Authors: Mark Kram
The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
For Mark, Tracey, Kerry, Raymond, Robert,
and Alix, my children—And my wife, Rene
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
“With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.”
e went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men,” Muhammad Ali once told me. He was standing outside a South Carolina hospital, well into his forties by this point and years removed from that unspeakably hot tropical morning in Manila in 1975. Narrowly, he had beaten Joe Frazier that day in the final act of their heroic trilogy, and yet Ali would look back on it in years to come with a certain uneasiness, only too aware that it signaled what should have been the end of his career. The choice that stood before him at that juncture was a clear one: get out in one piece, or go on in a sport that is unforgiving to old men, especially those with too much pride, heart, and unexamined confidence for their own well-being. Had he bolted the gym door following Manila (as I was certain he was ready to do after eleven years of covering him for
), the denouement might well have been different.
The major thrust of this book is story, not biography; it is a portrayal of what each man was and is now. It is the tale of two men,
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, whose early close friendship is destroyed as their rivalry becomes steeped in ugliness played out dramatically on one of the largest stages in the history of sports. Divided by the heated temper of their times and their colliding views on race, they find themselves caught in a swirl of public love (Ali) and hate (Frazier), one left with a ruin of a life, the other battered to his soul. For five years, from 1971 to 1975, they sucked the life out of each other over three fights, the first and third of which remain as thrilling and vivid as they were then.
Secondarily, this book is intended to be a corrective to the years of stenography that have produced the Ali legend. Cheap myth corruscates the man; the wire scheme for his sculpture is too big. Junk commentary has been slapped on it to the point that a precise appreciation of just who Ali was (and is) has become obscured. Worse, grandstanding compassion over his admittedly tragic current situation has only served to block a clear view of him even more. While myth usually begins in a place of truth—in this case, uncommon boxing skill—it often ends in a place of fantasia, and this is where we find Ali. He has been celebrated for the wrong reasons and has been interpreted by an increasingly uninformed generation of media that was barely born at the height of his career. Ali is already, like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, condemned to wander television screens for eternity in snippets of file tape, the visual wallpaper of the mythic.
What was he and what was he not? Important world figure is commonly the description that travels with him these days. Unquestionably, he was important to boxing and sports. Of worldly significance? Well…countless hagiographers never tire of trying to persuade us that he ranked second only to Martin Luther King, but have no compelling argument with which to support that claim. Ali was no more a social force than Frank Sinatra. Nor was he especially complex, unless you happen to view instant contradiction of utter
ance as deep. The politically fashionable clung to his racial invective as if it were the wisdom of a seer. Today, such are the times, he would be looked upon as a contaminant, a chronic user of hate language and a sexual profligate.
Ideology drove what most writers thought of Ali, especially Norman Mailer, who settled upon him like a mollusk, and sometimes in revealing transference seemed to want to merge with the champ. Ali played big in New York salons, bigger even than the Black Panthers, who were also viewed as hip avengers for political rightness. What was laughable, if you knew anything about Ali at all, was that the literati was certain that he was a serious voice, that he knew what he was doing; he didn’t have a clue.
Two ideologists summon up the thinking then and now—Ken Tynan and R. Emmett Tyrell. Tynan was a superb writer given to large crushes on certain showmen and insurrectionists. In his recently published
, he watches Ali beaten by Frazier, and etches bleakly. Frazier is Nixon’s hatchetman, and Ali’s “flair, audacity” is cut down by “stubborn, obdurate hard-hat persistence. We may come to look back on the 60s as the Indian summer of Western imagination, of the last aristocrats of Western taste.”
To the far right of Tynan is Tyrell, who regards Ali in a 1997 column as a corrupting rule breaker. Ali tore down the sport by introducing racial prejudice, and destroyed Frazier with utter nonsense and false calumny. Frazier
black. Ali remains a figure today because he is “idolized by the ignorant and by mountebanks still making money off him.” Bits of truth, minus the politics, fleck to the surface in both views.
Part 1 of this book, revisionist only to those who will not like their mythic perception jostled, begins with Ali and Frazier isolated in retirement. Part 2 deals with the emergence of both men with special emphasis on the manipulation of Ali by the Muslims. Part 3
reexamines their three bitter fights, especially the dead reckoning in Manila. More than twenty-five years later it still stands out in sharp relief as an utterly brutal, fateful affair. Fateful, because Frazier, convinced that Ali had stolen his black identity, seemed to sentence himself to victimhood; and because Ali, who soared on the wings of unsurpassed talent, spent his last ounce of it in that furnace heat—and he knew it. Men of far less abilities would peck at his remains five years beyond when his art was transcendental; sadly, it would cost him his health. I once asked his former wife Belinda how we should remember Ali. She said, “Remember him as a great fighter.”
