The prizefight is a simple proposition of just two men, who are seldom simple, alone in the ring. All fight managers know this, even those who pretend to mysterious, unshakable theories known only to them—and to the last manager from whom the theories were stolen. The nonsense never moves the fighter; he knows the proposition. He carries into the ring only a dream, a heart and a style, and if all of this is real enough he produces a piece of work just as moving as a Goya or the sound of Coleman Hawkins.
Joe Frazier, the new heavyweight champion of Penn Station, is no Goya or Coleman Hawkins, but one is drawn to what he does in a ring. Madison Square Garden, now located at the station, created his title—no better than a Woolworth trinket—but Frazier's performance against Buster Mathis last week produced dignity and meaning where only cheap opportunism had existed before in the glacial atmosphere of the new Garden.
Each fighter must make his fight his own way. There are the dandies and the maulers, the meticulous craftsmen and the thrilling improvisers, but Joe Frazier is none of these. He is an honest workman, and if he is ever remembered at all it will be because he is such a fighter. He comes to work, and he gives the last measure of himself, however unaesthetic the workmanship may be. One can count on Frazier. He does not belong to the times.
"I earn what I win," says Frazier. "I punch and get punched; he lays it on me and I lay it on him. That's what fightin' is all about. The people, they pay. I pay."
Few today, whether doctor or lawyer, chef or shoemaker, can say the same, but Frazier can. He is not a special fighter, but no one has ever been more of a professional. He was neither a Nureyev nor a chilling executioner against Mathis. He was just beautifully implacable. Frazier's persistence, similar to that of a man hanging onto a massive marlin, eventually ravaged Mathis' questionable will, his thin confidence and, finally, his enormous body.
The body, 244 pounds, fell in the 11th round, but it came apart much earlier. Mathis, despite his indecisive punching—often he only slapped—and his staggering dumbness, carried an edge into the sixth round. Then Frazier turned the fight completely around. He was cutting the ring down on Mathis now, and it seemed Mathis was fighting out of a glove compartment. Frazier had been hammering away to the kidneys from the start, and now the tree-trunk arms began to drop.
Mathis' head was in a precarious position, and Frazier started to gamble for the big punch. He had taken a couple of good shots early in the fight, and he was convinced that Mathis could not hurt him. Defying orders from his corner, Frazier exposed his head more; he kept rushing down into the barrel of the gun. He dared Mathis to whack him, but the weary ballroom dancer (he'd be a darling at Roseland) could not unload. The fearful pounding at his body had taken his strength, destroyed his will.
A right hand sent him on his way out, and then a left hook, the trademark of all Philadelphia fighters, caught Mathis near the temple. He seemed to react as if jolted with electricity, hanging in the air for a long moment, then toppling over like the towering mast of an old frigate. He lay across a bottom strand of rope, his flaccid belly heaving, his mouth gasping for breath, his future as much in question as his strategy had been.
No one will ever understand the fight that Mathis made. True, he had never been in with opponents who were really anything more than YMCA amateurs, but he has definite skills. Why did he refuse to jab, move in, set up and punch? Frazier can be hit, but you have to tag him as he is moving in. Why did Mathis ludicrously insist on laying inside with Frazier? He was in there by design at first, but it was a mistake. One should never fight Joe Frazier inside. He is a dogged infantryman.
"It will take one hell of a man to beat Frazier," says Yancey Durham, his manager and trainer.