When I heard about the death of Smokin’ Joe Frazier last night, the first thing that went through my mind was Howard Cosell’s classic “Down Goes Frazier!” call in the fight against George Foreman. I thought of those classic battles Frazier had with Muhammad Ali, and the sad story of Joe returning to Philadelphia, going broke, and getting into a car accident that hurt him more than any of his opponents ever did.
Then I realized I have no idea who the current heavyweight boxing champion is. I probably lost track somewhere around Lennox Lewis, probably 7 years ago.
There was a time when everyone knew who The Champ was — Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, and Sonny Liston gave way to Ali, Frazier, and Foreman, and every fight was a big deal. Then came a down period in the 1980s, when no one could have named Mike Weaver or Tim Witherspoon or Tony Tubbs.
That changed in 1986 when Mike Tyson came on the scene and bulldozed anyone in his way. He gained notoriety for his story, the extreme brevity and brutality of his fights, his marriage to Robin Givens, his rape conviction, and the ear-biting incident vs. Evander Holyfield. After that, public attention began to wane as Riddick Bowe rose and fell, Lewis took over the top spot for awhile, and a series of guys from the former Soviet Union beat each other up while no one paid any attention.
Perhaps the lack of an American heavyweight champion is part of the reason our interest has abated, but I blame the lack of outsized personalities. Most of the men I named were not just great boxers, but great promoters, too. Ali set the bar pretty high and, with Don King’s bluster leading the way, Frazier and others followed suit. Foreman even reappeared long enough in the mid-90’s to set himself up as a grill salesman with an odd child-naming fetish.
They understood the theatrics necessary to get people out of their houses and buy tickets. There was no in-home pay-per-view in those days. If you couldn’t go to the venue (you were unlikely to travel to Zaire or Manila), you had to go to a local movie theater to watch the fight on a closed-circuit feed, or wait for it to show up for free on ABC’s “Wide World Of Sports” a few weeks later.
The irony in the dearth of interest in heavyweight boxing is that we’re still a fighting culture. Mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting draw big crowds. Talk radio and cable news are is all about giant egos bullying anyone with an opposing opinion. Politicians are more combative than ever. Real Housewives are yelling at each other all over the place.
The current cacophony makes it even harder to break through to the public. If Ali and Frazier had a fight coming up now, they’d have to dance with Cheryl Burke, date a Kardashian, and tweet a photo of their genitalia to Nancy Grace before Americans paid attention.