Somehow, they found themselves connected yet again. Years after the Thrilla in Manila, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali mounted quixotic, perhaps dangerous, comebacks eight days apart, and they hinted at renewing their rivalry in a possible fourth meeting. Neither man would get TV coverage for their fiascos, and Ali had been banished to the sun-kissed Bahamas for his sad return to the ring. Like so many other fighters, they believed in a future that did not exist.
It had been years since Joe Frazier had been down in the boxing subterranean, perhaps since the early 1960s, when he used to run off thudding combinations on hanging sides of beef during his shift in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse. Even comical walkovers against Dave Z and Ron Stander had been for the most important title in sports: the heavyweight championship of the world. That was during the Nixon era, when Frazier, Ali, and Foreman illuminated every black-and-white Philco and Magnavox in America.
Now, here he was, in Chicago, a second city for fisticuffs, late 1981, ready to slog through ten rounds against an ex-con named Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings at the International Amphitheatre on Halstead and 42nd Street, within gagging distance of the infamous Union Stockyard. The spotlight had dimmed considerably since Frazier had last been in the ring (in 1976), and he was nowhere near the VIP world of Madison Square Garden or ABC-TV.
In that last fight, he had been demolished by George Foreman in the sparsely attended Nassau (Mausoleum) Coliseum. That night, Frazier revealed just how deranged prizefighters skew when he wore contact lenses into the ring after he had undergone surgery for a cataract a few months earlier. Raw, ruthless, robotic, Foreman bludgeoned him into a provisional goodbye, but Frazier knew exactly what it meant for an ex-headliner to walk, or even wobble, away: “But a retirement promise from a hard-core fighter is right up there with ‘The Check is in the mail’ for industrial-strength bullshit.”
A few years earlier Frazier had been preparing for a comeback fight that would have pitted him against the lightning-rod Kallie Knoetze, a South African brawler whose day job as a trigger-happy apartheid cop had come to an end after he was found guilty of witness-tampering. But Frazier had to withdraw from that operatic matchup when he contracted hepatitis. This sudden postponement forced Frazier to reassess his foolhardy plans, and he retreated quietly to the noisy life of a celebrity bon vivant.
For a while, Frazier kept busy in his own ad hoc way. He went warbling on the road with his Joe Frazier Revue, a costly vanity project (although less expensive than his blackjack habit, which he indulged, painfully, in the gaudy new casinos of Atlantic City). He popped up on television frequently in commercials for Miller Lite, Blue Bonnet, and Mennen. His gym on Broad Street fairly bustled, and his stable of fighters, which included his son Marvis, got enough work to make his management career profitable if not lucrative. Ennui, however, that seemingly unavoidable occupational hazard that afflicts so many ex-fighters, left him fretful and unfulfilled.
At first, when he began exploring the possibility of a comeback, Frazier sounded like every other restless ex-pug, a young man who, one day, suddenly found himself an old fighter. “I’ve got so much nervous energy,” he said, “I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t see anyone in the ring now that can bring the excitement that I can.”
Then he started sounding like a crackpot. “I am one of God’s men. I’m a Capricorn,” he told Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News. “I am the youngest in the family. The seventh son. That makes me one of God’s men. When I was born, 300 people gathered around the house that night. To see I’d been born with one arm or not. My daddy had lost an arm in an accident. You look at Marvis. Has there ever been a fighter put something back into the game the way I have? You tell me I ain’t history?”
It was settled, then: “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, nearly thirty-eight years old, who had been through, kaput, and done as far back as 1975, would return to the ring, based on his status as The Seventh Son. Early comeback drafts included Scott LeDoux and Monte Masters (fugazi product of the Pat O’Grady Oklahoma School of Circuit-Fighters), but neither man cared for the limited pay scale and the unlimited negativity that would accompany such a farce. Wherever Frazier went, he found a phalanx of killjoys imploring him to stay out of the ring. ”Everybody tells me they love me and don’t want to see me get hurt,” he told Michael Katz. ”I love me. I’m not about to get me hurt. Who out there is going to hurt me? Larry Holmes? He jabs, jabs, jabs, but only for three or four rounds. When I hit him, he’ll back up. I know what I’m doing. Besides, a man’s got a right to do what he wants even if he hurts himself.”
Ultimately, Frazier settled on Chicago bruiser Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings—and the fight racket settled on ho-hums and shrugs. It took the ex-mayor of Minnetonka, Minnesota, Bill Cooley, to step in as a neophyte promoter. Luckily for all involved, Cooley was more of a fan than the traditional cutthroat boxing businessman, for whom being in the red is terrifying. “It doesn’t matter to me if I lose money,” he told the New York Times. ”I told Joe there would be a fight even it were between him and me in my living room. Well, it won’t be in my living room and thankfully I won’t be the opponent.”
