It’s a pointless speculation, but it might be interesting to wonder just where Joe Frazier would be today without those little run-ins with Muhammad Ali. Well, he’d probably be alive, for one thing. That’s a good theory for starters. Word came Monday that Frazier died of liver cancer at 67. Maybe that would have overtaken him in any event. But anybody who saw any of those three fights, particularly the two horrifying bookends of their heroic trilogy, would not be insulting medical opinion if he guessed Ali somehow had a hand in Frazier’s ultimate mortality.
Those two fights, especially their first meeting in the Garden 40 years ago, and even more especially 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, the fight that essentially ended their careers, were such violent affairs, such protracted examples of desperation, that any seasons lived beyond them have to be considered a kind of boxing gravy. They were not heavyweight title fights so much as near-death experiences, a brutally choreographed and lightly regulated self-destruction, their pride and ambition so inflamed that survival was no longer part of either fighter’s plan.
In a way though, by the time time Frazier and Ali hung up their gloves for good, it was professional boxing itself that would find itself on the ropes. This past summer, Paul Beston dubbed it “The Ghost Sport” in City Journal magazine:
With Tyson’s fall, boxing completed its transformation from central preoccupation to sideshow. For years, the sport had failed to meet the competitive challenge posed by other sports in the television age. Even as the tube brought fights into millions of homes, it hurt attendance at live events. Looking elsewhere for revenue, promoters began to stage most big fights at gambling casinos, a lucrative prospect for those in the money but one that separated the sport from a reliable fan base in major cities.
Yet the fact that TV proved a huge boon for most other sports suggests that we must look elsewhere for the true causes of boxing’s decline—above all, to changing tastes. In the long postwar boom, prosperity and higher living standards created different expectations for leisure and entertainment, as well as more refined attitudes. Boxing’s endemic corruption and scandal wore away its popular appeal and made the sport seem increasingly atavistic. Crooked managers and promoters; rankings of fighters doctored by fraudulent boxing organizations; allegations of fixed fights and bribed referees and judges; foul play in the ring, from illegal substances to doctored gloves; and fighters killed or maimed who shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place—these were among the reasons that the American public stopped taking the sport seriously.
Worst of all, though, were the sport’s effects on the human body. Boxing’s fatality rate is lower than that of horse racing and of some other sports, but its real scourge is not death but debility—particularly, brain damage. Today, the specter of brain trauma hovers over professional, college, and even high school football, posing a potential threat to that sport’s future. But awareness of boxing’s dangers long predates modern research. The image of the punch-drunk, shuffling old fighter goes back to the sport’s early days; researchers conducted studies of trauma in ex-fighters as early as the 1920s.
When the subject of boxing and brain trauma comes up today, the first image in everyone’s mind is that of Muhammad Ali, now 69. Afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, he moves hesitantly, is generally unintelligible, and shakes convulsively across his upper body; his moon-shaped face exhibits the masklike blankness so common to Parkinson’s—and Alzheimer’s—sufferers. Ali’s great ring model, Sugar Ray Robinson, who died in 1989, was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease in his final years. Like Ali, Robinson fought long beyond the point at which he could protect himself. Boxing’s two most gifted and stylish performers, in their prime the antithesis of the brute fighter, ended up indistinguishable from the broken-down old pugs they were sure they’d never become.
In 1984, the American Medical Association, after years of study, called for a ban on boxing, citing the sport’s object of causing physical harm and the damage its participants clearly suffered to their mental faculties. Since then, other studies have continued to link boxing to severe brain trauma. But the AMA hasn’t been able to build enough momentum to ban boxing—ironically, because not enough people in the U.S. care one way or the other. Revulsion has passed into indifference.
Even as its popularity has ebbed, boxing flickers in the American consciousness. One surprising area in which the sport has made small inroads into American habits is the growth of “white-collar boxing,” in which men and women show up after their day jobs to spar or fight real bouts in a gym. Many health clubs now offer boxing-related fitness programs, as few activities can compete with boxing’s aerobic benefits. Boxing continues to fascinate great writers, as it always has—only baseball has a comparable literary pedigree. And the ring’s elemental sense of conflict has proved endlessly adaptable for filmmakers. The prominence of some recent boxing films, like Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, and The Fighter, is impressive, considering that the many fine boxing films of the past—from Body and Soul, Champion, and The Set-Up to The Harder They Fall, Fat City, and Raging Bull—could count on broader public enthusiasm for the sport.
While boxing will probably never regain its last glorious run in the 1970s, thanks to Frazier, Ali, and a certain rather loquacious television figure, we can always look back at some of the most iconic images — and words of its heyday: