I don’t often write about boxing, even though I’m a fairly big fight fan. But as you may be aware, HBO is running a documentary tomorrow night about the third Ali/Frazier fight, and I was able to get a DVD screener of the film, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Let me get the yea-or-nay verdict out of the way right at the start: It’s a good film — you should see it. It captures many of Ali’s flaws (his womanizing, his truly reprehensible race-baiting, his constant need for attention, his casual cruelty, etc.) and provides some sad evidence of how Ali is still under Frazier’s skin today. There’s one scene toward the end that’s flat-out shocking.
But the film also falls prey to some pervasive problems that tend to afflict boxing coverage in general and Ali/Frazier coverage in particular. The biggest of these is what I call the “epic factor,” by which I mean the lazy tendency to fall back on melodramatic language like “epic battle,” “gladiator,” “battle of wills,” “heroic effort,” “punishing punches,” and so on. The HBO film is full of overheated clichés like this (although they don’t sound quite so bad because the narrator is Lieb Schreiber).
Boxing writers love to use terms like these, dressing the sport in the language of literary theatrics. They do this in part because boxing is high drama but also, I think, because it’s easier to ignore boxing’s inevitable moral questions if you drape it in grandiose language. Or to put it another way, if you express yourself in the most highly civilized manner, it’s easier to rationalize the fact that boxing really has no place in a civilized society. That’s why everyone loves it when bigshot intellectuals like George Plimpton or Joyce Carol Oates write about boxing — if they’re into it, it basically gives the rest of us tacit permission to be into it. That’s why the producers chose Schreiber, a well-regarded stage actor, as the narrator here: His job is to provide the moral cover, the artistic seal of approval, that lets the rest of us enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching two naked guys punching the shit out of each other.
This leads us to another problem with boxing coverage: “facts” that aren’t always so factual. Because boxing people love to create heroic, Homeric storylines, they tend to embellish things. Toss in the fact that the boxing world isn’t exactly full of the most honest or reliable people (or as Bob Arum once said, with a straight face, “Yesterday I was lying; today I’m telling the truth”) and you end up with a lot of myths, misinformation, exaggerations, and flat-out lies, the most prosaic of which get repeated and entrenched as part of the sport’s lore.
The Thrilla in Manila is a particularly rich source of such lore, much of which is parroted in the HBO production. I want to address two things mentioned in the film — one large, one small:
The party line: The Thrilla was a very close fight. In fact, when Frazier’s corner stopped the bout after the 14th, Frazier might have been ahead on points. The HBO film quotes several observers who say that if Frazier had gotten through the final round, the final result could easily have been a draw.
The lure of the lore: A close fight makes for a better legend. And remember, this was the third Ali/Frazier fight, and they had split the first two, so this was the “tiebreaker.” As dramatic storylines go, what could be better than a tiebreaker that could end in a tie? Makes for great theater.
The truth: Have you ever watched this fight? I have, many times, and I watched it again on Wednesday afternoon (if you don’t have it on tape or DVD, it’s easy to find on YouTube; here are the first two rounds, and the remaining rounds can be found in the “related videos” listing on the right). And this time, just to make sure my memory was accurate, I scored it. Now, Frazier was always a tough fighter to score, because he did so much body work, and body punches aren’t as visually evident or dramatic as head punches, so I made sure to pay extra attention to Frazier’s body shots while watching the bout this time around. Even so, I still gave only three rounds to Frazier — the sixth, ninth, and tenth. You could also make a case for Frazier, or at least for an even round, in the fifth and eighth. But Ali clearly won at least nine rounds. And two of those rounds — the 13th and 14th — were arguably two-point rounds, because Ali dominated so thoroughly. In short: This was not a close fight.
That’s the big issue. Here’s a small one:
The party line: By the end of the fight, Frazier was “fighting blind.” He’d suffered a training accident in 1964 that resulted in a cataract and had never gotten corrective eye surgery, so he’d always had very limited vision in that eye, and his good eye was swollen shut toward the end of the fight. That’s why he was staggered so badly in the 13th and 14th rounds — he couldn’t see. And that’s why his corner stopped the fight.
