Muhammad Ali v. Joe Frazier, Madison Square Garden, 1971


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March 11, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 10

In the company of two madmen
By Joe Flaherty

About 2.30 in the afternoon on Monday the sun was shining brightly while snowflakes were falling like confetti from the Lord’s balcony. Now that should have told a man something. If there was fiddling around in the firmament, what would be going on in Ali’s head? Indeed, had he, like Prospero, invoked these spirits?

The temptation is for the observer to call upon his mother lode of marvelous conceit and render the rendition of what really happened. Who but one who was battered for years by the good nuns is more qualified to discourse on the antics of religious maniacs? Mysticism and mayhem have long been the bread-and-butter of my philosophy. But an attempted journey through Ali’s head requires a St. Augustine, not a reporter, so what follows is the humble account of a mortal who is not privy to the inner workings of saviors. In short, this is a confession of ignorance.

If it was cleaved open, the head of Ali would produce a Rousseau canvas populated with pop-eyed lions, eerie moons, and dozing black men. How else could one explain his estimate of the fight: according to the soothsayer, only his own journey around the moon in a spaceship or the discovery of a baby dinosaur alive in California (mark California) could be more significant than the fight. The Peaceable Kingdom on a dark bender.

It would be a futile gesture to paint the tableau of those who attended The Fight; better to know who didn’t have the clout to be present, those poor souls forever damned to New York social limbo.

The horny sheet sharers of sex and ego promenaded around ringside before it began, demanding their due of recognition, which is not meant as a putdown since I did the flirtation walk route five times myself: my credentials winking at the cocoa flesh of the black ladies and the ivory tusks protruding from the hot pants of the lacquered ladies. It was delicious.

But the setting was best summed up on the way to the fight by a disgruntled non-ticketholder who said: “The only people who can affort this fight are spade slumlords and white liberals.”

The crowd was not Ali’s by a longshot. Atlanta had been his night, a return from the political wars, a party in his honor given by intimate friends. Tonight, the corporate heads in the prize seats would provide Frazier with a claque. Who else had uproariously cheered George Foreman for his Olympic Games flag-waving and his introduction by ring announcer Johnny Adie as “a man who is proud to be an American.” And they had had throat for Billy Conn — the donkeys letting out a huge Galway bray for him. Joe Louis, too, was smothered in a sea of sympathy by those who understand a man who is a credit to his race. In boxing everyone has a designated price seat in history.

But the crowd didn’t matter, simply because we were not only ignorant but terrified. We are all slaves to sane design, but as early as the introduction we knew we were in the company of two lunatics — one (Ali) madder than the other, to be sure, but who can quibble about degrees of madness.

As they were introduced, both fighters doesy-doed around the ring, bumping each other and snarling psychic oneupmanships. In the first round Ali did what he should — jab and move, landing the right hand rather easily. Frazier, too, was predictable — a crab with a souped-up governor trying to envelop an elusive prey. Round two followed the same pattern with Ali successfully keeping Frazier offstride with combinations and jabs, but the lunacy was beginning to show its quirky head. Both fighters were giving running verbal critiques of each other’s performance, each waving disgustedly at the end of every round. In the great show biz tradition they were ignoring the critics in the front seats and playing it broadly for the balcony, more so for the unseen balcony of the world on closed circuit television. After all, who gave a shit for the opinion of a referee and a couple of honky judges when what really was at stake was the love from Nigeria and the bravos from Brazil.

In the fifth, Frazier became Pirandello, that is, he became Ali and allowed Muhammad to punch him in the head for — laughs? At this juncture the crowd took solace in themselves, reassuring each other that they weren’t seeing what they were seeing and inwardly begging for some Eisenhower security and the sanity of a Marciano or a Louis. Or succinctly begging to have someone say, it isn’t so, Joe.

Enter Ali as Jack Johnson, the fantasy this fighter loves to live. For three rounds he laid on the ropes, letting Frazier pound him while he grinned, faked dizziness, swooned, and hinted at Victorian vapors. One was sure he was going to lie down with this $2 1/2 million safely in the bank and his mitted hand on his pecker, dealing the establishment the highest paid fucking in history.

But no. In the ninth he decided to fight. Really fight, no laying on the ropes playing with Frazier’s head as if it was the light bag in the gym. Such seriousness was contagious, and Frazier in the 11th staggered Ali around the ring with left hooks. In the 12th Ali fluctuated between pissing it, simply passing, then decided once again on punching. By this time his trainer, Angelo Dundee, looked as if he was being directed by Peter Brook — a lobotomized cheerleader. Brutal punishment was being exchanged willingly and accepted gleefully. It was a fight that could only be understood by the haunters of 42nd Street skin flick houses. The world was being jerked off under a derby.

In the 15th Ali was floored by a tremendous left hook. He not only got up but ended the fight jabbing on his toes, a tactic that was 44 minutes too late. I thought the 15th was crucial to Ali and scored the fight 8-7 for Frazier. This was a gross attempt to put numbers, logistics, latitudes, longitudes on an uncharted country — Ali’s brain. One needs an anchor at sea.

Ali simply gave away his championship. Why? Jack Johnson maybe. As one wag disgustedly said: “I could have seen ‘The Great White Hope’ for $2.50.” But then, one suspects Ali is not Eastern in orientation at all. Not even Yankee Eastern. He is, when it comes down to it, All-American. The return bout is scheduled for Los Angeles, and if miracles and resurrections are to take place, Southern California is perfect — a geographical gypsy tearoom. The sons of the surf and sun will in the future by divine scientology, tarot cards, astrology charts, baptist rantings, and sidewalk scrawlers unravel the mystery.

I always knew that Ali was the greatest faker (fakir) in history, but little did I suspect that, in vespers, when he was bowing to the East he was really pointed to the West.

Muhammad Greeley, I salute you.

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