If you're a boxing fan, there has never been a more famous pairing than Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It's almost as if they were linked together in boxing history, always to be connected by a hyphen, the average fan unable to say the name of one without the other.
Almost before the ink was dry on the contract for their third matchup, their rubber match, Ali, his juices flowing once again, began to revert to his old psychological tricks. "I've got two punches for Frazier...the balloon punch and the needle punch. My left jab is the balloon and my right is the needle," he said, all the time needling Joe. My opposite number this time would be Eddie Futch, who had taken over the Frazier corner from Yank Durham, Joe's original manager-trainer, who had died the year before. A master of psychology himself, Eddie was alert and instantly responsive to the situation. His concern now was Joe becoming overly emotional. "Joe was a little too emotional in the second fight," Futch said, assessing Joe's performance, "but he's not seething anymore...he's got quiet resolve."
But while Joe might have had resolve on the outside, he was seething at Ali's remarks on the inside. Meanwhile, Ali was so disdainful of Frazier that before the fight, looking down from the ring and spotting Herbert Muhammad with a bottle of mineral water, he shouted, "Whatcha got there, Herbert? Gin? You won't need any of that. Just another day's work. I'm gonnna put a whuppin' on that nigger's head." Ali couldn't have been more mistaken.
For the first couple of rounds, Ali was the one who came out smokin'. Believing that Frazier was but one punch away from annilation, at the bell he came out to mid-ring and, with distanced precision, began pot-shoting Frazier with cluster bombs, raking the unprotected head of his challenger with jabs, one-two's, and left hooks, jarring him once, twice, thrice in the opening minutes of the round. The one-sidedness of his non-stop bombardment prompted my assistant trainer Drew "Bundini" Brown to scream out, "He won't call you 'Clay' no more," again and again, most times directly into my ear. Ali was so self-assured he stood and threw kisses to the crowd of twenty-five thousand packed into the Philippine Coliseum, most of them in the direction of President Ferdinand Marcos.
In the third, Ali caught Frazier with two lead lefts, jerking Frazier's head back. But Frazier, an Energizer Bunny in boxing trucks, kept coming forward, forcing Ali into the ropes where Ali grabbed the shorter Frazier, pushing his head down. Referee Carlos Padilla would have none of that, batting Ali's hands off the back of Joe's neck. Then came that one blow, a wicked left from Frazier, that signaled a subtle shift in the fortunes of the two, sort of a balancing of the ledgers as the human fireplug named Joe Frazier began to close the real estate. He got closer and closer to Ali and started to land his patented left hook. I couldn't help myself as I screamed at Ali, "Get off the ropes! Get off the ropes!" But screaming couldn't help Ali. Frazier had almost lashed him to the ropes with his left hook, snorting as he ripped it home, time and time again. All of a sudden the man Ali had thoroughly discounted was now so alive his breath could cloud a mirror.
Sensing that Frazier's punches had lost their power, I screamed at Muhammad, "Look at him...he ain't got no power left. Go get him!"
The fifth through the tenth was Frazier, Frazier, and more Frazier. Now a whirlwind of pure short-fused energy, he trapped my guy in his own corner and raked his body with thunderous-sounding shots. By now any and all thoughts of an easy victory for Ali had vanished as Frazier attached himself to Muhammad's chest and let fly with several left hooks from hell. An array of acupuncturists couldn't have applied more pressure than Joe as he hammered away, doubling up on hooks to Muhammad's kidneys and head. At the end of the tenth, his once-delicate legs leaden, his head bowed in agony, his eyes clouded with exhaustion, Muhammad slumped on his stool. "Force yourself, Champ!" Bundini screamed. "Go down to the well once more! The world needs ya, Champ!"
Bundini's exhortation seemed to have little effect on the pattern of the fight as Frazier continued his attack, catching Ali in the corner and raining blow after blow to Ali's head. The brutal beating continued throughout the eleventh and brought a cry of "Lawd, have mercy!" from Bundini, but nothing in the way of retaliation from Ali.
But, with both men running on empty, Muhammad found that something extra in his gas tank in the twelfth. Using his long right, he reversed the course of the fight. It was unbelievable. Here was Muhammad, who in the eleventh looked like he could have tossed it in, sucking it up and dominating Frazier.
Now we were up to the Thirteenth, the beginning of the championship rounds, three more rounds to go and a chance for my guy to close the show and prove to himself and to the world that he was the better fighter. Sensing that Frazier's punches had lost their power, I screamed at Muhammad, "Look at him...he ain't got no power left. Go get him!"
And go get him he did. In the intensity of the battle in that heated auditorium, Ali picked up where he had left off, landing punch-after-punch, staggering Joe and sending his mouthpiece flying out into the farthest reaches of the press section. Joe continued to come back in again in the only gear he knew, forward , only to be caught with another combination. And another. With hands held low and head held high, sucking air like a fish out of water, Frazier kept coming in, only to receive a frightful punishment, unable to defend himself.
Incredibly, Frazier was still there at the bell. Hardly. His face now had the look of an apple that had been halved and pieced back together, off-center. He was in need of a tin cup, his left eye closed and his right eye, as he later admitted, impaired. I thought now was the time to close the show and as the bell rang for the fourteenth, I shoved Muhammad out of the corner shouting, "He's all yours, go get him!"
But if Joe couldn't see, Eddie Futch could. And although Joe pleaded with him, "I want him, boss..." Futch was adamant. "You couldn't see in the last two rounds, what makes you think you're gonna see him the fifteenth?"
Muhammad did just that, ripping him with everything he threw. At the bell ending the round, referee Padilla had to lead the all-but-blind Frazer back to his corner. But if Joe couldn't see, Eddie Futch could. And although Joe pleaded with him, "I want him, boss..." Futch was adamant. "You couldn't see in the last two rounds, what makes you think you're gonna see him the fifteenth?" And with that, Futch signaled the end of what Muhammad would later call "the next thing to death."
Over in the our corner, Gene Kilroy saw Futch waving his hand in surrender and hollered, "It's over...it's over..." And as we tried to raise a bone-weary Ali off his stool to accept the cheers of the crowd, he collapsed, his legs giving way to fatigue, his body to pain, totally drained. It was a question whether he could have gone another round.
Later, at the press conference, Ali would say, "I have nothing bad to say about Joe Frazier. Without him, I wouldn't be who I am and without me, he couldn't be who he is. We've been a pretty good team for four, five years." Yes, they were and remain so today, their names forever linked.
Angelo Dundee was named Manager of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association in 1968 and 1979. In 1994 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He continues to train boxers and has acted as ringside commentator for many televised fights.
Bert Randolph Sugar is the most recognized and well-known boxing writer in history. The former editor of Ring Magazine and Boxing Illustrated and publisher of Fight Game magazine, he has written dozens of books on boxing and is a regular ESPN sports analyst.
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