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How three giants of boxing defined a turbulent decade

Boxing mattered in the 1970s, particularly in the heavyweight division. It had been relevant before: Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney gave the sport luster in the 1920s, and Joe Louis dominated during the late 1930s and ’40s. More recently, Mike Tyson was a terrifying force during the 1980s until his cloak of invincibility was shredded by Buster Douglas.

But the 1970s brought together three dominant and diverse personalities, and through five fights during the decade, they gave heavyweight boxing a golden age that hasn’t been equaled since.

Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Ge0rge Foreman are the main focus in Richard Hoffer’s smartly written “Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier and Foreman and an America on the Ropes” (Da Capo Press; hardback; $25.99; 278 pages). But Hoffer, a writer at Sports Illustrated for more than two decades, provides necessary and nuanced context as the fighters competed during a turbulent decade.

The United States in 1971, Hoffer writes, was “the beginning of a disastrous decade, racial and political divides threatening the progress of a nation, threatening its viability, really.”

The war in Vietnam raged, and student protests reached a bloody climax in May 1970 when four students on the Ohio State campus were shot dead by National Guard troops. Integration and equal opportunity moved forward, but at an agonizingly slow pace. The American economy wobbled as President Richard Nixon tried to find a solution with a wage and price control freeze in August 1971. An even bigger headache for Nixon lurked — a break-in at the Watergate complex in June 1972 . What Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissed as a “third-rate burglary” would eventually topple a president.

Ali, Frazier and Foreman were former Olympic gold medalists, and each wore the heavyweight title belt during the 1970s. Ali had become “a symbol of defiance in a country that more and more appreciated the value of dissent.” Frazier was a tough and gritty, a genuine champion who resented being cast as “second banana” to Ali and drove his point home in the first “Fight of the Century” when he defeated his rival at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

Foreman was a happy-go-lucky Olympian who turned sour, a boxer with devastating punching power that was reminiscent of his role model, the equally surly Sonny Liston.

With all three fighters at the top of their game in the early 1970s, Hoffer writes that their bouts were breathtaking — but took their toll on each of them.

“Their five fights — American spectacles of ambition, excess and unadulterated desire — cost them dearly,” he writes.

Hoffer puts the reader into the heads of the boxers and their entourages as he recounts the “Rumble in the Jungle” and “The Thrilla in Manila.” He relives the stunned, hoarse broadcast call of ABC’s Howard Cosell — “Down goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!” — as Foreman demolished Smokin’ Joe to take the heavyweight title in Jamaica. He describes Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy in Zaire (“Don’t talk,” he admonished his handlers during the fight. “I know what I’m doing.”), where he allowed Foreman to punch himself out before scoring a lightning-fast knockout in the eighth round to reclaim the crown.

“Oh no,” ex-fighter Archie Moore, who was in Foreman’s corner, shouted at Ali. “You beautiful thief. I know what you’re doing.”

Ali was a master manipulator, who characterized Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” before their first fight and demeaned him further by calling him a “gorilla” before their clash in the Philippines.

When it was over, the three heavyweights had fought 51 rounds across four countries and produced a boxing survivor — Ali — “although barely at that,” Hoffer writes.

Hoffman’s writing is precise, and he builds each chapter to a crescendo, with crisp prose that weaves in narrative with the quotes of the fighters.

The story did not end well for Frazier or Ali. “Frazier died poor and bitter,” Hoffer writes. “Ali withdrew into his disease Parkinson’s).”

It was Foreman who emerged as the true survivor, reinventing his persona “from surly enforcer to cheery endorser.” To a new generation, he became the smiling, rotund spokesman of the George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine.

“Foreman, who’d seemed the most fragile of them all, not only came out of this demolition derby intact, but emerged changed and improved,” Hoffer writes.

Foreman even would regain the heavyweight title 20 years after losing it to Ali, defeating Michael Moore in November 1994.

Hoffer’s clever writing even includes chapter titles. One example: “A Tunnel of Love, A Red Rubber Mouse, and a Veteran Russian.” Or, “A Leopard-Skin Hat, A Monster, and Mr. Tooth Decay.” Provocative tools to draw the reader into the chapter, and each piece of the title is relevant to the story.

While all three fighters exited the 1970s on less than firm footing, they did manage to survive. And so did the United States.

“The country, now that we think about it, had gotten out alive, too,” Hoffer writes.

“Bouts of Mania” is compelling and entertaining, and puts the 1970s and the careers of its top three boxers into perfect focus.

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