It was last week that Joe Frazier took his lumps, a battered old champion beguiled by the brainless idea of a comeback, at his age, in the toughest of all games.
Against an unschooled heavyweight crudity named Jumbo Cummings, the 38-year-old Frazier could only huff and puff for 10 rounds, and grope clumsily with his once-famed left hook. All the while soaking up punches that left him with bleeding lips, an unsightly eye and a shattered belief he could bring it off. From all accounts, the draw decision with which the judges favored him was an act of surpassing generosity.
So, one down and one to go.
This week, it is Muhammad Ali, older than Frazier, who goes back to the wars with the same witless belief that he can be a winner again. On Friday night, in Nassau, he goes against a young Canadian named Trevor Berbick. Too bad. If Berbick doesn't nail him, somebody will, soon. At his age, 40 next month, too wide of girth and now bereft of speed, Ali is targeted for a messy end.
The Frazier thing against Cummings was typical: an old champion who in his glory days could name the round and the punch with which he would dispatch the likes of a Cummings, was a patsy for a near novice. No speed of hand any more, no movement, no punch. No chance against any kind of opponent who could move a little bit and hit moderately hard.
It happened to all the old ones with dreams of comeback, or were too broke to stay retired. It happened even to Sugar Ray Robinson, the matchless one, who in his diminished years was a pathetic spectacle on the club-fight circuit, picking up a payday but getting beat up by unpolished bumpkins who would not have laid a glove on him in his heyday.
Frazier, if he persists, will be splattered over the ring by the first good heavyweight he meets. Joe was never the graceful one to start with, relying on a tough chin and the perpetual punching power he took into the ring, but mostly on the supreme conditioning that was his best asset. That now is stripped from him after 5 1/2 years out of the ring, and fat-of-the-land living, since being knocked out twice by George Foreman and once by Ali.
Ali has already proved his incompetence to continue. Fourteen months ago, against Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner who now is champion, Ali gave notice that he is now a fraud who can't fight.
Against Holmes, he succeeded only in picking up a good check, a primary objective, anyway. So passive was his performance it appeared he didn't even come to fight. He couldn't punch, couldn't move, was out of shape even at 217 pounds, and he could only stall until corner man Angelo Dundee saw it was useless and stopped the fight. It was already cruel, with Holmes banging Ali at will. Stopping it was an act of mercy.
Ali was not without an excuse after the Holmes fight. He said he took too many thyroid pills, and scaled down too quickly from 257 pounds to 217. It left him weak, he said. That was his story. But the Ali decline had set in years before, when the likes of Jimmy Young and Alfredo Evangelista licked him without getting the decisions. And they staged the greatest holdup in Yankee Stadium history that night when they held up Ali's hand in token of victory over Ken Norton, who gave him a sound thrashing. For a long time, Ali had been losing fights and winning decisions.
Ali is practicing the old Ali guff, with his declarations that he will be the only fighter to win the heavyweight title four times when he gets another shot at it. It's inconceivable that he will ever get another chance at the title after his debacle against Holmes. That memory of Ali as a pitiable punching bag for a former sparring partner will endure.
Significantly, the TV networks haven't gone for either the Frazier or the Ali comebacks, haven't touched them with the proverbial 10-foot pole. Ali and Frazier have no wide appeal anymore, with their aberrations about comebacks leaving the public apathetic.
It isn't the vision of recaptured titles that is now motivating Ali and Frazier, it's those big paydays they've been missing. Frazier admits he could use more money despite his $80,000-a-year income from investments. He's had some business failures. Joe picked up $85,000 for the Cummings thing, which he says is welcome.
Ali always has need of money, with his life style and the retinue he supports. Both he and Frazier are alerted to what they've been missing: those checks for millions that even such welterweights as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns can pick up these days. Leonard's last payday was for $10 million. His next one will be at least as much. Those are figures that leave Ali and Frazier, the money fighters of their day, salivating.
Ali may say he is motivated by the unique goal of winning the heavyweight title for a fourth time. But that is simple Ali guff. In his reckoning is all that big money out there. Ali likes to live in elegance, likes to buy new estates and order new cars. And for those purposes, as some unknown philosopher once remarked, money is an obedient servant. But in the case of Ali and Frazier, it can now be pursued, alas, only in pain and the destruction of the good memories of them.