They say it takes two to tango, and in no sport does that old axiom hold true more than boxing, the ultimate one-on-one confrontation. We remember the great fights, even cherish the thought of those very special occasions when the combatants are highly skilled, determined to give it their all, and more or less evenly matched.
But classic slugfests are just prettier swatches in the patchwork quilt that is the entirety of any boxer’s career. For every unforgettable slugfest, there are two or three pairings, and sometimes a lot more, that are as non-competitive as George Armstrong Custer vs. the Sioux at the Little Bighorn. But history has carved out a place of honor for the gallant but doomed Custer, and maybe cynical fight fans shouldn’t be so quick to sweep into the dust bin of memory those no-hopers who were offered up as human sacrifices to vastly superior champions.
Jan. 15 marks the 43rd anniversary of one such fight, and one that by all rights I should have witnessed from ringside. In his first title defense since outpointing Muhammad Ali in the “Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden, heavyweight king Joe Frazier took on mystery man Terry Daniels at New Orleans’ Rivergate Arena. The following afternoon, in Tulane Stadium a few miles away, Super Bowl VI would take place between the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.
Why am I still a bit sad, all these years later, that I missed watching Smokin’ Joe floor the willing but outgunned Daniels five times before referee Herman Dutrreix stepped in and waved off the massacre 1 minute, 25 seconds into Round 4? Well, part of it is that I was then, as now, a boxing guy, the son of former welterweight Jack Fernandez, and whose childhood was spent watching flickering black-and-white telecasts of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports as my dad gave his own running commentary alongside that of the inimitable Don Dunphy.
But another part of it is the fact that, as the Boy Wonder (I was all of 24 then) sports editor of the Houma Courier, a Louisiana newspaper in a town about 45 miles southwest of my hometown of New Orleans, I somehow had been accredited to cover Super Bowl VI by the nice folks at the NFL. I would be among the hundreds of credentialed media members in the chilliest (game time temperature: 39 degrees) Super Bowl played to that point, part of a near-capacity crowd of 81,000 that would watch the Cowboys dominate the Dolphins, 24-3, to an extent that nearly matched what Frazier had done the night before to Daniels.
Alas, my application to cover Frazier-Daniels – which was viewed live by 8,500 or so spectators, a sizable portion of whom likely were football fans taking a break from Bourbon Street – was denied. No reason was given for my exclusion, but it has been suggested that maybe the seating area for the press was much more limited than for Super Bowl VI, and, well, the Houma Courier and its kid reporter didn’t come equipped with the prestige granted representatives from the major metropolitan media centers.
Oh, sure, I knew Frazier was an overwhelming favorite, but I had watched Ali-Frazier I via closed-circuit at a New Orleans theater, and it disappointed me mightily that I had been denied the opportunity to see the left-hooking wrecking machine up close and personal. There was, of course, no way of my knowing that someday I would become the boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, in Smokin’ Joe’s adopted hometown, and on close enough terms with the great man and his family that I often was invited to functions that otherwise were off-limits to other media types.
Terry Daniels? He was merely The Opponent, a pale-hued, reasonably warm body imported from Texas to take his expected walloping from Frazier for a career-high purse of $35,000 (the champ was paid $350,000) and then to slink away, probably never to be heard from again.
It did sort of work out that way, but Daniels had a tale to tell, as does every ham-and-egger who is offered a dream shot at the title knowing that his vision of glory probably will dissipate into blood, pain and the realization of his own limitations. But, hey, 18 years after Frazier-Daniels, a 42-1 longshot named James “Buster” Douglas went to Tokyo, took down the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson and again reminded everyone that lottery tickets sometimes are cashed.
At 6-foot-1, 191½ pounds and with a deceptively impressive record of 29-4-1 that included 25 victories inside the distance, Daniels, might not have been a complete fraud. But, in retrospect, he can now be described as a precursor to Peter McNeeley, who served as Mike Tyson’s first designated victim after Tyson had served three-plus years in prison on a rape conviction.
In an interview a few days before he was to swap punches with Frazier, Daniels spoke boldly of his intention to shock the world. Asked if he possessed the wherewithal to douse Smokin’ Joe’s fistic inferno, Daniels said, “I don’t think I do. I know I do. I feel confident. I feel I’ve done everything I can do to get ready for this fight. I know I’m ready. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. I feel strong, I feel good.”
Perhaps Daniels bought into his own bravado, or maybe he was just whistling past the graveyard. But he was going to be fighting for the title and, well, anything can happen in the ring, right? In any case he was going to come away with the kind of purse he never could have gotten fighting other semi-anonymities on the far fringes of actual contention. Sometimes all it takes for a guy like Daniels to float into wider public consciousness is to be in the right place at the right time, and New Orleans, on Jan. 15, 1972, was definitely the right place, and not just because of the Super Bowl that would be played the following day.
Much was made of the fact that Frazier-Daniels was to be the first heavyweight championship fight to be held in the Big Easy since reigning champion John L. Sullivan was stopped in 21 rounds by “Gentleman” Jim Corbett at the Olympic Club on Sept. 7, 1892, the first title fight under the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Forget Buster Douglas, whom nobody had heard of at that point (and why should they have? Buster was still in grade school); could Daniels, hyped by his publicity-savvy manager, Doug Lord, as a “Great White Hope,” replicate what Corbett had done to the legendary John L. almost 80 years earlier?
