At the end of 1999, Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali as Sportsman of the Century. But a new book reminds us that Ali may have been one of the worst sports any a major sport ever had as a champion - and, besides, any fool knows it should've been Babe Ruth.
Furthermore, Ali probably was not even the best boxer of the century. And if he were, how can Joe Frazier, a man with whom Ali fought two of the most even boxing matches in history - which brought both of them uncomfortably close to death's door - not even make anyone's top 100?
Longtime boxing writer Mark Kram , who covered Ali for Sports Illustrated longer than any other writer, looks to set the record straight in "Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier."
Once one of the most divisive figures in America, Ali lately has been cast in the role of plaster saint, a combination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. But Kram shows that a better comparison would be to Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.
During Ali's heyday, Kram was granted major access to him, sometimes for days at a time. Without denying Ali's genius in the ring (or his skills of media manipulation), Kram reminds us of a side of Ali that today's media conveniently have forgotten or decided to gloss over.
Kram presents a first-hand account of Ali, gazing at the stars, longing for the "Mother Ship" that Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said would come to bomb the white devils. We see manager Herbert Muhammad and the NOI entourage milking Ali for all he is worth and getting him back in the ring past his prime, merely so Ali can support them in the way in which they were accustomed.
Kram also reminds us of the cruel way that Ali kept from knocking out aging Floyd Patterson so that he could beat him up for a few more rounds.
But the beauty of the book is in its recounting of the first and last Ali-Frazier battles ( Kram rightly discounts the badly refereed, sluggish second fight) and the brutal power of two of the best heavyweight matches of all times - which left their marks, both mental and physical, on each boxer.
"We went to Manila as champions, Joe Frazier and me, and we came back as old men," Ali once told Kram .
Before the classic Madison Square Garden fight, Ali was coming off his three-year suspension from boxing for his refusal to be drafted. Frazier, who had become champ during that time, lobbied to get Ali's boxing license back and had even lent him money. Even so, the media ate up everything Ali fed them, including some nasty language, calling Frazier an Uncle Tom (later, Ali would label Frazier an ugly gorilla).
And so the stage was set. Ali - hero of the antiwar crowd and the icon of the black power movement - would make his triumphant return and become king of the sports world. The causes would be advanced immeasurably.
But the deposed champ was up against a man whose beginnings were so humble he made Ali look like a child of privilege and who never demanded handouts to keep him in kingly style. Frazier - a humble champion who was good to his investors and cognizant of boxing's traditions - got in the way of the historically inevitable storyline and won the greatest fight of modern times.
So the Left mobilized to do to Joe Frazier the man what Muhammad Ali the boxer could not do in the ring - destroy him as a man. Shameless idiots like Bryant Gumble wrote that "Joe Frazier is the white man's champion," while Howard Cosell made a career as Ali's journalism pimp.
This effort so effectively suppressed Frazier that few noticed when Sylvester Stallone borrowed his life story for "Rocky." Now, the statue of fictional Rocky is in front of Philadelphia's stadium, while Frazier was not even a first-round inductee into the Philly Wall of Fame. Many have even forgotten that Frazier won the first fight and nearly won the third.
Ali's real legacy is a sport that has degenerated nearly to the level of professional wrestling. If you want someone to blame for the fact that Flint's Chris Byrd can't get national attention for being "merely" a good boxer because he's a nice guy and a family man (and thus, as Burt Sugar declares, "boring"), you can look to the Ali-Don King alliance and their lasting influence on the business and the histrionics of boxing.
"Ghosts of Manilla" is not a perfect book. The early narrative is as jumbled as it is fascinating, and a longer, comprehensive look at both fighters would have been nice. But it does serve as a welcome antidote to a doting press and a public with short memories, and Kram deserves cheers for having the guts to write it.