Legacy has become a pulverized, empty word of late, rather odd considering that America is not noted for much historical memory. In particular, the word seems out of place with sports heroes. Few leave anything behind for long for the next generation—just a line of numbers. Besides the thrill of watching Ali work, whatever his lasting impact on sports might be is altogether mixed. He did lead the way for black athletes out of the frustrating silence that Jackie Robinson had to endure. On the minus side, he also changed the climate of sports, from their promotion to the atmosphere in which they are conducted. His influence in games today can be seen in the blaring, unending marketing of self, the cheap acting out of performers, the crassness of player interactions that even informs our broader culture. Life, culture, and sports as pro wrestling. His was an overwhelming presence that came at a high price, ultimately to himself and the character of sports. Worse, far beyond Joe Louis, he continues to be guided in a mindless display like a sightless man feeling his way through the empty rooms of his remaining history.
nly his face remained as I remembered it. Eight years had elapsed since I had seen him spiral through the final, perilous years of his career, and even at age forty-two it still held at bay any admission of destruction. There was no zippered flesh, no blistered or pulpy ears, nor eye ridges that drop into sagging eaves; the nose remained agreeably flat without distended bone or hammered spread. Always the centerpiece of vanity—this face, so instantly transportable into world consciousness—it was betrayed only by his eyes, his words. Where once his eyes publicly spilled with tumbling clowns, they were now a dance hall at daybreak. Where once the words streamed in a fusillade of octaves, they were now sluggish and groping.
Three years removed from the ring at this stage of his steep physical decline, Muhammad Ali was living in L.A. in the gated community of Hancock Park, amid sculpted shrubbery and swishing fronds in high trees. It was said that among his occasional dinner guests were Clint Eastwood and Orson Welles. That would figure: Ali had always
loved a good Eastwood picture, drawn with unbridled wonder to showdowns on dusty Old West streets; Welles appealed to him less as a film colossus than as a hammy fat man with a bag of magic tricks. Just a question about Welles and the illusions he performed brought a smile to Ali, who eased himself up on his toes in an effort to levitate. “See it, it’s scary, ain’t it?” he asked. But he remained earthbound, and soon enough he stopped, short of breath, his left hand afflicted by a spooky tremor—the same hand that he used to whip out in four thousandths of a second.
Ornate Middle Eastern furniture lay in deep pools of shadow, giving the house an uneasy stillness broken only by the whisper movement of his manservant Abdel and the wild squawking of
Ali, Ali, Ali
by a couple of scam-eyed parrots on the veranda. “Can you shut ’em up?” Ali asked Abdel, apparently weary of hearing himself addressed in such ridiculing decibels. Boxing seemed to bore him on this day, and he waved off any allusion to it with a grimace, as if he were Tom Thumb being asked about his pituitary gland. Getting back into boxing at any level would lead people to believe that he was needy for fame. Ali was beyond that at this point, said that he had become a missionary for the Muslims to the poor and irreligious. Headquarters for him these days was a Louis IV desk the size of a jet wing.
Slowly, he stood up from behind it and showed what he had been writing, barely legible copying from a Sufi tract that, in so many words, said:
Forget the past, follow your true nature.
What was his true nature? “To save heathens like you,” he said. He smiled, then suggested a tour of the house that began on the top floor. Ali switched on a dim light, revealing a long room of memorabilia. In one dark corner crouched a tiger with yellow eyes peering out, a six-foot-long, hand-carved gift from Deng Xiaoping. “Good little man,” he said. “Leader of China. No bigger than my nose. He asked me when I’m gonna quit.
Didn’t have an answer. He said, `Mountains can’t grow any higher.’ He was right.”
Dusty fight posters dangled from the walls in the humid air. A stray, cracking boxing glove rested palm up on a packing crate in a thin ray of sunlight, its laces falling limply. Ali stood by a brilliant red and white robe on a hanger, stroking it gently. In a sudden gesture of respect in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley had taken the robe off his back and given it to Ali, saying, “From one king to
king.” Ali kept his fingers on the robe and said, “He a kind fella. Elvis dead now. Bein’ too big killed him, I think.” He moved over to a pile of photographs on a crate and picked through them: Elvis, with his own troubles in his eyes; the president of Egypt, Gamal Nasser, in a white suit, a little on the hefty side, yet easily passing for an exotic young contract player at MGM; and John Wayne, against whom Ali always measured his own fame. When he came to a shot of Idi Amin, the butcher of Uganda, he pulled back in horror, then told of a bizarre incident, maybe true.
