I'm not the best fighter in the world. I'm just the fighter with the title
The recent news release from Tokyo of a heavyweight championship fight there in September electrified no one. Better they should have announced that the price of rice had dropped a yen. In San Francisco, George Foreman (see cover), the gentleman heavyweight champion in absentia, scheduled a press conference, then decided it would be a whole lot easier fighting Joe Roman than trying to explain him, and remained a recluse. Somewhere, a kid named Roby Harris must have laughed. In his first 10 professional fights Roby Harris had been knocked out by Pat Duncan and Ken Norton and Jose Garcia and Jack O'Halloran and Roy Williams, and in a change of pace had lost a decision to Ray White. Between disasters, on Oct. 29, 1971, the same Roby Harris scored a 10-round decision over Joe Roman.
Last Friday morning, Dick Sadler, the champion's manager, who resembles a small mound of cannonballs—slightly rusted and denied—slumped in his hotel room in New York City and looked sincere. Why, puzzled the little round man, would anyone suggest that Roman was substandard, substandard meaning, of course, that there was no pulse.
A man across the room laughed. "No one even mentioned the word challenger, substandard or not. Joe Roman may be the nicest person, but he is also a stiff."
The cannonballs exploded. Springing from his chair, his eyes widened and burning, Sadler said, "Damn it, stiffs can punch. If it wasn't Roman it would have been Jose Urtain or Joe Bugner or Larry Middleman, er, Middleton. I don't say that they are all that brilliant. Look up them records. They knocked out a lot of people. And there had to be a few people in there who could take a punch. And there had to be somebody who could punch. You take any 200-pound guy and let him hit you on the jaw and you're gonna get hurt, and I don't care if he is a stiff." A man given to comical theatrics, Sadler smacked himself with his right fist, lightly, and, eyes rolling wildly, fell like a stone into his chair, which screeched in protest at the impact. Laurence Olivier he isn't.
Now that Foreman has said he will make his first title defense, no matter against whom, the heavyweight division—and, by the nature of the beast, all of boxing—is once again beginning to move. When the heavyweight champion is idle, as Foreman has been since he took the title from Joe Frazier five months ago in Kingston, Jamaica, fight fans slumber. So do promoters. They cannot easily make fights for the other contenders when it is not known where or when or against whom the champion will take his next stand. So everybody tends to sit around making small talk—and generally small change.
"That's why Ali was beautiful for boxing," says Miami Beach Promoter Chris Dundee. "He fought everybody and he fought often, and people thought about boxing and were excited. It doesn't matter who the heavyweight champion fights or where, just so he fights."
Since that night in March 1971 when Frazier lifted the title from Muhammad Ali, there has been a minimum of heavyweight action. Only Ali has kept reasonably busy, taking on some of the people Frazier as champion should have met. But now, at last, there is a fresh stirring. Breathing fire—and hungry once more—Frazier is off to London for a July 2 battle with Bugner, the European heavyweight champion who surprised Ali Feb. 14 in Nevada with his strong punching. It is a critical fight for Frazier. His jaw well and his oratory unspoiled by the fracture, Ali has signed for a Sept. 10 rematch with the man who broke him up, Ken Norton. And at New York's Madison Square Garden next Monday night Jimmy Ellis picks up $25,000 by setting his little traps for Earnie Shavers. Soon there surely will be someone for Jerry Quarry, who would have fought Shavers except for a mysterious case of the flu.
There are other contenders, but they are a tainted lot; Ernie Terrell, out of another retirement and putting fans to sleep with that brilliant jab and nothing else; Ron Lyle, promising until he was belted out by Quarry, and, behind him, Middleton, whom he whipped. And the others: Jose Garcia, whose distinction is that he once defeated Norton, but of late he has been knocked out twice, once by Terrell. And, yes, Floyd Patterson, who despite his age continues to entertain thoughts of fighting. Oscar Bonavena is still listed in the rankings, but he currently is fighting relatives more often than contenders.
"I see that the World Boxing Council has rated Roman No. 10," says Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker. "That's terrible. They can rate anybody they want, sanction a fight in a foreign country and then take a trip, with the tab picked up. Just a paid vacation. What do you expect from a bunch of politicians. The World Boxing Association is just as bad. Now when I put on a fight, I say the guy is rated No. 3, or No. 5. Who rates them? Me. Hell, I'm more qualified than a bunch of politicians."