|Smokin' Joe Frazier|
But first, some thoughts about some of the greats we have known in our lifetime. Boxing was, to me, a spectator sport. I couldn't see any reason to take the beating that some of them faced, like Benny "Kid" Paret, who was killed in the ring by Emile Griffith in March of 1962. The cover of Sports Illustrated the following week showed Paret being beaten to his death; in First Hour Study Hall, Maynard Midtgaard pointed at the photo and said, "These guys are the best-conditioned athletes in the world." True - but it didn't keep Paret alive.
On the other hand, boxing was a way out, of sorts, for a number of blacks dating perhaps first to Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American Heavyweight Champ in the early 1900's. Over time, more and more blacks got into the ring, although my earliest recollection was of a fellow named Bobo Olson, a white guy who was at least moderately successful. By the mid 50's Floyd Patterson took the title, leading to bouts with the Swede Ingemar Johansson, and I was hooked as a boxing fan. Old 'tunder and lightning was a one-punch marvel but if it landed, he would win. I listened to 2 or 3 of their fights over the static-filled AM radio stations, losing the call from time to time as the signal faded away.
|Sonny Liston - "The Bear"|
Over time, Clay was castigated for his conversion to the Nation of Islam and refusal to serve when called. His decision to accept a prison sentence might have been the greatest statement of principle by anyone in our younger days, and gained fans for a lifetime. His boxing skills were unbelievable, his mouth even more unbelievable, and he led the way for foes like Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, and even Leon Spinks, a real surprise winner in 1978, and the beginning of the end of the superiority of Ali in the ring.
|Frazier vs Ali, date unknown|
At the welterweight level we later saw Sugar Ray Robinson, Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler battling each other in the 80's, and to my mind that was the beginning of the end of boxing as a sport of renown. By 1993 when Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield were fighting, the biggest event of the night was the ultralight plane that crashed into the ring. And that was the last boxing match I believe I watched on the tube.
So many of the boxers, black for sure and probably the white ones, too, came from poor backgrounds. Sonny Liston was reputedly one of 25 children fathered by one man. Frazier was one of twelve. The family background was typically that of sharecropper, and for many who indeed made it to the Bigtime and a share of boxing wealth, the stories eventually came back of the wealth being frittered away through unscrupulous handlers, fast living, or ignorance, and the boxers ignominiously becoming Vegas "greeters" to support themselves. But for many black men, there was little other choice. More on that in Part Deux.