When Larry Holmes had battered the ghostly shell of Muhammad Ali in a Caesars Palace parking lot in October 1980, the sporting world suddenly became queasy about seeing their flabby, graying, stumbling idols running on empty in the digital age. Television refused to touch Frazier–Cummings. ABC, NBC, and CBS—the same networks that aired such national treasures as B. J. and the Bear, Dance Fever, Private Benjamin, and Flamingo Road—had mysteriously discovered quality control simultaneously. Closed-circuit was out (no one was going to suffer that torment for a marquee featuring Jumbo Cummings) and PayTV was still a micro-niche almost a decade away from realization. Even more modest possibilities—cable and syndication—were out of reach. And where Frazier would have earned more than $400,000 in 1978 to fight Knoetzee, he was offered $85,000 for a showdown with Cummings—the ultimate sign of market deflation.
At least no one could say that Cummings, born in Ruleville, Mississippi, had not made a name for himself—of sorts. He was back-page material for at least one news cycle after biting Renaldo “Mister” Snipes en route to a decision loss. (Snipes: “I have great admiration for Jumbo Cummings. He came to fight and he did everything it took to win. He butted me, he bit me, he hit me below the belt. But I knew it would be a rough fight.”) More than ten years in Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill had likely dulled his sense of etiquette. In 1968 Cummings had been convicted of murder stemming from an armed robbery of a grocery store that culminated with the shooting death of the victim. (To the press, Cummings would soften his role in this savage crime, claiming repeatedly that he had only been the driver. In fact, he had been the triggerman.)
In addition to boxing, Cummings, with a sentence of fifty to seventy-five years hanging over him, took up weightlifting in prison. “I was a huge guy. They compared me to an elephant, a prehistoric African elephant, and called me ‘Jumbo.’ In the joint, I had some pardners named ‘Sudden Death’ and ‘Killer,’ so it could have been worse. They gave me the name in good faith, not to signify any dishonor.”
Paroled in 1979, Cummings, thirty, began boxing professionally within weeks of his release and had jerry-built a 17-1 record with all the usual asterisks and winks that go along with such accomplishments on the fringes of a fringe sport. “Boxing was a natural for me,” Cummings explained, “because all it is, is street-fighting with a little polish.”
Thursday, December 4, 1981. The 6,500 spectators gathered at the Amphitheatre combined forces for just over half an hour of mass nostalgia—right up until the final bell. They cheered Frazier as he trudged down the aisle to the ring—wearing a purple robe with white lettering—and chanted his name with verve whenever he scored with what was nothing more than a mimeo left hook against the hulking Cummings.
It was an ugly fight. The jiggly Frazier, reflexes shot, unsteady of his feet, inched forward like a man trying to ford a fast river, and Jumbo, between headlocks, threw one clumsy combination after another. But he managed to sock Frazier routinely with these arm punches. In the third round, Cummings sent Frazier reeling with an uppercut, but was simply too maladroit to finish. Halfway through the fight, Frazier was bleeding from his nose and a split lip, lumps began to rise on his face like biscuits in an oven. Still, he was in the fight—such as it was—for the simple fact that Cummings, musclebound and only two years removed from “crapeteria” fare at Stateville, looked exhausted. In the eighth round, however, Cummings seemed on the verge of scoring a stoppage when he battered Frazier against the ropes and into a corner before fatigue blunted his attack and forced him to clinch. After ten rounds of sprawling, mauling, and artless brawling, Frazier was lucky to limp away from the ring with a draw.
Despite the unsatisfactory result, despite the punishment he had taken, Frazier seemed unsuitably cheerful after the fight. “I got some bumps and bruises,” he said, “but I ain’t hurt. You can get beat up worse in the streets of New York and you don’t get nothing for it. I want some of those top-ten guys, but they don’t want me.”
Neither did Chicago. Nick Karasiotis, executive secretary of the Illinois Athletic Board, made that clear to the press: “We don’t want to encourage anyone to fight. If he applied to fight again here, we would try to turn him down.”
When a feeble Muhammad Ali dropped a decision to the lumbering Trevor Berbick (on a baseball field, where a cowbell tolled the rounds, before a sparse audience, while all the fighters on the card shared the same two pairs of weatherworn gloves) in Nassau, Bahamas, the links were finally broken. Neither Ali nor Frazier ever fought again. The past could finally be left behind, in our yearning and overlit memories, where it belongs.
“We gotta make all the old men proud,” said Ali.
“I hear you,” said Joe. “I’m gonna hold my end of the deal up.”
“I’m gonna do my best down here, too,” said Ali.
“I don’t want to hear none of that I’m-gonna-do-my-best stuff,” said Joe. “I’m talking about you holding your end up.”
“Yeah, we’re old men and we gotta show the world we can do it,” said Ali.
“Don’t call me old,” Joe said.