JERRY IZENBERG’S “Once There Were Giants”: — Anyone who saw the great 2004 biopic about Ray Charles, Ray, might recall what Jamie Foxx, who won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his spot-on portrayal of the R&B legend, said in explaining Charles’ mid-1960s excursion into country music.
“It’s the stories, man,” Foxx, as Charles, said of the title character’s surprisingly effective take on an entirely different American art form than the one which initially had brought him acclaim.
Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, provides rich and engaging material for those with a keen enough eye to get to the heart of the matter, and the literary skill to express that knowledge in prose that all but leaps off the page of a book or newspaper column. Put into that context, it might be said that Jerry Izenberg’s latest treatise on the fight game, Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing, contains as many subtle hints of venerated guitar pickers Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie as of iconic sports writers A.J. Liebling and Paul Gallico. Then again, no comparison of Izenberg to anyone else is valid; like his friend, the late, great Muhammad Ali, the 86-year-old columnist emeritus for the Newark Star-Ledger is an original, a master wordsmith and observer of the human condition who can take familiar source material and wring from it small gems of fresh insight that glisten like diamonds in the noonday sun.
The premise of Izenberg’s 216-page journey into an era of big-man boxing that was and perhaps forever shall be unmatched is as straightforward as a stiff jab to the nose. It begins with an introductory chapter on mob influence that stained prize rings until the late 1950s before moving on to the figurative launch of that golden age, with Sonny Liston’s back-to-back, one-round thumpings of Floyd Patterson, and extending through Evander Holyfield’s disqualification victory over ear-gnawing Mike Tyson. Along the way readers again are treated to the best, and sometimes worst, of Liston, Cassius Clay/Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Tyson and Holyfield, with nods toward such important contributing characters as Gerry Cooney and Leon Spinks.
It was a 35-year period of sustained heavyweight glory so deep at the top end that the gifted likes of Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams and Cooney never held even a sliver of what once was deemed the most prestigious title in all of sport, but has since been severely devalued by the proliferation of sanctioning organizations only concerned with their own self-serving little realms. (Note: Izenberg mentions Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe only in passing, contending that their prime years did not fully intersect with other principal players in the golden age.)
Izenberg pulls no punches in his disdain of the convoluted mess that has made shared championships the norm, complaining of “a tsunami of alphabet-soup commissions, each using an assortment of acronyms (and) making enormous money grabs that would change boxing forever. Their names were ludicrous: World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation – none of which was global, and none of which was respected as a council, an association, or a federation. More than one of their ersatz titles often carried the suspicion that they had arrived cash-on-delivery because of the private fiefdoms and sanctioning fees those bodies fiercely guarded and collected from each title fight – or, as they might put it at the Wharton School of Finance, the more titles, the more money.”
At this point, you’re probably thinking Once There Were Giants doesn’t really contain anything that a reasonably astute fight fan doesn’t already know. But that isn’t always the case, and even in going over well-trod ground he turns phrases with the nimbleness of the Ali Shuffle.
Consider this tasty tidbit on the evolution of Frazier’s renowned left hook, which caught even me a bit off-guard seeing as how I have covered boxing in Smokin’ Joe’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia for many years and had numerous conversations with the man himself as well as with his children, Marvis Frazier and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.
“One of my dad’s jobs was to care for the pigs,” Marvis says in relation to his father’s childhood as a field laborer in his birth town of Beaufort, S.C. “They had one that was 300 pounds and Daddy used a stick to get him to move. And the pig turned on him and chased him.”
Joe, who then around 12 years old, ran, tripped over a rock and broke his left arm. There was no money for a doctor. The arm had to heal by itself and could no longer be extended anywhere near as far as the right arm. This may have been the reason Frazier had to work so much harder than most fighters to develop strength in that arm.
It would become his most powerful weapon by far, giving him what had long been known in the gyms of Philly as a Philadelphia left hook – a misnomer in his case because of its genesis. What it was, was a Beaufort-inspired, hell-raising left hook.