The lure of the lore: Obviously, the notion of Frazier gamely fighting on, despite not being able to see, makes for an extremely compelling narrative.
The truth: The cataract in Frazier’s left eye was real (it’s mentioned in this article and this article, among many other places). One reason he developed his big left hook, in fact, was to keep opponents from moving to his left, where he’d have a harder time seeing them. But take a look at these shots of Frazier immediately after the Thrilla. Which eye is swollen shut and which eye looks okay, at least by comparison? As you can see, it was Frazier’s left eye — the one that already had very limited vision — that swelled shut. His good eye was okay. Either way, his vision was compromised during the fight, but the truth of the matter has been embellished and exaggerated over the years, because a guy “fighting blind” makes for a better story than a guy “fighting half-blind.”
Just once, I’d like to see some boxing coverage that debunks the lore instead of reinforcing it. But hey, at least this HBO film didn’t have lots of face time from Bert Sugar, so I guess I should be happy.
Okay, now that I’ve got all of that off my chest, let’s check out some uni-related tidbits from the film (with apologies for the crappy image quality):
• You probably know that Frazier wore green trunks in his first fight against Ali. But you might not know that he also had a green robe, green-shirted cornermen, and was even draped in a green towel at the fight’s conclusion.
• But in their second fight, Ali and Frazier both wore white trunks — very unusual.
• I’d forgotten that the pre-Thrilla festivities included the presentation of a trophy, which would be awarded to the winner of the fight. As you might expect, Ali tried to make off with it before the fight even started.
• One of the film’s biggest coups is that the producers got Imelda Marcos to speak on camera. She’s, uh, still Imelda.
• Frazier’s former cornerman George Benton is one suave dude. I found it somewhat poignant that he got all dressed up to be interviewed in his own kitchen yet left a battered saucepan and this note within the camera’s view.
• Here’s something I didn’t know: The Nation of Islam (which Ali was a part of, natch) and the Ku Klux Klan used to maintain back-channel communications, because they both believed in ethnic purity and racial separatism. Ali even spoke at a Klan rally! So the film includes some footage of this uniform. Isn’t this about the saddest, scariest thing you’ve ever seen?
• Hard to imagine an odder couple than Frazier and Nixon.
• Eagles great Chuck Bednarik comes up in the film, because he was on the Pennsylvania athletic commission and was under pressure to grant Ali a boxing license during his exile (he refused). They show two shots of him: a standard file photo and a bizarre shot that shows him smoking and smoking.
And so on. The most surreal thing in the film is a running series of shots of Frazier, now in his 60s, wearing one of his old robes, complete with NOB. They even have him work the speed bag. I understand the rationale — it’s still in his blood, he’s still a warrior, blah-blah-blah — but it’s a little sad.
Uni Watch News Ticker (mostly compiled by Phil, with some stuff toward the end from Paul): FIFA just released the new logo for the Club World Cup, writes Jeremy Brahm. The press release states, “The newly unveiled FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009 Official Emblem features authentic Arabic calligraphy of the words The Emirates contained within a dome of red and orange hues to symbolically represent the combination of football with the warmth of the Arabian sun and the nation’s celebrated heritage.” … John Muir states Ryan Miller debuted a new mask for the Sabres’ 3rd jersey, but it looks like he’s breaking it in on the road in the regular white … Dan Snyder writes, “As I was watching the Yanks v Orioles this afternoon I came upon Nick Markakis’ personalized batting gloves. They are a little subdued with the NM21 on the inside of the wrist instead of the outside.” … This funny NOB mistake was pointed out by Michael Lipinski … Interesting and kind of funny, points out Alex Willis, that an SI host follows around the equipment manager all day … Whhhhaaaaaaa? The heck is this about? asks Jan Dambom — Good question … Spin Hansen saw someone linked to the awful mixed-typography logo of the new AAA baseball club in his area, the Gwinnett Braves. Spin just saw their uniforms and he thinks they look like complete dogs, “at