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Chasing 'Ghosts of Manila'

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The last Ali-Frazier fight, the famed "Thrilla in Manila," took place 26 years ago, though because the memories of it endure with such clarity, it still seems to have happened only the other day.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three times, but the third bout was clearly the most memorable.
In fact, the memories of their three fights transcend the sport, great events even for those of us who are only the most peripheral of fight fans. That is just as well, because we are not likely to see anything quite like it -- or the two men who fought that night -- again.

The world of boxing, never our most attractive venue, has suffered over the years, especially in the heavyweight division. It was always the sport of last resort, by and large the choice of those at the bottom of the economic order who wanted fortune and fame and could not get a college education and seemed to lack the skill for other sports.

Rocky Marciano wanted to be a professional baseball player, and stumbled into boxing in desperation, keeping the news of it from his mother. That was more than 50 years ago.

Today, to the degree that there is genuine talent in the world of boxing, it is inevitably in the much lower weight classes, where boxing does not compete with other big-time sports for athletic talent.

The big, strong, quick athletes who might in this age become heavyweight fighters now have many more opportunities, most of them offering a college education. The scouting and recruiting apparatus for our different professional sports -- either college recruiters or, in the case of basketball, professional scouts -- reach out even in the poorest and most rural parts of the country to the high school level. Few potentially gifted athletes can finish high school without scouts beginning to tout them for one major sport or another.

Muhammad Ali
Vince Lombardi took a look at Ali's speed and power and thought one thing: "linebacker."
Thus today's great athletes who might in another age have been heavyweight fighters -- where the requisites are power, speed, quickness and hunger -- are on their way now to becoming middle linebackers (quintessentially, Ray Lewis of the Ravens or Lawrence Taylor of the Giants), running backs (take your pick), and power forwards (some 25 years ago I watched a game where Dave Cowens, 6-foot-9, 230, and George McGinnis, 6-8, 235, were both playing, and I suddenly imagined them as heavyweight fighters in an economically harsher era where they might not have gotten the chance to play college ball). Even among the fighters themselves the upgrade is obvious: Ken Norton Sr. was a fighter, Ken Norton Jr. a professional linebacker.

Thus, in a later era, Ali surely would have been a football player (Vince Lombardi is said to have looked at him, and seen the speed, the power, the size and the hand-to-eye coordination and to have thought immediately, "linebacker.")

As for Joe Frazier, we can just imagine one of today's football coaches deciding to put another 40 pounds or so on him and make him either a nose tackle or, perhaps, a pulling guard. In modern America, as more and more opportunity seeps through to the children of the poor and disenfranchised, other sports offer too much promise, and too much money -- without your head being used as a punching bag. The choice is, so to speak, irresistible. That is why the Ali-Frazier fights are not likely to happen again.

More, we are all too aware of the price paid by the two men. Ali, by now an American icon, lionized in places where he was once seen more or less as a social-political leper, his face briefly even on a Wheaties box (an upgrade from the time when his only commercial was for d-Con rat killer), is now officially legitimate. Politicians who once tried to stay as far away from him as possible now fight to have their photo taken with him.

Frazier Ali
Ali hit Joe Frazier just as hard outside the ring as he did in it.
The debate over his name is long since over. But he is physically a shadow of his former self, having taken too many punches for too long; he is still aware of what is going on around him, but can speak less and less. The dazzling wit, like the dazzling footwork, is largely gone. What we hear more and more are soft murmurs of a still-shrewd man who knows that some magic is gone and some remains.

Frazier, too, is damaged, albeit in a different way. Technically the loser of two of the three fights, he seems not too understand that they ennobled him as much as they did Ali, that the only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness, that in the end there was no real difference between the two of them as fighters, and when sports fans and historians think back, they will think of the fights as classics, with no identifiable winner or loser. These are men who, like it or not, have become prisoners of each other and those three nights.

Frazier seems more emotionally damaged, still angry not just at the outcome -- and a manager who did not let him come out for the last round -- but at Ali, who in the process of promoting the fights, mocked and insulted him, called him an Uncle Tom and a gorilla, and said how ugly he was: "Joe Frazier should give his face to the Wildlife Fund! He's so ugly blind men go the other way? He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country!"

Those wounds remain long after the cuts from the fights have disappeared. Only recently, Ali apologized to him, admitting that some of the things he had said were unacceptable, but the apology apparently has come much too late, and Frazier's bitterness runs far too deep. It is as if the fight has never ended for him, and he refuses to accept the decision of Eddie Futch, his manager, not to let him answer the bell for the last round.

