Posts Tagged ‘Joe Frazier’

My Dinner with Muhammad Ali

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

By Michael Kaufman

Ali and Michael.

Ali and Michael.

Active-wear apparel giant Under Armour announced Wednesday it has signed a multi-year deal with Muhammad Ali to launch a “lifestyle apparel” line next month bearing his likeness and motivational phrases. It will also use photos of the 73-year-old former heavyweight boxing champion in marketing campaigns. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Ali is one of the most recognized and celebrated figures of all time,” Under Armour noted.  There was no mention that he was also once one of the most despised and reviled figures in his home country, the USA.  Ali was stripped of his title in 1967 when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and refused induction into the Army after he was drafted. His application for conscientious objector status based on his religious beliefs was denied. The chances are none to none that Under Armour will use one of Ali’s most motivational quotes of that period: “No Viet Cong ever called me a (n-word)!”  It would be three years before he was allowed to return to the ring and resume the career that established him as one of the greatest boxers of all time.

I was a young sportswriter in 1969 working for a leftist newspaper in New York City when I read an interview with then middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti, now regarded by many as Italy’s all-time best boxer. During the interview Benvenuti expressed his admiration for Benito Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy and ally of Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. Benvenuti liked Il Duce so much he kept a bust of him on display in his home.

So I wrote a column questioning the double standard on the part of the boxing officials who punished Ali for his beliefs while ignoring those of Benvenuti. Someone showed the column to Ali and he called the newspaper to thank me and offer an opportunity to interview him. But he had to call twice because the city editor, who answered the phone in the news room, thought it was a crank call and hung up on him the first time.

My memory of it is vivid. I saw the editor, a crusty veteran journalist pick up the ringing phone and say “Uh yellow!” in his characteristic raspy voice. That was how he always answered the phone.  Then he looked at me and said politely, “Yes, he’s here. May I tell him who is calling?” I saw his face change as he said, “Oh yeah? And I’m George Washington!” and slammed down the phone. He walked over to my desk and said, “Some guy just called for you and when I asked who was calling he said, ‘Tell him it’s the heavyweight champion of the world.’ So I told him I was George Washington and hung up on him!”

Fortunately, Ali called back and at the end of a pleasant conversation during which he asked me to explain what a fascist is he invited me to interview him at his home in Cherry Hill, NJ. A photographer friend came with me and after the interview Ali and his then wife Belinda invited us to stay for dinner. We enjoyed steak purchased from a kosher butcher and Ali commented on the similarity of the dietary laws between Muslims and Jews.

A few months later he made his return to the ring against the unfortunate Jerry Quarry, the first of several tune-ups leading up to the epic championship battle with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. The Quarry fight was held in Atlanta over the objection of Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, an unreconstructed segregationist who liked to brandish an ax handle as a symbol of defiance. But Sam Massel, Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor, was glad to have his city host the event. I remember thinking he didn’t sound Jewish when he greeted the horde of media people from around the world that descended on Atlanta to cover the event, “Welcome y’all!”

Someone at the opening press conference asked Ali a dumb question. He gave his favorite answer to dumb questions: “Howard Cosell gets paid for being an idiot. What’s your excuse?” That would be another good one to see printed on an Under Armour t-shirt or hoodie. Another that might look dashing on a track suit: “What’s my name, fool?”

Speaking of Under Armour, in doing background research for this piece I learned something I’ve wondered about ever since I first noticed their peculiar crisscross logo. It is composed of the letter “U” on top of the letter “A,” representing the company’s initials – “UA.” Who knew?

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com.

 

Remembering William Greaves

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

By Michael Kaufman

William Greaves

William Greaves

The penthouse suite at the Waldorf Astoria was crammed with sportswriters partaking of the open bar and sumptuous buffet provided by Jack Kent Cooke, multimillionaire owner of the Washington professional football team with a racial slur as its name. Cooke, who died in 1997, was about to announce plans for the biggest closed-circuit telecast yet to take place in the United States: the heavyweight championship fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.
But before making the announcement and fielding questions he made sure the writers were well-oiled and well-fed.

Then he held court from a throne-like chair positioned above the assembled scribes. He listed the venues where the fight would be shown and said there would have been more sites if the equipment were available. The remaining details were of little interest and by the time he got around to matter-of-factly mentioning the price of tickets—well beyond what most people could comfortably afford—few were paying attention.

When he asked if anyone had any questions, one after another addressed him cordially as “J-a-a-a-ck” and lobbed a softball. I wanted to say something about the exorbitant cost of tickets but I couldn’t think of a way to put it in the form of a question. I also didn’t want to get his attention by cheerfully calling out his first name as if we were old chums. I’d never met the man and so far I didn’t like him any more than I liked George Weiss, the old-school baseball general manager who said of sportswriters, “You can buy them with a steak.”  Nor did I think “Mr. Cooke” would be the appropriate form of address.

So I blurted, “Sir!”

Cooke nodded quizzically and I asked if it bothered him that the tickets were priced so high that most people wouldn’t be able to see the fight. I added something about the public demand being responsible for bringing it about in the first place.

“My name is Cooke, not Jesus Christ,” he replied, and I thought I’d made a fool of myself as he and some of the other writers enjoyed a laugh at my expense.