Amin believed himself adroit in the ring. Ali was the guest of honor in Uganda, and they were having dinner at a long table filled with people: Ali at one end, Amin seated at the other with a dwarf at his side. Ali remembered: “He’s feedin’ this dwarf soup with a spoon, stops and hollers over the table, bangin’ his fist.” Guests cowered, the silverware jumped. Amin boomed: “I want to fight the great Muhammad Ali!” “Over and over again,” Ali continued. “I get to kiddin’, say he must’ve had a nightmare. Then, he goes under the table, opens a case and dumps all this cash. Must’ve been a half million. But I wasn’t goin’ to count. Then, he say, `You a champion or a coward?’” The next thing Ali saw was Amin pointing a gun at him, saying, “Now, what you say, Muhammad Ali?” The dwarf scooted, everyone else dove under the table. “Nobody there now. Just me and him. I’m mad and scared at the same time. I whup this bag of fat, and he gonna kill me for sure. Why not? He already kill everybody in the country.
It just dead quiet now. Like John Wayne goin’ into a saloon. I’m just lookin’ at that gun, my heart poundin’, then suddenly he drop the cannon right in the soup in front of him, and the soup splashes all over his uniform, his face and them medals, and he lets out a laugh that would chase Satan and his helpers away.”
Casually flipping the Amin photo back into the crate, Ali discovered another set of pictures, all of fighters who formed big and small pieces of his career. Here was the forever penitential Floyd Patterson; the picaresque Jack Johnson, still defiant with his grin; the champagne smile of Sugar Ray Robinson, whom Ali admired the most; Joe Louis, with his spare grimness; his true mentor Archie Moore, with the silky ease and nonchalance of a horn player; the scuffed face of the doomed Jerry Quarry; the sharply ridged prominences of George Chuvalo, who, with an asphalt jaw and nothing else, first tapped into the attitude necessary to beat Ali. He lingered over George Foreman, back then the dark at the top of the stairs, then passed without comment until he came to the squatting gargoyle Sonny Liston. He pointed an accusatory finger at Sonny, and said with conviction: “He the devil. Not enough fire in hell for him.” Contrary to the impression that has come down through the years—that Sonny had caved in psychologically under the hysteria that Ali had whipped up—Ali had feared Liston always as a small child might a strong night wind in the trees.
One jarring absence existed in the gallery of photographs: Joe Frazier. The Ali legend had been galvanized by their personal, spend-it-all fights. Where was Joe? Was it just an oversight, or did it speak to the wariness with which he still held Frazier, the deep division that existed between the two to this day? Ali had always viewed Frazier as if he were an inferior item on a menu, and always said so publicly: “What he do? He showed up. That’s all.” But deep down Ali always looked upon Frazier as a enveloping presence with a black hood over his head and an ax in his hand.
What Ali said in public was far less revealing than what he said in private. Audiences of more than one person were generally justification for a flashing, highly allusive, and ensnarled rodomontade, depending on the theme of the day; it was the pro wrestler rap long before it arrived, the spin retailer way ahead of his day. You had to get Ali alone to delve beneath the rhetoric, and even then there was just so far that Ali would go when it came to Frazier, of whom he could be starkly dismissive and altogether evasive in giving him his just provenance. Privately, Ali would be spare in his comment, given to long silences and sudden observation: “Boxin’ just a short time, my brain is his forever.” Or: “People don’t want art, they wanna see war. I ain’t leavin’ my face in that ring.” Publicly, he would always stray into long and convoluted sermons of showy redundancy, which had been adapted from Muslim gospel with a disregard for even a speck of originality. His easily most famous line, “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” was slyly dropped into his presentation by Sam Saxon, an early Muslim watchdog and headbanger more warmly known as Cap’n Sam. The Cap’n himself told me years later of a conversation he once had with Ali.
“You got nothin’ ’gainst them Vietcong, right?” the Cap’n said.
“No, not a thing,” said Ali.
“Then say it,” said the Cap’n. “We behind you. We ain’t fightin’ no honkie war.”
“Yeah. I ain’t got nothin’ ’gainst them Vietcong.”
“Now, now you’re talkin’,” said Sam.
Ali led the way to the floor below, by an open door to the bedroom where wife Veronica slept, a space arrayed with expensive white linens and fragile black dolls set up along the windowsills. Acolytes who had run with Ali during the old days were wary of Veronica, a statuesque beauty who seemed to them to be in hot pursuit of celebrity and an acting career rather than providing strength
to a husband who needed it badly. They also writhed at her excess of spending; odd this, coming from followers who, on the old Ali tab, went through his money like fire ants. Word was Jimmy Jacobs, the film archivist, became so suspicious of the grabby atmosphere that surrounded Ali at his Hancock Park estate that he stopped sending contractual checks in the mail. Ali stood by the open door to his bare bedroom and glanced inside at a cot with an institutional cover. While Ali always had been frugal when it came to pampering himself with worldly possessions—and had a deeply held commitment to the ascetic—he suddenly found himself obliged to reassure that he had gotten out of boxing in one piece financially. He cupped a trembling hand over his mouth and said, “I got three million in CDs in the bank. Nobody knows. Shhhh!”
