2011 -- A champion down but not out

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     By Shelly Saltman

This year has proven to be one of great personal loss to not only me, but to the sports world in general. I personally lost among others, three close friends:

n     Hal Uplinger, the lanky stringbean who once played for the Baltimore Bullets, now the Washington Capitols.

n     Then there was the wonderful John Mackey considered by many the greatest tight end in NFL history, credited with bringing about collective bargaining for the players as the first president of the NFLPA. 

n     My friend, the gentle giant Bubba Smith ... I can still hear thousands of East Lansing spectators yelling "kill Bubba kill" as he terrorized one backfield after another. 

Today, I learned the great heavyweight champion and Ali's arch rival, Joe Frazier, has been floored by with a one-two punch known as liver cancer. Joe is in a hospice where he is being made as comfortable as possible.

I first met Joe in 1971 when I took on the assignment of worldwide promotion and publicity for the first Ali fight which took place March 8th of that year. About a month before the epic battle to come, I spent a month traveling between Philadelphia and New York. I was living at the St. Regis Hotel in the city and Joe was training at the Franklin Gym in Philadelphia.  My traveling companion on each train ride was the brilliant actor and a good guy, Burt Lancaster.  We had hired Burt to be the color commentator with the great Don Dunphy, my old Gillette Cavalcade of Sports mentor.

Burt was a student of the game. Meanwhile,  I had to make sure Joe kept to a grueling schedule of interviews and appearances. Joe was most accommodating and never turned down a request.  The shortest champion in history with the exception of undefeated Rocky Marciano, Joe never took a backward step.  Both a father and a son with a large and warm family, he had a big heart and greeted everyone with dignity and charm. Unfortunately, on the schedule of interviews, one  was at ABC with Howard Cosell.

It was here that Ali joined Joe and in promoting the fight called Joe, "A gorilla." Joe did not appreciate this. He was made to feel ashamed for his children. From that moment on, he genuinely despised Ali.  His training sessions, as the fight neared, took on greater ferocity.  Eddie Futch, the Hall-of Fame trainer who was in Joe's corner, wanted him to taper off.  Joe was having nothing to do with slowing down.

Years later, when I was working with Joe's brother, Tommy, at the Snake River, he relayed to me how Ali's insult had infuriated Joe so much, he couldn't sleep and in fact, wasn't following his per-fight diet by skipping many meals.  Everyone was worried.  There was no need to!

The night of the fight, Madison Square Garden was electric with anticipation.  The only two undefeated heavyweight champions were to meet to unify the title. I walked into the Arena with the "Brown Bomber" Joe Louis and his buddy, to me, the Real Sugar Ray, Robinson.  In all my years until I worked with Ali, I had never heard such a cacophony. By the way, Raymond Charles Leonard is a friend of mine and I respect what he has achieved. However, Ray Robinson was a hero to my generation.  Just as Ray Leonard has been to the next one.

The fight lived up to all the hype!  Only one KO and that was Joe putting Ali on the floor for the victory. This was the first fight in a trilogy that included one of the fights considered among the greatest of all time.

Joe's next fight was in Kingston, Jamaica. It was against young a heavyweight named George Foreman. I was there and we were all staying at the Blue Mountain Inn. Every night Howard Cosell, Roy Neiman and Hank Schwartz with our wives and Roy's girlfriend, would watch Joe and his Rock Band, "The Knockouts" perform into the wee hours of the night.  After all, as Howard, in his pontificating style, would tell anyone within earshot, "This fight is a farce.  It never should have been made. It is a mismatch.  Joe will kill this amateur, whatever his name is.  It won't go past the 2nd round".

We all bought into Howard's protestations.  Even George Plimpton, who was assigned by Sports Illustrated to cover the event, believed Howard.  George was a major celebrity having just written the best-selling novel, "The Paper Lion."  It was the story about himself who, as a non-pro, trained and played quarterback for the Detroit Lions in one game. He couldn't really find a story angle and decided he was covering us on the background of the fight.

The bell rang and Joe came out expecting to dispatch George with alacrity.  However, his late night gallivanting had taken its toll.  He was slow and cumbersome.  Foreman proved Cosell right. The fight went no more than two rounds.  Only it was Foreman standing over a dazed and prone Joe Frazier lying silently on the canvas.

George Plimpton ripped up his notes of one week's work and re-wrote his story.  LeRoy Nieman drew a picture of Joe stretched out on the canvas and young Neil Leifer, aiming to get one of his first covers for SI, was everywhere clicking away.

Needless to say, Joe was despondent, but not for long. Ali stood on the horizon and it was through Ali that Joe he saw the way to getting back his title. As result, they were to stage two of the greatest fights ever.  In fact, in the eyes of most pugilistic historians including my friend Burt Sugar, "The Thrilla in Manila," to this day stands as the classic for two gladiators pitted against each other in the squared circle.

On the way to Manila, I had both fighters train on Avenue of The Stars in Century City. Joe trained on Wednesday and drew a respectable crowd of more than  1,000 and he was off to Manila.  Two days later, Ali trained and the Los Angeles police estimated the crowd of over 20,000. They called on the "Fruit of Islam" to help keep the peace and there never has been a more law-abiding crowd.

Four weeks later, they met in the middle of the night in Manila.  Ali won! But Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco, my pal, the Fight Doctor, told me they were getting ready to throw in the towel before the last round. However, Eddie Futch in Joe's corner beat them to the punch. They raised Ali's hand in victory... while he was being held up by Angelo and Ferdie.  Shortly afterward, with the cameras off, Ali passed out and joined Joe in the hospital. Two men, equally matched had truly taken the measure of each other.

Now, Joe is fighting another opponent... liver cancer. He is facing great odds!  All we can pray for, is that the champion will be comfortable and take whatever comes his way with his usual pride and dignity

Joe, we are all in your corner!

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Sports Scrapbook
Shelly Saltman has been in the sports world as an executive, TV producer, broadcaster and event creator for more than 50 years. Among his credentials are his work with Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel, the numerous network TV shows he produced and created, NBA/NHL management roles, co-creator of the Amgen Tour of California and as the first president of Fox Sports. He lives in Ventura County.