been, sleep wasn’t going to come easily on a night like this. Having decided to go down to the casino to unwind, I had to walk the length of a football field before I located a $25 table. (On fight nights in Vegas, a game with a $25 minimum is considered a small stakes game.)
I’d been there for 15 or 20 minutes when, far down at the other end of the hangar-like casino I heard the noise commence. At first it sounded as if a freight train were coming through the building, and the din steadily picked up momentum until it became a rolling roar. It was happening so far away that at first it was difficult to see what all the commotion was about, but it gradually came into focus: George Foreman, accompanied by a couple of his sons, were headed for the MGM exit out on the Strip, and to get there they had to walk a couple hundred yards along a carpeted walkway that bisected the floor-level casino.
And has he and his party passed by, every game in the joint was briefly suspended. Gamblers stopped gambling and leapt to their feet to join in the deafening applause as Foreman passed by. Dealers stopped dealing, croupiers stopped raking, and they and the pit bosses and the cocktail waitresses and everyone else committed themselves to the the joyous task of saluting Foreman.
When George and his party drew abreast of my table I wasn’t even sure he saw me, but I gave him a quick thumbs up anyway. Only then did I pause to even think about it. Back east it was almost three in the morning. In Vegas it was drawing close to midnight. Where was Foreman going at this hour?
Almost as soon as I asked myself the question, the answer became apparent: He was headed for the airport.
Two hours earlier he had become the oldest man in history ever to win the heavyweight title, but right now George Foreman was on his way to catch the red-eye back to Houston. He still had to preach in the morning.