For the death of Du Koo Kim
He said, “Someone should have stopped the fight and told me it was him.”
They made hypocrite judgments after the fact
But the name of the game is be hit and hit back.
Even though it is abhorrent to some, boxing was part of the 20th-century's lingua franca, its common ground, part of our shared history. Sporting eras were defined by the reign of heavyweight champions. Single fighters – Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali – were imbued with social and cultural significance in a way that even the most famous athletes in other sports were not. (Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson all meant something as well, but it's not even close.)
Fights have been cast as political theatre, with the combatants as ideological stand-ins. The sport has inspired visual artists and photographers and poets, it has been the subject of beautiful and powerful and profound literature. It has a language, a pattern, a rhythm and an aesthetic, which runs so deep in the culture that other sports and other things are habitually described in boxing terms (“They were like two heavyweights slugging it out.” ... “That was the knockout punch.” ... “He gave him a bit of the rope-a-dope.”)
And contained within a single fight, it is possible for an entire novel to unfold. Sit down and watch the brutal third bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila.
Mr. Frazier had grown up dirt poor in segregated South Carolina, before moving north, to work at menial labour – and stealing the occasional car – while fighting as an amateur. After winning a gold medal for the United States at the 1964 Olympics, he came home only to be fired, because the cast on his broken hand made it impossible to do his current job, slopping out the blood from the floor of a slaughterhouse.
He fought forever in Mr. Ali's shadow, though he beat him in their first fight in 1971.
He was cast by Mr. Ali as “the white man's champion,” was labelled “the gorilla” and wasn't articulate enough, wasn't quick enough, to keep up in their verbal sparring. Mr. Frazer despised Mr. Ali.
When they met for the third time, both past their prime, as Mr. Ali socialized with Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, escorting a fashion model girlfriend who would eventually be confronted by his angry wife, Mr. Frazier dreamed about how he would kill Mr. Ali in the ring – not metaphorically, but for real.
You can see it in the fight, you can feel the anger – and you can see, also, an expression of Mr. Ali's own indomitable will. “The closest to death I ever came,” he said afterward, a high compliment to Mr. Frazier's art and his intent.
After the 14th round, Mr. Ali asked his cornermen to cut of off his gloves. He wanted to quit, but they wouldn't let him. At that same moment, Mr. Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to let his nearly blinded fighter continue.
Mark Kram, who would later write about the two boxers in the book Ghosts of Manila, described the post-fight scene in Mr. Frazier's dressing room for Sports Illustrated:
“Only his heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet. ‘Who is it?' asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to look around. ‘Who is it? I can't see! Turn on the lights on!' Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will that had carried him so far – and now surely too far. His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya. ‘Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city,' said Frazier. ‘Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion.' ”
No other sport, and arguably no other pursuit or art form, offers that, offers such a clear window into the primitive essence of the species, laid bare by two men standing alone, stripped to the waist, facing each other in a lighted square, working through patterns and movements choreographed as dance.