Barack Obama has weighed-in for his rematch with the country’s destiny. He spent last week brashly declaring his eagerness to fight for the public, but last night ditched the verbal haymakers for speed-bag lingo intended to merely nick and pile up points on the scorecards. Ringside wise guys will tell you today that as this putative champ of the American people prances through the political apron ropes, it appears any bit of fight he ever had in him may have been left back in the law library, and he’d be wise to listen for the bell to sound, because it’s maybe tolling for him.
Would that we still had the likes of old masters such as W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon around to relieve me of having to pitifully channel an imitation of their post-fight newspaper ledes. But the president’s bite-sizing, tidbit-for-everyone State of the Union performance seemed to demand a reminder of the sort of elements that comprised their columns: no-nonsense, dramatic, florid, empathetic, streetwise, wry, and often unselfconsciously sentimental. Think of it, if you wish, as an example of the frank but kindly working-class language and attitudes of the 1930s through the ’50s; you know, a harbinger of the populism-with-real-teeth that you might have been anticipating Obama’s SOTU address would finally introduce, although he did pointedly extol the virtue of “common sense” and decry Washington’s “deficit of trust,” without the slightest irony, to be sure.
There’ll be more than enough criticism along these lines to wade through, and plenty still of the unaccountably fawning variety, too. So let’s talk instead about a real fighter, in deed as well as spirit, a professional whose work we can commemorate on the anniversary of his — to my mind, anyway — greatest fight. Of Muhammad Ali’s three tiffs with Joe Frazier, the 1st and 3d are usually mentioned. But on January 28, 1974, in a 12-round bout someone has termed The Ugly Middle Sister, Ali and Frazier met for the second time. Frazier had lost the title to George Foreman in humiliating fashion; and Ali, coming off two physically arduous and damaging fights with the troublesome stylist, Ken Norton, was at the lowest psychological state of his career, worse than even the period when he was barred from boxing for refusing to cooperate with the military draft.
Ali had avenged a loss to Norton and defeated him in the second fight. But he was unhappy with his performance and for the first time had begun questioning his ring skills — to the point that he seriously considered calling off the Frazier match. He had fought 13 times since reemerging after 44 months of disbarment, and had lost only to Norton. What ultimately propelled him to proceed against Frazier — apart from having been defeated by him in their fabled first encounter — was the obvious fact that it was necessary in order to get a shot at Foreman’s title.
The second Frazier fight, and not his return after his suspension, marked the actual beginning of the second half of Ali’s career. Despite the layoff, Ali was only 28 when he re-emerged in 1970, and had never been seriously hurt. Joe Louis, for example, lost more than four years to WWII and then successfully defended his title four times. It was the damage inflicted by Norton in their two meetings — a broken jaw and a severely sprained right hand, added to the many hits he took— that accentuated the accumulating years for Ali and provided him his initial sense of ring mortality. At his training camp a despondent Ali remarked to a visitor, “You see any people around here? People don’t hang out with losers.”
And yet he trained hard for Frazier and was in shape. The dancing master was in evidence through the first half of the fight, on his toes, circling, sticking and floating. The judges’ cards had him winning four or five of the first six rounds. In the sixth Frazier began scoring with hooks, started verbally taunting and gesturing toward Ali, and only barely lost the round when Ali closed with a spirited last-second effort.
The next two rounds were all Frazier: bobbing, ducking, swarming with incessant headlong rushes, his hooks were landing with staccato thuds. The pressure was relentless, and Ali, now no longer dancing but retreating to the ropes, must have been revisiting the last Norton battle and the way in which he had slowed in the middle rounds and Norton had pursued and scored repeatedly. But there was something else about that fight that was significant, and what Ali had done next plumbed all of his natural athletic instincts and repertoire as a fighter. At the very least it was uncharacteristic of his style, and clearly a stopgap move. In the closing seconds of the final round Ali had practically ceased all movement, planted his feet and traded freely with Norton. It was effective enough to win him the decision.
So late in the eight with the momentum all Frazier’s, from the corner came shouts from Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer: “Stay there! Stay there!” Stop moving, stay in the center of the ring, plant your heels, throw the left, the right, double the combinations if you can, then tie him up. Stay. Plant. Left. Right. Double up. Clinch. Don’t back up. Don’t back up. And Ali listened; and in the ninth round literally commenced the second half of his career. The legs, which had taken him to renown, were now obviously only a part of the arsenal. The voluble, headstrong, mercurial legend with the outsize ego and his own unwavering ideas on the techniques of boxing had, in the exigencies of the situation, incorporated another skill set into the mix. With everything on the line — his pride, his fame, another title shot — all seamlessly rolled into that inimitable self-regard, in that instant he became a complete fighter. Ultimately, the best of athletes become that way because they prove to be coachable, and Ali was no exception.
The ninth, in my estimation, was as fine a single round as Ali ever fought. He went the entire three minutes essentially standing in place and punching, with Dundee continuously screaming, “Stay there!” Watching it was to witness the very best in the lineage of boxing history filtered through one man. Ali’s admitted influences had always been apparent: Gene Tunney’s timing and ability to gauge range; Ray Robinson’s hand speed and lancing jabs; Willle Pep’s incomparable evasiveness and defense. Then in the final minute of the concluding 12th Ali put it — and them— all together in spectacular fashion, landing upwards of 40 times in those 60 seconds with a furious medley of flat-footed combinations.
Styles make fights, Dundee was always fond of saying, and his guy that night sculpted a new one out of the gifts of the gene pool, all that he had learned, and his genius for improvisation. It was a vision of pure will and eclectic combativeness, physicality and prowess honed to a singular moment, without an ounce of awkwardness, and breathtaking in its precision. Perhaps it even rhymed. Long after he named himself The Greatest, Ali had gone one better, and had become the consummate journeyman.
I watched it again right after viewing the chief executive of the United States present an urgent comprehensive policy review as the equivalent of ladling out piecemeal sops to those he would continue to placate and those with whom he would curry favor. It’s worth speculating how Heinz, Smith and Cannon — chroniclers of an era of similar destitution and war — would decipher our present circumstances. Examples of perseverance, daring, excellence, integrity, as well the lack of same, were their daily encounters, and they distilled them accordingly in their work. Boxing, with its primal attributes, could indeed be a most instructive metaphor; and the hardscrabble times in which they came up and over which they eventually prevailed, forever seared their generation. But as to how they might address Barack Obama? Well, however generous and fair-minded, they were men who wielded language that was as candid and tough as the moment required. I suspect they’d caution him to listen, really listen, listen as if everything imaginable depended on it, hear the shouts and then finally adapt, because to not do so would be to guarantee that he’d get his showboat ass handed to him.