All of this comes to mind again because of the publication of a fascinating new book called "Ghosts of Manila (The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier)" written by Mark Kram, who covered those fights for Sports Illustrated.

Ghosts of Manila
Mark Kram's new book, "Ghosts of Manila," portrays Ali as being a poor Muslim, a womanizer and a hustler.
Kram has produced a quite remarkable book -- it is both an exceptional, wonderfully written account of those fights in which he goes back-and-forth in time between then and now, and it is also a screed against many of the journalists who covered the fights, and who, he believes, were taken in by Ali. In addition, it is an assault upon Ali himself. Kram does not believe that Ali should be a major figure of the popular culture. He attacks Ali for being a poor Muslim, a womanizer and a hustler, meaner of spirit than anyone realized, and finally a dupe of the Muslims.

In a way, the book is of two parts. The first, far less convincing and successful, is the political-cultural part, in which Kram seems to take out after many of the journalists who covered the fight then, and who made more of Ali than he really was, and perhaps just as much those who lionize him now, his hagiographers.

That part is, semi-covertly, an assault upon what he clearly feels are celebrity sportswriters, feather merchants and part-timers who bring their names, but not much else, to a complicated, brutal world about which they know less than they should, and are caught up in the romance, such as it is, of fighting, and who have reinvented Ali to fit their political needs, rather than seeing him as he really was.

Kram is particularly hard -- and I think justifiably so -- on those who, in order to idolize Ali, felt they had to diminish Frazier at the same time, and made the fights a metaphor for good and evil, and thereby managed to turn Frazier, poorer, darker of skin and much closer to the roots of slavery as the son of a sharecropper, into a stand-in for the white world.

That this was the meeting of two immensely gifted and courageous fighters of vastly different styles at the peak of their careers was not enough. It should have been, but wasn't. It's almost as if, for those who had always wondered what would have happened if Joe Louis in his prime had fought Rocky Marciano in his prime, the Ali-Frazier fights were about as close as we are going to get.

Muhammad Ali
Ali stated that his third fight with Frazier was the "closest thing to dyin' that I know of."
But Kram goes beyond that. Thus there is more than a little ideological stereotyping in the book. He quotes Kenneth Tynan, the writer and director, who understood theater because he was a man of the theater and was drawn to Ali accordingly, as writing about Frazier as Richard Nixon's hatchetman. I'll agree with Kram that you can't get much dumber than that, and the idea must have come as a surprise to Frazier, just as it must have been to Nixon.

The second part of the book is far more successful and, at times, quite lyrical. It is the work of an immensely gifted, deeply engaged writer: a narrative of the three fights, the buildup to them, what they were like, and what they did to both fighters.

It is very much to Kram's credit -- it is one of the things that makes the book so successful -- that he manages to give Frazier a dignity and humanity so often denied him by other writers who were so caught up in the mystique of the infinitely more charismatic Ali. For Ali was not merely a fighter, he was a show as well, an ongoing Broadway musical, an inevitable magnet for those writers who cared more about the celebrity of the sport than the sport itself. It was always easier and more fun to develop Ali as a literary figure than the cautious, reticent, vastly less-verbal Frazier.

Let me, at this point, bring in my own biases. I thought Ali a great fighter and a luminescent personality. A few months ago in this same space, I took him to task for his cruelty to Frazier and other fighters, many of them black. Kram shrewdly points out that Ali was verbally harder on his black opponents than he was on white ones. I think he's right, and it's a a point well-taken, but I suspect the reason is that Ali, who was always promoting fights, always selling tickets, understood that if he was fighting a white opponent, he needed less hype because of the black-white faultline which already existed, but a black against black fight needed personality and hype and controversy, especially 30 years ago.

I thought the division over Ali, especially in the world of sportswriting, was not so much left/right as it was generational. There was a major division which he managed to trigger on race and other issues -- Vietnam, changing his name and becoming a Muslin, and being for many older sportswriters, simply too uppity. Where, they seemed to wonder, was Joe Louis, now that they needed him, the man they had called a credit to his race, the human race.

Frazier Ali
Frazier's toughness as an opponent enhanced the legend of Ali's career.
The very conservative figures who ran sports in those days were greatly offended by Ali -- even before Vietnam, and before he became a Muslim. I belonged to a different generation -- I was 30 when he beat Sonny Liston for the first time, had already covered Civil Rights in the South for five years and had done a tour in Vietnam as a reporter, and his politics, such as they were, bothered me not at all. I saw him as open and fresh and exuberant, and an absolutely marvelous athlete.

