This essay was originally published in The American Conservative in 2015.
One of the most regular running jokes in my family, for many years now, is that I don’t play Wii Boxing because I think it’s too violent. We make a joke of my tender conscience, but I really do wince when a little Mii’s head snaps back. I can’t play for more than a couple of minutes. I pause the game; I switch to golf, or tennis, or frisbee. My discomfort is genuine, and deeper than any reasonable standard would deem appropriate, and (to me, anyway) not funny at all. The roots of it sink deep into my life; follow those roots 40 years deep — give or take a few days — and eventually you’ll find yourself in front of a little black-and-white television set, in Birmingham, Alabama, on the first day of October 1975. Three days earlier I had turned seventeen.
Until then, I had been for most of my young life a very serious boxing fan. Boxing was common on network TV in those days, which was good, because network TV was all we had. Muhammed Ali was of course the dominant figure of the era, the one you couldn’t escape even if you wanted to, and a few years earlier, in my local library, I had picked up Sting Like A Bee: The Muhammed Ali Story, written by the admirable light-heavyweight Jose Torres in collaboration with Bert Randolph Sugar. I read it, read it again, went back to the library to renew it, and read it one more time.
What fascinated me wasn’t the biographical narrative, but Torres’ account of what life in the ring was really like. I have never forgotten his words in praise of body-punching:
I’ve hit fighters in their bodies with so much force that they couldn’t help but let out an involuntary groan like a wounded wolf. Uually the man who connects will jump at the hurt fighter with more punches. I never attacked after such a punch. I used to step back and let my rival savor every second of pain. I was not only a sadist but a technician; I knew how discouraging those punches were to the body. I became world’s champion by throwing one. A left hook to the liver.
You can see the left hook Torres is talking about at the beginning of this clip: Willie Pastrano is the victim, and it takes Willie about two seconds after the punch lands to feel its effect. When he does, he crumples. He gets back up, God bless him, and finishes the round, but that’s as far as he can go. The ref stops the fight, and Torres takes the title. It was Pastrano’s last fight. He retired, age twenty-nine.
(Torres knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of such punches as well: four months after winning his crown he took on a non-title bout with a journeyman heavyweight named Tom McNeely, and though he won the fight he took such a beating to the body that some observers thought he was never again the same fighter.)
I didn’t fight, myself, aside from a handful of schoolyard flailings; I was small for my age, already a lover of words, and Torres wrote vividly; I became a literary boxing fan long before I knew that that was a tradition. By the time Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time I considered myself a connoisseur. I had never heard of A. J. Liebling and his “sweet science of bruising” but I would have loved it if I had known.
I don’t think I had watched the first Ali-Frazier fight live, though I had seen replays on Wide World of Sports. Until that fight it was commonly said of Ali that he wouldn’t be able to take a punch, but in the fifteenth round of that fight Frazier hit Ali with as perfect a left hook to the jaw as has ever been thrown … and Ali got right back up. No one has ever had a more devastating left hook than Frazier, and no matter how many times I watch that clip I still cannot understand how that punch didn’t knock Ali cold. In slow motion you can see Ali just beginning to turn his head away a millisecond before the punch lands, though it doesn’t seem likely that that small motion could have made a difference. But in any case, it was never again said that Ali couldn’t take a punch.
I didn’t see the second fight either, and all I remember from it is the controversy about Tony Perez, the referee, who let Ali repeatedly grab the back of Frazier’s head and pull it down in their clinches. But by the time the third fight rolled around I was fully alert to the drama of it. I understood the contrast in styles — after all, there has never been a more obvious one: Frazier moving relentlessly, maliciously forward, head low, throwing hook after hook after hook to head and body, with both hands; Ali upright and bouncing, circling always to his left, disdaining body punches and hooks in favor of rapid-fire straight lefts and rights.
I understood also that these men were not rivals but rather actual enemies, that they truly hated each other. Having lived all my life in Alabama, where the world was neatly and simply divided between white people and black people, in that order, I don’t think I then grasped the racial dimensions of that hatred. I knew that Ali called Frazier a “gorilla,” but I never imagined the significance of a light-skinned Negro man saying that to a dark-skinned one. I might have been awakened to that dynamic if I had known that a few days before the fight, at the Marcos’s palace in Manila, Frazier had leaned over to Ali and quietly said, “I’m gonna whup your half-breed ass.” In turn, Ali would say to his corner just before the fight, “I’m gonna put a whuppin’ on this n****r’s head.” But I didn’t learn about any of that until later; I just knew that I had never anticipated anything in my short life as passionately as I anticipated what Ali had already called the Thrilla in Manila.
The classic account of what happened in that ring — and what happened before, and after — was written for Sports Illustrated by Mark Kram, and it remains the finest essay in sportswriting I have ever read. It captures with uncanny faithfulness the single fundamental fact about that fight, which is its ceaseless and horrifying brutality. By the third round Ali had pummeled Frazier so relentlessly that I was embarrassed for Joe, and I didn’t want to watch any more; I also knew that I would watch until the end, which I expected to come any moment. Then Frazier started to fight back.
As the advantage shifted back and forth between the two boxers, I watched in a state of ongoing incredulity. It was like seeing that Frazier punch that dropped Ali in their first fight, but a hundred times — a thousand. Ten thousand, it seemed. After a while I simply could not understand how either man remained standing, yet stand they did. And they punched — though “punch” is a pathetic word: the only adequate words are the ones that seem hyperbolic, like “bludgeon.”
It went on. For a time, for several rounds in the middle of the fight, Frazier got inside Ali’s guard and planted the top of his head under Ali’s chin and smashed Ali’s flanks and jaw again and again until I couldn’t imagine anything else happening, ever; but eventually, as the number of rounds (the number of years, I almost said) mounted, he grew exhausted and couldn’t get in there any more. And Ali, freed from that terrible pressure, found room to move; and then those long guns fired, repeatedly finding Frazier’s face and turning it gradually to pulp.
Frazier wouldn’t have quit, of course, under any circumstances less severe than death, but his trainer Eddie Futch couldn’t bear it any more and stopped the fight. The day after, Ali talked to Kram about what it had been like to be in that ring: “It was like death,” he said. He praised Frazier: “I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him” — but then, there was no reason for him to stint the praise. He had won; and Frazier had never had words to hurt him the way his contempt had slashed Frazier. The really remarkable thing was Frazier’s response, uttered just hours after his long war with Ali drew to its terrible close. “Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city. Lawdy, Lawdy, he’s a great champion.”
As for me, I sat there for a while, once it was over, in my little bedroom in Alabama, staring at my little black-and-white TV. I could have watched elsewhere in the house on a larger screen, and in color, but I would never have risked being distracted by my uncomprehending family. So I sat there alone and in silence. I didn’t know it, but boxing was over for me; I would never watch another bout with interest and attention, and my tolerance for boxing’s aggression would shrink and shrink until I found myself avoiding Wii Boxing. And I still remember that night, when sleep took long to come; and for days afterward, a haze hung over my mind.