“I told the fight promoters I’ve got a white kid from Dallas, he’s friends with the Cowboys, and everyone knows the Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl in New Orleans,” Lord said. “They loved it. They bought it. For us, it was a fantasy world.”
Daniels had his own connection to football, having gone to SMU to play that sport as well as baseball, until a knee injury crushed those ambitions and steered him into boxing. Although Daniels might not have been anybody’s idea of the real deal, he wangled his dream shot at Frazier with a third-round stoppage of Ted Gullick, who was rated No. 9 in the world and was coming off a 10-round, majority-decision loss to a once-very legitimate contender, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams.
Truth be told, maybe Daniels wasn’t in as futile a situation as universally accepted. Although Frazier had temporarily displaced Ali as the king of boxing, he was enjoying himself, perhaps a bit too much, in the afterglow of his electrifying victory in the Garden. Three months after his leaping left hook in the 15th round sent Ali crashing to the canvas, and served as an exclamation point to his unanimous-decision victory, Smokin’ Joe was in the south of France, entertaining miniscule European audiences with his musical group, the Knockouts. The tour mercifully ended when the Knockouts – who were hardly the second coming of the Temptations or the Four Tops – drew 50 paying patrons for one concert, obliging their chastened lead singer to get back to his real job.
In December 1971, Frazier was hunkered down in the dark and frigid (11 degrees below zero) predawn hours at his training camp at the Concord Hotel, in Kiamesha, N.Y., getting ready to go out and do roadwork with a sparring partner, Ken Norton, who would go on to make some noise in his own right. But try as he might, Frazier couldn’t quite summon the energy he had marshaled in his preparations for the first Ali bout, when so much more was at stake. Terry Daniels clearly did not inspire the 5-foot-11 champion to push himself into peak condition, and it showed on fight night when he stepped inside the ropes at a then-career-high 215½ pounds.
Even though Frazier kept bouncing Daniels off the floor as if he were a basketball, this version of Smokin’ Joe was set at a comparatively low flame. Former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres was even moved to observe, “I, for one, think that Joe didn’t look at all like that indestructible machine. My conclusion is that Frazier has lost interest in the sport of flat noses. He is ready to retire at any time. And now is that time.”
Torres wasn’t spot-on in his assessment – the best of Joe Frazier emerged one more time, in the unforgettable “Thrilla in Manila” against Ali on Oct. 1, 1975, which ended with trainer Eddie Futch refusing to allow the half-blinded Frazier to come out for the 15th round – but the unstoppable force of nature that blew through Bob Foster, Jimmy Ellis and Buster Mathis like a Category 5 hurricane was a receding shadow of his former might. His final successful defense came on May 25, 1972, in Omaha, Neb., against Ron Stander, a Midwestern version of Terry Daniels. The “Council Bluffs Butcher” lasted four rounds, but wasn’t allowed to come out for a fifth by a ring physician who disapproved of the multiple cuts on his swollen face, which would require 17 stitches to close.
It should be noted, however, that both Daniels and Stander – whose wife at the time was so dismissive of her husband’s chances that she noted “you don’t take a Volkswagen into the Indy 500 unless you know a hell of a shortcut” – stung the champ with jolting punches, which perhaps presaged Smokin’ Joe’s next, far less successful defense, in which he was dropped six times by George Foreman in losing on a second-round TKO on Jan. 22, 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica. There is a good chance Foreman would have won anyway, but Big George was seated at ringside for Frazier-Daniels and maybe he saw something he believed would be useful whenever he and Frazier got around to rumbling.
I had hoped to contact Daniels for this story, but my inquiries drew blanks. But he once admitted he was so impressed by Frazier, and the aura of impending violence the Philadelphian wore like a comfortable robe, that “I felt like shaking his hand when he stepped in (the ring).” It is a familiar feeling among standard-issue fighters who have the privilege of being battered by the very best; Stander kept a small, autographed and laminated photo of Frazier in his wallet, and Seamus McDonagh, who went on to run a shoeshine stand in San Francisco, handed interested customers photos of himself landing a hard right hand to the jaw of future heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
What we do know of Terry Daniels is this: Unlike the Miami Dolphins, who were thrashed so soundly by the Cowboys in Supe VI but came back to go 17-0 and win the Super Bowl the following season, there would be no second chance at redemption for a fighter whose first real shot at the big time would also be his last. Daniels, who would now be 68, finished his career with a 35-30-1 record that includes 28 KO wins, but also 13 losses inside the distance. After the pummeling he took from Frazier, he lost his next five fights, and 18 if his final 20.
There would be good moments for Daniels, too. He married twice and helped raise three sons, but he later was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, which some have called “pugilist Parkinson’s.” It is the sort of sad closing chapter that often is written about fighters who linger too long at the fair, and there can be no denying that destiny sometimes deals the same unhappy cards to the great and the mediocre.
So celebrate the best of Joe Frazier and the Ali who threw down with, among others, Sonny Liston, Foreman, Norton and so many other top-tier opponents. But remember, too, Daniels and Stander, as well as such passers-by as Dave Zygiewicz and Manuel Ramos (other Frazier title foes when he was the New York State Athletic Commission “world” champion) and Ali’s non-taxing conquests of Juergen Blin, Rudi Lubbers, Jean-Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn.
They all had a brief moment in time when they were allowed to bask in the reflected glory of actual ring royalty. It’s not quite heaven, but it’s closer than most fighters ever get.