I was not bothered by his becoming a Muslim and, as for his refusal to serve in Vietnam, he remains to me the only high level American who resigned an important position because of his opposition to the war. Robert McNamara, who apparently thought the war was unwinnable starting in 1966 but did not speak out for 30 years, might have learned something from Ali.

Given that a heavyweight boxer's reign is so brief, to give up three years -- or roughly 35 percent of it -- for reasons of conscience seems to me to be admirable. Kram's reporting -- which, on the fights themselves, is so exceptional -- seems weakest here. He portrays Ali as not knowing what he is doing or why, a dupe of the Muslims. But, in fact, there is considerable evidence that Ali did know what he was doing, and that when a group of politically active major sport figures -- all of them black -- pleaded with him to reconsider and suggested that he play the game like those who had gone before him, they were quite surprised by how determined he was to go ahead and resist the draft.

Kram is a very good writer. A few years ago, when I edited a collection called the Best Sports Writing of the Century, I was delighted to include some of his account of the third Ali-Frazier fight. In the semi-closed world of high-level sportswriting, he was known as a bleeder. No one at Sports Illustrated, in the opinion of his peers, agonized over his writing as Kram did, bleeding over every word, and agonizing, as well, over what he was doing, and whether working for Sports Illustrated was a worthy enough goal, when perhaps there were more important subjects to write about. He was not one of the sportswriting boys in those days; there was about him a certain edginess and abrasiveness that isolated him from many of his peers.

Joe Frazier
Frazier was vilified by Ali and many members of the media.
At his best, and much of this book is him at his best, no one wrote better about boxing. He did the requisite legwork, he had the requisite connection and trust with the men who formed the inner world of boxing, he knew how to listen, and he brought an inordinate amount of passion to his work. His feeling for those three fights and the two men who fought them (if he's not very good on Ali, the cultural figure, he's very good on Ali, the boxer) still has the passion of a man who was there and can't forget what happened.

When Kram is simply writing about the two men, and their three fights and what those fights did to the men, the book is wonderful, a very good book which might well have been a great book, but for the author's unnecessary contentiousness.

The irony is that even though Kram is hardly enamored of him, the exuberance and intelligence of Ali shines through even in these pages. Thus we have as wonderful scene of Ali in Uganda, challenged to fight by Idi Amin. Then Ali snapping Frazier's suspenders at one early meeting and saying, "They won't keep you standing. You not big enough for me. But we'll make some money anyway." Then Ali introducing Diana Ross, after losing the first of three fights, to the promoter Jerry Perenchio, "Diana, meet the man who paid me two and a half million to get my ass whipped." Then Ali, showing an early portable phone to the young George Foreman: "Can call anyplace in the world in a second. Nice, huh? Become a champ and you'll have one."

If Kram seems to be arguing still with Ali on his place in history, he is very good on the often under-appreciated Frazier. Here he quotes George Chuvalo talking about Frazier after their fight: "Felt like I was being hit by four hands. He looks easy to hit, but he isn't easy. Everything moves, his head, shoulders, his body and legs, and he keeps punching and putting pressure (on). He fights six minutes every round. He doesn't let you live."

Ali's influenced Joe so much, he's determined the man he is today. A couple of ghosts, if you ask me. One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn't know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both, that day.
Frazier friend Burt Watson in "Ghosts of Manila"

He understands the special quality -- the nobility and brutality -- of the three fights. Of the first one, he quotes the referee, Arthur Mercante, "It was the most vicious fight I've ever seen. I've never seen so many good punches thrown so often."

The second fight was the weakest, a referee's fight, in Kram's opinion, with the referee allowing Ali to hold Frazier and keep him from fighting his real fight.

The third was the ultimate fight, of two invincible men in what should have been the last hurrah for both. Ali summed up the fight for Kram better than any writer: "We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men."

He quotes Ali on the fierce beating he took in the 11th round: "the closest thing to dying I know." And he takes us back to that poignant moment at the end, when Eddie Futch would not permit his half-blind fighter to come out for the last round: "Sit down, son. It's over. No one will ever forget what you did here today."

And no one ever has. Of the damage done to Ali, we are all too aware. But Frazier appears damaged by that moment as well, still anxious to answer for the last round and to reverse the outcome.

To this day, Frazier remains psyched by the very mention of Ali's name. Twenty years after the fight, during a long car ride to Florida when a close friend happened to pay a small compliment to Ali, Frazier left him behind at a gas station for two hours before finally returning to pick him up. The friend, Burt Watson, goes on about Frazier to Kram: "He's a lonely, bent guy, close and then not close, cheap and then not cheap. He trusts no one. Ali's influenced Joe so much, he's determined the man he is today. A couple of ghosts, if you ask me. One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn't know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both, that day."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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