Originally published March 9, 1971
NEW YORK — "Let me go get my face straightened out...I'm bot this ugly," Joe Frazier said. The words came slushing through a chunk of ice he was grinding between his aching teeth, trying to chill the pain in his jaw into submission. There was a lump under his right eye and a lump under his left eye and a lump on his forehead and a crackle of dried blood alongside his left nostril.
Handsome, he wasn't.
"All those things you guys been writing about me," he said, working hard to arrange those lumpy features in a smile, "what you got to say now?"
All those things people had been writing, had been taunting words of Muhammad Ali, that Frazier was too slow, too dull, too heavy-legged, and too homely to be a champion.
And while Frazier was clutching ice to his lumpy face, Ali was hunched in a police car, its siren screaming as it screeched through New York's clogged traffic to a hospital to assay the damage to a jaw that was swollen like a soggy jack-o-lantern.
Had Ali been able to talk, he might have echoed Frazier's words. All those things those guys had been writing about him had been churned into so much confetti in a terrifying-wonderful savage-skillful bitter-sweet kind of fist-fight.
Frazier won. A unanimous decision. But one judge called it 11-4 and the referee had it 8-6-1, their scoring clashing on seven of the 15 rounds. If two skilled observers had agreed to disagree that often about something unfurling in front of them, can you understand now why the easiest sort of criticisms have been repeated about two fighters until they were accepted as though engraved on stone by some Biblical hand?
It turned out that Frazier was not too slow, too dull, too heavy-legged to be the champion. He was swift enough to pursue Ali throughout most of the savage fight. He was smart enough to bob-and-weave and provide an elusive target to Ali's snake-quick jabs.
He had the legs that enabled him to dart forward for that one crunching left hook in the 15th round that sent Ali careening onto his back.
"He takes some punch," Frazier was to say later. "Oh my God. That shot I hit him with, I went down home and got that one. From out in the country."
It came whistling out of Beaufort like the Suncoast Limited, screeching on invisible tracks, sending sparks into the night. Only the wail of the whistle was missing. And it crushed into Ali's handsome head just like the locomotive it resembled.
"Believe me, he's a good man," Frazier said.
For all the people who had demeaned Frazier as too slow and too mechanical, there were as many who scorned Ali as some kind of faint-hearted narcissist who would curl up and wither if somebody fetched him a clout to his handsome head. They decided he had lost enough of his speed and a fraction of those incredible reflexes and that would make him easy prey for those kidney-rattling hooks that Frazier throws.
Well, Ali spent a lot of time with his feet planted firmly, banging away at Frazier with both hands. And there was that one round they could have fought in a telephone booth, imprisoned in one corner of the ring, thumping each other like kids at recess, waiting for the other guy to wail "enough."
And in the 15th, sprawled on his back, with his knees up like some helpless sort of grasshopper, he scrambled quickly up and finished on his feet. Where was the "dog" that everybody who hated him insisted was lurking inside him, just waiting to be released by someone like Frazier?
Ali lost, and the jaw was swollen shut, and the voice that had delighted some and infuriated as many, was silent for the moment. But the man had shown enough heart to squelch the cruelest critic.
It was not the "scientific fight" that Ali had promisedon one of his cooler moments. It had the bitter touch of madness about it. Frazier fighting one round with his hands dangling beside those awful green-and-gold brocade trunks of his, thrusting out his jaw. "I wanted hm to know I could take everything he had and then some," Frazier was to explain afterwards.
And there was all that time Ali spent with his red velvet trunks propped against the ropes, letting Frazier whack at his body, leaning that handsome head out of the way of brutal punches "I thought the man was crazy," Frazier said.
Perhaps the fury of the occasion rendered them both temporarily insane. There were moments of ugly burlesque, the fighters gesturing at each other, motioning to each other, snarling at each other.
"He said, 'I'm gonna kill you, nigger,' " Frazier said afterwards. "That's ghetto-talk. And I said, 'That's what you're gonna have to do.' "
It was that kind of night and that kind of fight. Two men with malice, trying to pound each other helpless, trying to outwit each other with small-boy tricks and schoolyard language.
And from the ridiculous, it would soar to the sublime, doling out glimpses or courage and skill and dedication.
"In the dressing room, he [Ali] was saying, 'Was it a good, hard fight?' " corner man Bundini Brown said afterwards. "He was asking questions."
He had spent 15 brutal rounds with Joe Frazier, answering some nagging questions people had been asking about him through the years. Questions that had come smirking and bubbling out of the controversial endings of fights with Sonny Liston and Henry Cooper and Jerru Quarry.