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This much is certain: there are no yesterdays in New York; it is a town without attics. Only the old remember, and they do not seem to count for much, either. For this is a city that obliterates time, and only the now matters: the new face, the new place, the new phrase, the briefest craze. Living there, as once was suggested, is like improvising the concerto of one's life on a violin, the strings of which are fastened only at one end.
Yet—like a sad spring fog suddenly in from the East River—the past does sometimes brush up against all of this white-hot immediacy, although should one reach out to touch it, he would find a special-effects machine, the stomp of marketing or Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali in the second Fight of the Century on Jan. 28 in Madison Square Garden.
No labels, cosmic or otherwise, will bring back what was surely one of New York's most dramatic moments when Frazier met Ali in 1971. All the junk handbills and the electric-colored placards will never reproduce the equation to match that one: two undefeated heavy-weight champions in a $20 million sorting out of a title that aroused the passions of even those who were indifferent to the boxing ring; it was theater on a grand scale, it was NOW at its most combustible.
The components of their styles were compelling. Here was Ali: pure silk...the superman finally at bay. "Speed," Sonny Liston once snorted. "How fast he go? He faster'n the wind? He kiss a bullet? He run through hell in a gasoline sport coat and live to talk about it?" And here was Frazier: a cheerful masochist whose work in the ring had a cumulative, percussive urgency, a mounting, destructive rhythm. "I like to hit guys and see their knees tremble," he used to say. "I like to feel my strength and go for broke."
The action did not disappoint. Even in retrospect it does not diminish, nor does it need embellishment. From the opening round—and except for several peculiar antics by Ali designed to steal time—it was undistilled fury, two big men engaged in the kind of violence that chilled the body, then left it damp and limp. In the end, the murderous fluency of Frazier's left hand achieved its conclusion: the messianic aura of Ali was no more.
Scenarios of this sort are rare, and not much of what was will be visible when Frazier and Ali come together again. For this will largely be a script of pride, profit and decline, two men on a precipice, and possibly only one will pick up the remnants of his talent and go on. It still will be a special New York night, but none of the flaming emotions, the social consciousness, the vise of expectation that steadily closed in on them the first time will attend this return. The metaphysicians and the makers of myth will all be out to lunch for this one.
Neither, it has been shown, is divinely insulated against calamity, and right there is a deficiency not tolerated by those who must yap at the heels of excess. Frazier, of course, never did believe he was descended from the gods; he seemed always to have a field hand's view of himself and his work. On the other hand, Ali, who dreams himself anew each morning, believes he is a religion unto himself. Each time he steps into a ring he is dead certain that there is, say, some old Sherpa up in the Himalayas praying for him and waiting eagerly for the news.
Ali still addresses mankind, but something has gone out of him. There is a vulnerability about him now, and not because of his deeply stained talent. Looking at him, one gathers that there is a sense of imminent danger in him, that something is on his trail and he cannot shake it. Often, after one of his long and, by this time, dull monologues about "blue-eyed, blond white devils" and the face of Joe Frazier—"ugly, so ugggly"—he seems to become strangely silent.
Ask him what is on his mind, and he will try to take you on another tour of his camp, or he will rhapsodize about the "strength of rocks," the virtues of log-cabin life. Ask him again what he often thinks about these days and he replies quietly: "Age. Things gone. People dyin'. People bein' born. Don't know what it all means." Then he will go running through his lines again, hitting on Frazier with racial invective—"he not black, he white"—lashing out at how unsightly a fighter he is. "You know he got no sense. You hurt his feelin's if you don't hit him up alongside his head."
Ali likes to create the impression that he bears nothing but malice for Frazier, but that is far from what he truly feels. He is incapable of hate or genuine meanness, and what he says does not come from the heart. It is aimed at his public, those who will fatten the closed-circuit receipts. Like this bit of doggerel: Save all your bread/Your ones and your fives/Ali's comin' back/To end all the jive. But the words—as they always have—sting Frazier, intrude on his generally benign disposition.