These have been ignoble times for old heavyweight champions, a reminder of that lamentable era following World War II when Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott lingered far too long and paid the price.
There was Muhammad Ali, 38, sitting on his stool in a ring in a parking lot in Las Vegas just over a year ago, his eyes puffed and discolored, unable to answer the bell for the 11th round against champion Larry Holmes. There was Ken Norton, who said he was 35, pinned helplessly in his own corner in the first round in Madison Square Garden last May as young Gerry Cooney bludgeoned him senseless before the ref stopped it.
And last Thursday, in the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, there was yet another sorry scene. It was there that a smokeless Joe Frazier, 37, came back 5� years after George Foreman pounded him into retirement at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. For the occasion Frazier chose as his opponent a lumbering, muscle-bound, unranked aurochs named Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, 30, who had a record of 17-1 after turning pro in June 1979 and who had spent the previous 12 years in Illinois' Stateville Prison for murder.
Though the fight ended in a controversial draw—referee Nate Morgan had Cummings winning 46-45, while judges Harold Marovitz and Collins Brown had it tied, 47-47 and 46-46, respectively—that verdict was the night's only moment of ambiguity. Poignantly clearer was the fact that Joe Frazier, the good and gallant Smokin' Joe, hadn't eluded the inexorable march of time.
Here was the fighter whose tireless legs and shoulder-rolling motion had tracked and hounded Ali from one end of the ring to another as he won a decision in their epic first match in the Garden in 1971. On Thursday, Frazier lost his legs almost completely when Cummings staggered him with a right uppercut in the third round, and often found himself pinned to the ropes and unable to spin out or, in fact, to move at all.
Here was the Frazier whose left hook had been a bullwhip, lashing Ali's jaw in that first fight, dropping him in the 15th round. Then—4� years later—he pounded Ali so relentlessly in their third fight that Ali, though he won, said he'd never felt so close to death. Last week that furious and unerring hook, when it wasn't missing altogether, had no effect. Here was a Frazier who had fought by instinct and will, always going forward, but now was fighting as if from dim memory.
If this was painful to watch for the first few rounds, it became nearly unbearable in the eighth. Cummings is no banger—he's a reformed weight lifter, with bunched muscles, and his punches lack the snap of a heavy hitter—but by then he'd had Frazier's nose and mouth bleeding and left eye swelling.
Suddenly Frazier was in trouble in a corner. Both fighters were tired by now, but Cummings hit Frazier with a series of blows that sent him reeling. Lefts and rights caught Frazier in the body. He crouched and Cummings brought his punches up, pounding Frazier with lefts and rights to the head. A left and right staggered Frazier. His legs wobbled and he seemed about to fall. His head bob-bled like a spring doll's. His mouth was bleeding again. He pitched forward, his legs giving way, and he clutched desperately at Cummings, as if to hold on to what little remained of his boxing life. He was just able to keep his feet.
Frazier survived the round and the two that followed, but the sight of him on the stool, with an ice pack pressed to his head, was a sad reminder of the Ali of a year ago. Here was another Gatsby of sport who was trying vainly to recapture the past.
"I am one of God's men," Frazier had said repeatedly beforehand to explain why he had returned.