Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Down Goes Frazier

Ever since his victory in his much–anticipated bout with Muhammad Ali in 1971, Joe Frazier had stood atop the boxing world.

He defended his title twice in 1972 but against inferior opponents who required him to spend little time in the ring before stopping both on TKOs. I remember hearing nearly all the grown–ups in my world say that, since Ali had been turned back, no one could topple Frazier.

(That was just fine with many of the men I knew, too. Many had pulled for Frazier against Ali, largely because the majority of adults in Arkansas supported the Vietnam War. Ali, of course, had spoken against the war and refused to fight in it.)

Always in the distance, though, was the imposing figure of George Foreman, the gold medal winner at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He turned pro the following year, and, once in awhile, I heard a grown–up speculate that Foreman could beat Frazier.

Even though Foreman was five inches taller than Frazier (who won an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964) and enjoyed a 10–inch reach advantage, Frazier was a 3–to–1 favorite when the two men met in Jamaica 40 years ago today. I suppose that was based on his years of experience as a pro — as well as his triumph over Ali (who was in every boxing conversation in those days, even if he wasn't on the fight card).

But both men entered the fight undefeated. And it didn't take long for observers to conclude that Foreman's height and reach advantage really did make a difference.

I've heard people ask if Foreman's victory on that night was an upset. I can't really say it was a big upset, even though it was regarded as an upset by many. I presume that was because Frazier was the champion and Foreman was younger, less experienced but already seen as a man who would one day be heavyweight champion of the world. Whether his win 40 years ago tonight was seen as an upset depended, I suppose, on whether the observer believed his time had come.

As it turned out, Foreman's "time" to be heavyweight champion came twice — on this night in 1973 and again 21 years later. He lost the title to Ali about a year and a half after winning it from Frazier.

The three–knockdown rule had been waived for the bout, but Frazier almost immediately became the poster child for why such a rule has a valid purpose. He went down three times in the first round and three times in the second before the fight was stopped.

"Foreman's last punch, a perfect right uppercut, lifted Frazier's stocky body into the air for an instant before he hit the canvas yet again," recalls The History Channel. "Frazier struggled to his feet, but at that point, 1:35 into the second round, the referee Arthur Mercante called an end to the bout."

It was during that brief bout that sportscaster Howard Cosell, doing the blow–by–blow for that era's equivalent of a pay–per–view audience, uttered what may well be the most memorable line of his career:

"Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"

Years later, Foreman confessed that Frazier was the only fighter he ever feared.

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