With that, the doorbell rang downstairs. “Must be some kids,” he said, “wanna see some magic tricks again.” Ali eased down the steps, then came upon Abdel standing by the door with an uninvited visitor, a young fighter who announced he had come from New Orleans by bus just to see him. Ali motioned him in, then went back to his desk. The kid stood there twisting his cap in his hand, his eyes turning over the ceiling and around the room, then quickly turned back to Ali, who studied him with the disinterest of a man who has picked up an ordinary shell on the beach and was now wondering why. Maybe eighteen, the kid had a small, shaven head, looked like he could fill out to a solid middleweight if he could survive the ignorance and dispassion found every day in the life of young fighters. Ali was always gracious with the species, but knew better than anyone that merely being good would never be good enough.
Ali saw that the kid was staring at him. “Why you lookin’ at me like that?” he asked.
“You look different, I mean…,” the kid said, his eyes turning over the room again.
“You keep lookin’ around my room. You a robber? You gonna come here at night, steal somethin’.” He gave a smile to Abdel.
The kid squirmed, said, “I never do that, champ.”
“I ain’t no champ anymore,” Ali said.
“I seen you fight Spinks in Nawwlins.”
“Then you didn’t see anything.”
“I send you a lotta letters.”
“I get nothin’ but letters. People wantin’ all kinds of things. Even pieces of my nappy hair. What your name?”
“Kid Hershey,” he said, “like, ya know, in the candy bar. I’m gonna be a champ, and…”
Ali looked on blankly. Was his memory being jogged to how he himself had once been? Never one to give the possibility of rejection an even break, the young Clay revved up early for the marketplace. Unlike the old poet Alexander Pope, he did not believe that those who lacked expectations were blessed. He popped up on the phone to trainer Angelo Dundee, who was in his hotel room with his noted light heavy Willie Pastrano. “Willie,” Dundee said, “I got a real case here. Some young kid says he’s won the Pan American Games, the Golden Gloves, and he’s going to go and win the Olympics. He wants to come up.” Willie nodded: “Why not? Bein’ with you all day, I could use a laugh.”
In the presence of enlightenment, the green Clay showed no reverential silence
“You eat a lot, Willie? How much you eat? You eat good? Gotta watch the diet, a fighter.
“How much roadwork you do, Willie? I can run forever. Spot a horse five lengths.
“You good with cuts, Mr. Dundee? I bet you are. No matter. I don’t let nobody cut me. Sorry, I’m talkin’ so much. Just need all the information I can get.
“Tell me about Madison Square Garden. What’s the color of them seats? Oooooo…I bet they gold. And that ring bell. That ring bell give me goose pimples on the radio. And pretty women all over. You don’t fool with women, do you, Willie? Can’t fool with women, a fighter. Fighter gotta stay pure.
Sugar Ray Robinson, nobody like him. Oooooo…my idol, he somethin’. No disrespect, Willie. And Marciano, what a killer he was. Floyd Patterson, he quick, ain’t he. And Archie Moore, he sooo smart. But he older than my daddy. Fighter oughta know when to quit.”
When the young Clay finally left, the two just looked at each other and doubled over in laughter. A few months later, Dundee brought Willie back to Louisville for a main event, and he was doing his sparring in the same gym as Clay. Angelo scanned the gym for somebody to work with Willie. “There’s that kid over there…what’s his name,” Angelo said. “Wanna work with him, Willie?” Willie and Clay worked a couple of rounds, and as Angelo often liked to recount, “Willie looked so bad I laid him off. Three days before the fight, I had to lay him up. Real stale. Willie doesn’t like it and says, `Ange, it ain’t me. You got eyes. This kid’s a good-lookin’ fighter.’ And the fact was that Willie was right. I was so busy watching Willie I didn’t watch a thing the kid was doing.”
Now, Ali was suddenly back to his visitor, saying: “Hold up there. You don’t want a piece of my hair. You don’t want my autograph. You just wanna see me in person? What you want?”
“I just wonderin’…you know, like, ya know…maybe you be my manager?”
“I don’t manage,” Ali said. “Don’t even like to watch fights. Don’t want nuthin’ to do with fights. People see me in gyms, goin’ to fights, people think I miss it. People think I’m just another washed-up fighter. You get my meanin’?”