The Thrilla's Three Victims

It is appropriate to set aside this journal’s customary business now and then to pay tribute to class and loss away from baseball. If you think that boxing is a profession, if not necessarily a sport, to which class is an unwelcome intruder, you may not have known Joe Frazier, who died of liver cancer at 67 on Monday. Or, at least, you may not really think that class was beaten out of the profession once and for all by the third and last of his showdowns with Muhammad Ali.

Ali won in the ring . . .

“I heard somethin’ once,” Ali told Sports Illustrated‘s Mark Kram, the day after the Thrilla in Manila ended with Ali the winner but both opponents beaten in the long term. “When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or two, he said that you ask yourself, Why am I doin’ this? You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin’ that at the end. Why am I doin’ this? What am I doin’ in here against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”

How sadly and readily everyone seemed to forget that valedictory, as close as the Ali of legend got to confession, not the least among whom was Frazier, who allowed Ali’s only-too-shamefully self-possessed pre-fight histrionics to sear him bitterly enough. But so, apparently, did Kram himself, in Ghosts of Manila, the otherwise jarringly vivid book recounting the fight, its atmosphere, its aftermath. If Bill Simmons (now editor of Grantland) is to be taken at his word, Kram conveniently omitted Ali’s gracious valedictory on behalf of turning him into Manila’s real ogre and canonising a Joe Frazier whose stubborn courage and modest self were their own canonisations.

Ali’s style in the run-ups to each of their three showdowns had been too lacerating to Frazier no matter who did what in the ring.  Ali was too much a rhetorical brutalitarian in the rivalry that made and unmade both men. These were deceptively talented men: Ali, the existential thinker in and out the ring, Frazier never allowed the credit he should have had as a tactician because his raw strength, his too-well-timed thunder, was that overwhelming. Perhaps more than any rivalry sport has seen this side of the Dodger-Giant, or the Yankee-Red Sox rivalries, Ali-Frazier was a rivalry to the death even if it took Frazier almost four decades to pass away as Ali lingers as its haunting ghost.

Frazier and Ali lost out of the ring . . .

“A couple of ghosts, if you ask me,” a Frazier intimate is quoted in Kram’s book. “One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn’t even know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both, that day.”

All but mute today in the twilight of his long grip by Parkinson’s disease, Ali could only offer a written condolence. “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.” Had the world been allowed to remember his actual validictory, the day after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch stopped the Thrilla before his man, but really both men, might have killed each other (one remembers Ali’s haunting pronouncement that it was the closest he’d come to death), Ali’s original eulogy would stand even taller.

To say he did not have to brutalise Frazier before all but especially the third and bloodiest of their epic showdowns is to speak disingenuously, however. If Kram dismisses it, Simmons isolates it: “Ali may have kept baiting Frazier because—in his own shortsighted way—he knew a possessed Frazier would bring out his best. ” Yet Kram, for all his need to elevate Frazier above and beyond the call of reality, and to bring Ali’s image back to earth (Parkinson’s disease has done a harsh enough job of that for the man), brought home the sad point that Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali brought both the best and the worst out in each other. Frazier, customarily among the most gracious and accessible of men, is said to have reveled in Ali’s dissipating, Parkinson’s-seared incoherence, at least until perhaps the last months of his life.

Specifically, the fortieth anniversary of Ali-Frazier I. “I forgive him. He’s in a bad way,” said the man whose own generosity and self-confessed naivete, not to mention his inability to think of himself as an image to be marketed, brought him to degrees of financial ruin.

Who will forgive Mark Kram for such a critical omission in a book that may have become the definitive analysis of the Thrilla, the Ali-Frazier rivalry, and the impact the third of their duels wreaked upon both men? How on earth could Kram have written such a no-questions-asked breathless, on-the-money immediate analysis of the fight itself while expanding it into a book whose key omission, had it not been bypassed, might have helped to remove the single stain upon Joe Frazier’s bold heart?

Frazier in defeat (their second duel) and surrender (his trainer’s, on behalf of his life) had proven himself even better a man than he had ever proven in his striking victories, those transcendent triumphs of the little big man who was never credited for his intelligence the way his carefully plotted, exploding lefts credited him as a puncher. Frazier out of the ring had proven that economic dissipation and a long, not always gentle return to earth need not equal a long, not always gentle loss of the genuine heart of man. He was an ebony prince with an uncommonly common touch, perhaps the most profound such touch Philadelphia sports had seen since Robin Roberts, and he stood on the shoulders of his own little giant as the kind of man you wouldn’t have to grill a steak for because he’d likely take the fork from you and tell you to relax.

But he certainly deserve to have the single stain cleansed from his heart long before he finally could. He was a foolish man to allow Muhammad Ali’s worst to bring forth the worst in himself, and it speaks well enough of him that he came to know it at last in his own quiet way.

The sad part is that Bill Simmons is very right when he suggests the Thrilla in Manila claimed a third victim. Mark Kram, who would be fired by Sports Illustrated in 1977 for misconduct, died not long after Ghosts of Manilla was published in 2002. He was beginning his work on a book about Mike Tyson; he had formerly been such a literarily incisive writer covering a profession that did not really deserve elevated literature if it begged for incisiveness; he was bedeviled his entire lifetime by a panic disorder that blocked him from the Rumble in the Jungle, the battle in which Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title from the man who took it from Joe Frazier, George Foreman.

The Thrilla's greatest chronicler was its third victim . . .

“Someone as gifted as Kram,” Simmons writes, “should have been remembered for more than just that brilliant SI piece or the book it eventually inspired,  just like Frazier shouldn’t have allowed his animosity to consume him until he died, and Ali should have retired that night in Manila over scrambling his brains for a few extra bucks.” His son, Mark, Jr., has written eloquently of his father’s highs, lows, and legacy, enough to provoke a hope that someone will anthologise the best of his elegant, often maverick work.

(If you think Kram was strictly about boxing, you should pray such an anthology includes “No Place in the Shade,” his soberly lyrical 1973 profile of Cool Papa Bell and life in the Negro Leagues.)

Red Smith, covering the first Ali-Frazier showdown—when a still-undefeated but somewhat condition-challenged Ali was allowed to return to the ring at last, following his drydocking over his draft demurral (did Ali ever recall that Frazier had been one of his staunchest defenders?)—wrote this after Frazier stopped him in the fifteenth with that piledriving left: “If they fought a dozen times Joe Frazier would whip Muhammad Ali a dozen times. And it would get easier as they went along.”

They only fought twice more. It got worse as they went along. And in the long term, no matter that Ali outlasted Frazier in the ring, three men lost big. One died after his final chronicle of the shattering climax was published. A second died Monday night. The third, who probably should have retired right then and there, walks in living death, making peace as he once made waves, a heartsickening avatar of hubris and its price.

You could say if you wish that the Thrilla claimed a fourth victim. Any lingering, leftover claim for boxing as a sport was probably trashed, too.

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