Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Down Goes Frazier

And with him boxing dies a little more.

Smokin' Joe Frazier's death this week has caused me to reminisce about the Golden Age of boxing, or at least the golden age that I knew, from the mid-1960's, through the '80's.

I readily admit that it has always been difficult to defend boxing as a sport. It was, and is, brutal, dangerous, exploitative, and corrupt. One only has to observe the rare public appearance by Mohammad Ali these past few years to understand latent dangers that boxing carries with it, along with the more immediate, and occasionally tragic, ones.

And yet, boxing as I knew it was a great sport and fantastic spectacle. Clay-Liston; Ali-Frazier; Hearns-Leonard; Mancini-Chacon. You don't need first names, or even specific fights, to know exactly who and what I'm talking about. Some great fighters are tied to each other for eternity.

The greatest fights and fighters earned status not accorded to any other sport or competition, not even Super Bowls or World Series. They weren't merely contests, they were world events that came close rivaling the biggest news. Its images were every bit as iconic as those of an anti-war protester offering a flower to a National Guardsman or Neil Armstrong taking that giant leap.

The most famous photo in sports history?

You remembered where you were when a fight happened and what happened, round-by-round. You recognized the fighters, their managers, their trainers, the reporters and analysts, and maybe even the ring announcers, by merely their face or their voice. You marveled at the courage, stamina, strength, and fortitude of fighters who, battered and beaten, found the will to get off of their stool to fight the fifteenth round, even though they had little chance of winning.

And that was part of what made boxing unique. As long as a boxer was in the ring and on his feet, he had a "fighting chance". Announcers talk of "knockout blows" in other sports, but boxing is the only sport where one side can deliver that blow after being beaten for 90% of the contest and impossibly behind in the score.

In boxing, there was always hope.

But boxing wasn't just will and brute strength. Skill, speed, power, hand-eye coordination, strategy, and stamina were all vitally important to deciding the outcome of a particular bout.

Sadly, boxing has been replaced to a large extent in the 21st Century by mixed martial arts fighting. Boxing is the "sweet science," for all the reasons listed above. There is no science to MMA, at least none that I care to discern.

The title to this post, of course, echoes Howard Cosell's famous call from the Frazier-Foreman fight in 1973. Back when prize fights were shown on live television, not only to those willing to fork over half of a week's savings to watch on pay-per-view or a king's ransom to see a fight live. That may be part of what killed boxing, along with greedy promoters and the ridiculous proliferation of world boxing organizations that tried to grab a piece of the pie.

This is not, however, an analysis of what went wrong with boxing or why. It's strictly a remembrance of an athlete we all knew, in a sport we all knew.  We'll miss you Joe, along with the pastime that has largely died along with you.

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