Later, as I was about to leave, a man walked up to me and shook my hand. He said he was making a documentary movie about Muhammad Ali and he’d like to have my permission to include my exchange with Cooke. I told him I thought I’d made a fool of myself but he said no, I’d livened things up a bit. So I signed a release for which William Greaves paid me the token sum of  a dollar.

William Greaves died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87. According to the Associated Press obituary, he leaves behind “a vast film archive of black art and culture” that includes hundreds of movies. “One of Greaves’ most widely seen productions was ‘Ali, the Fighter,’ a documentary about the 1971 championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.” I am honored to be in it, albeit briefly, making a fool of myself or not as the case may be.

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com.

 

The “Little Guy” Won Every Round

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

A young Joe Frazier ... "the little guy"

By Michael Kaufman
“Bum decision,” said my father. “The little guy won every round!” The “little guy” was 20-year-old Joe Frazier. It is hard to think of a man who stands at 5’ 11” and weighs 205 lbs. as “little,” but that is how it looked that summer day in 1964 at the Singer Bowl on the grounds of the New York World’s Fair. That was the site for the finals of the U.S. Olympic boxing trials. Winners in their respective weight divisions would go on to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The heavyweights fought last.

Frazier’s opponent was Buster Mathis, some four inches taller and nearly 100 pounds heavier. Most of the pre-fight buzz had focused on Mathis, especially because he had beaten Frazier in one previous meeting that year—Frazier’s only loss as an amateur prior to the Olympic tournament. Mathis had cruised to the finals, dominating smaller opponents.

We had ringside seats. My father was a knowledgeable boxing aficionado and enjoyed sharing stories with me about his favorite fighters, such as Joe Louis, Benny Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. As a young man he had enjoyed putting on the gloves and sparring with his friends until one day he broke the nose of his best friend Abe Bolker, and he never boxed again. Yet he always spoke proudly of his younger brother, my uncle Willie, who was a boxer in the Navy during World War II. And he still followed the so-called “sweet science” or “manly art of self defense,” as boxing was often called.

My first memory of boxing is the Rocky Marciano-Joe Louis fight in October 1951, when I was 5. I watched on a 10-inch TV screen with my father and uncles at my aunt Sadye and uncle Joe’s house in Far Rockaway. Everyone was sad. I didn’t understand what Uncle Willie meant when he said of Louis, “He’s a shell.” A shell was something you found at the beach. By 1951 Louis was years past his prime and fought only because he desperately needed the money.

Some 47 years after the Frazier-Mathis fight in the Olympic trials a few memories still stand out. Mathis was extraordinarily fat. He towered over Frazier but the feisty “little guy” was not intimidated and was the aggressor throughout. My father said the judges almost always prefer the aggressor to a fighter forced to be on the defensive for most of a fight. A rare exception was Muhammad Ali, who we watched train for his first fight with Sonny Liston in 1962. The first day we saw Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) spar at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach my father said, “This guy has no chance. Nobody ever won a championship fight backing away all the time.” But by the end of the second day he changed his mind: “This kid is gonna beat Liston. I’ve never seen a heavyweight with such quick hands and feet!” Few experts agreed. The final odds for that fight were something like 8-1 in favor of Liston.

Mathis wore his trunks very high in his fight with Frazier in the Olympic trials. He looked comical but it served him well: When Frazier hit Mathis with legitimate body shots, the referee warned him about low blows. In the second round, he penalized Frazier two points for hitting below the belt. Frazier would say later, “In a three-round bout a man can’t afford a points-deduction like that.” Despite losing the second round because of the deduction, Frazier was a clear winner in the eyes of almost everyone but the judges. The decision was heartily booed.

“All that fat boy had done was run like a thief,” Frazier complained. “Hit me with a peck and backpedal like crazy.” When Frazier returned home to Philadelphia he was so upset that he considered giving up boxing altogether. But his manager Duke Dugent and trainer Yank Durham convinced him to make the trip to Tokyo as an alternate in case something happened to Mathis. Good thing they did. Mathis injured his hand and couldn’t compete. Frazier went on to win the gold medal.

Frazier and Mathis would fight again as professionals four years later at Madison Square Garden, and again there were some dubious aspects to the matchup. By then Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing induction into the Army during the war in Vietnam. The Frazier-Mathis fight was proclaimed a “world championship” match by the New York State Athletic Commission. To be honest, I don’t remember the fight as much as I remember the way Jimmy Cannon, a sports-writing legend, spat on the sidewalk as Leonard Shecter and I walked past him on our way in to the arena.

Mathis again wore his trunks high but this time it didn’t help. A relentless Frazier wore down the bigger, heavier man, and the fight was stopped in the 11th round. From 1968 to 1970, Frazier made six defenses, including a fifth-round TKO of World Boxing Association champ Jimmy Ellis in a “unification” fight. But everyone knew who the real champion was, and in the summer of 1970 public pressure forced the overseers of boxing to grant Ali a license to fight again. Demand quickly grew for a showdown between the undefeated champion and Frazier.

Ali knocked out top contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, setting the stage for one of the most anticipated heavyweight title fights in boxing history. I was privileged to cover those and many other memorable boxing events. But I haven’t watched a fight in years. I’ll explain why in my next post.

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com.