It was a leaping left hook from Frazier that floored Ali in the 15th and final round of what arguably is the most significant boxing event of all time, the “Fight of the Century,” which the squatty Philadelphia brawler won on a unanimous decision on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.
After the fight, Izenberg – and it says much about the respect with which he was held by those he wrote about – was invited to grab a bite with Frazier, which enabled him to bear witness to something other reporters did not get the opportunity to see.
“We went out to eat, and while we stood in front of a deli, three little kids came running up,” Jerry writes. “One of them said, `My daddy says Muhammad Ali was drugged.’
“Anger flashed in Joe Frazier’s eyes. `Go home and tell your daddy he is right. He was drugged. I drug him with a left hook.’”
Of the steady stream of limousines carrying fur-clad, jewelry-festooned men and women that pulled up in front of the Garden for Ali-Frazier I, Izenberg suggests there might have been an ulterior motive other than boxing for the beautiful people to make an appearance.
“Freddie Guinyard, a friend of Joe Louis who ran an after-hours joint in Detroit, noted my puzzlement,” Izenberg writes. “Let me explain,” he said, and he began to point at the cars. “Numbers, Detroit; Girls, L.A.; Drugs, New York City. It’s not what you might think. These people don’t give a s— about Ali. All they care about is he beat The Man (the government), which is something they’ve tried to do all their lives, and that’s cool with them.”
Of his trip to Zaire to cover the Oct. 30, 1974, “Rumble in the Jungle,” won by Ali on a shocking, eighth-round knockout of the seemingly invincible George Foreman, Izenberg finds time not only to cover the action inside the ropes, but to set that bizarre scene before and after in bold strokes.
The trip was historic on the one hand and an ordeal on the other, Jerry admitting to having a “perceived romance” inherent in traveling to “such an exotic locale to write about a sports event that, from the crudest of crumbling stadiums in Kinshasa, would be beamed to the world by what was then the most sophisticated of satellites.”
Of Zaire’s dictatorial president, Mobutu Sese Seko, Izenberg discerned not even the thinnest scintilla of actual grandeur. “The name Mobutu had given himself was President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Wa Za Banga of Zaire, which translates to `The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” (But) even that was incomplete. In addition to his `endurance and inflexible will to win,’ there was also his ability to murder, steal and maintain happy ties with the CIA. He had already been fingered by Amnesty International for the torture of political prisoners and had not hesitated to support episodes of strategic genocide in neighboring Rwanda when it serves his purpose.”
Many years after being taken down by Ali, George Foreman reaffirmed an ancient truth to Izenberg: Styles really do make fights.
“It’s simple,” Foreman said. “Styles dictate every fight. I never had trouble punching down to a shorter man. The uppercuts were the reason. I could fight Joe a hundred times and probably beat him 99. But I could fight Muhammad a hundred times and he’d probably beat me 99. Yet when Joe and Muhammad fought each other, trust me, it would have been life and death a hundred times.”
Just a couple more examples of Izenberg’s ability to cut through the bullspit with grace and clarity:
Of Las Vegas, the sunless, timeless netherworld that has become the prime landing spot for megafights: “Vegas is a place where nobody knows what time it is because the clickety-click of dice on green felt tables respects no hour. There are no clocks in the casinos and no daylight streaming into the rooms. There is no afternoon, no concept of tonight or tomorrow. A dealer on the lam from Louisiana once told me, `In this joint, it’s like you’re working on a submarine. There is only now.’”
Of Cus D’Amato, who managed Patterson and Tyson as if every waiter was trying to poison their and his food: He was “a boxing mentor who spoke in parables and wrapped himself in an impenetrable cloak of paranoia.”
Of cackling, electric-haired promoter Don King: “On the battlefield of boxing, victory often goes to the man with the tenacity of a pit bull, the patience of an inch-worm, and the track record of Caligula. And in that time and place, Don King was the unchallenged wearer of the only triple crown.”
It took me only a day and a half to consume Once There Were Giants from cover to cover, but it was time well spent.
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