least paired with the undershirts that they are wearing. But that might just be the traditionalist in me, seeing the Braves tomahawk with a block-print typeface.” … Stewart Joyner notes there is logo creep at the Masters — even on the leaderboard — he just wants to see scores, not whether or not they play Titleist … David Pickett didn’t like the Rangers’ mixed red-blue look, but explains: (1) They wore red during the division championship days of the late 90s, so many fans have long been clamoring for a return to red, and (2) they are now 3-0 with red caps this season. … Speaking of which, for now the plan is for the team not to wear red on the road — maybe. For details, see the 1:27 entry in Evan Grant’s game blog … Hockey Wing President Teebz is covering this event on his blog the next two weekends. He’ll grab some photos for us, but for now here’s a sneak peek at Team Canada … Brock Towler is a big bobblehead guy, so he was perusing the new offerings on the mlb.com shop. Amazingly, the Mets decided to further immortalize the abomination that is their Inaugural Citi Field Patch (the Domino’s sleeve version) on every last new bobblehead they are releasing for 2009. So, if you love Johan, David Wright, Frankie, or Jo-se Jo-se Jo-se Jo-se, you can purchase not only a representation of your team spirit, but also a little piece of history — the worst patch in history cast in ceramic. Even the Mr. Met bobblehead has the sleeve patch … Did you know Walter Johnson had four arms? (With thanks to John Muir.) … Now that the Albuquerque Isotopes are affiliated with the Dodgers again, they have a new Dodgers-themed Sunday jersey (with thanks to Steve Silva). … The Bowie Baysox’s jersey appear to be leftover MLB BP jerseys from several years ago (as spotted by Zac Neubauer). … Yesterday’s Ticker included a link to this logo quiz by Joe DeAngelis. As promised, here’s the answer key. … Major douchebaggery at the Garden, where a very annoying ad is now appearing on the glass behind each goal and between the benches (screen shots courtesy of Terence Kearns). … Bill Jones may be the undisputed king of gumball helmets, but he’s not the only DIY gumballer out there, as you can see in this story by Jim Ransdell. … Latest NBA team to wear green Earth Week uniforms: the Bulls. But wouldn’t it have made more sense if they’d recycled these green uniforms? … Last night was Don Koharski’s final game as an NHL official. He was working the Caps/Lightning game, and all the other officials in his crew wore his number 12. “He was interviewed on the ice after the game and said he didn’t even notice the other guys were wearing 12 until about five minutes into the game,” says AJ Brandt. … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Chris Falvey provided us all with a better look at A.J. Pierzynski’s vented helmet, which isn’t exactly a Cool-Flo — never seen that vent design before. Jonathon Binet says it appears to be a Wilson model (apparently this one), not a Rawlings. Wonder if that’s kosher, as Rawlings is MLB’s official helmet brand. … The Pirates will wear Pittsburgh Police caps at their home opener on Monday, in honor of the three Pittsburgh cops recently killed in the line of duty. … DIY note from Mark Collins, who writes: “Wednesday’s post on the backyard football league was interesting because my younger brother and I did the same thing. But our big sport was baseball, and we went so far as to make uniforms we could actually wear. They weren’t anything special — just a logo drawn on a rec league cap that we got that summer. That team was called the Charleston Shockwaves. (They were originally called the Waves, but during one of our seasons they came under new ownership and went through a name change.)” … Lots more stuff from Jeremy Brahm, including new logos for beach handball (details here) and women’s handball (details here), a cheerleader controversy in Israel, and a new branding campaign for Basketball Australia (download their new style guide, which covers everything from uniforms to letterhead, here). … Dig this: Footage of Wilt Chamberlain in high school (big thanks to my ESPN editor Dave Schoenfield). … Faaaaascintating find by Nicholas Roznovsky, who writes: “My son and I went to the Texas A&M vs. Univ. of Houston baseball game this past Tuesday and I saw something I hadn’t seen before: the Cougars’ catcher (Chris Wallace) was wearing a Rip Hamilton-esque clear plastic face shield underneath his regular catcher’s mask.” That’s a new one for me. Anyone else ever seen this?