“I’ll hit you harder than Joe Louis ever did…”-Buddy Baer, “Africa Screams” (1948)
They say everything old is new again, and that certainly is true in the often upside-down world of big-time sports in America. For example, where else would two multibillion-dollar businesses in the same year order their employees not to come to work?
I refer, of course, to an ignominious lockout by the National Football League-which, mercifully, is over-and the similar ongoing silliness by the National Basketball Association. In the case of the NBA, it’s the second one in the last dozen years. Ugh!
The basketball lockout-which began July 1-could threaten the entire 82-game regular season. When it happened in 1998-99, the result was a truncated, 50-game season that left everyone dissatisfied. How can they permit a repeat of this nonsense?
I continue to wonder what pro hoops movers and shakers-billionaire owners and millionaire players-are thinking. This would be a public relations nightmare after the exciting 2010-11 season that tantalized existing fans and attracted millions of new ones.
Surely the rich owners-who play the stock market-are aware of the horrendous economy plaguing our country. They know unemployment is at 9.1 percent, gas prices are astronomical and that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. long-term credit rating from AAA to AA-plus. However, I’m not sure about professional players.
For example, in a recent interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s “Real Sports,” New York Jets’ ex-con Plaxico Burress-formerly of the New York Giants-discussed talking with his attorney prior to being arraigned after shooting himself in the leg in a local night club. When told that Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on TV that he felt the player should be punished to the full extent of the law, Burress said, “Who is Mayor Bloomberg?” Ugh!
Regardless, even overpaid pro athletes not known for brain power must know about the hard time confronting everyday Americans. People are filling their gas tanks less frequently, eating out less, leaving smaller tips, cutting back on dry cleaning, buying generic products, getting fewer haircuts, brown-bagging lunches, canceling cable TV and wondering if they voted for the right presidential candidate in 2008.
But this isn’t about lockouts, this is about knockouts-and the good, bad and ugly that has characterized America’s big-time pro sports over the years. It’s a world that has always been full of high-profile people, places and things making good, bad and ugly news.
No sport lends itself more to the reality of American life-which not only condones violence but often encourages it-than my lifelong favorite: professional boxing. As stated by character actor Paul Stewart in the great fight film “Champion” (1949): “I can’t help myself. I just like to see a couple of good boys in action.”
The new book, “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” features essays by James Baldwin, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Red Smith and Gay Talese. Subjects include the ring deaths of Benny “Kid” Paret at the hands of Emile Griffith; Jimmy Doyle by “Sugar” Ray Robinson; Duk Koo Kim by Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini; and Davey Moore by “Sugar” Ramos-Moore had been brutally softened up by Roberto Duran.
Discussing repeated blows to the head, Mailer writes: “Walls must begin to crack inside the brain.”
Quoting John Lardner, Smith writes: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
Additionally, Baldwin writes about Floyd Patterson vs. Sonny Liston; London discusses Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries; Mailer writes about Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman, the “Rumble in the Jungle”; Oates discusses “Rape and the Boxing Ring”; and Talese has an interview with the outwardly shy Patterson.
Of course, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the legendary “Fight of the Century”-Joe Frazier’s stunning victory over Ali on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden. How well I remember this battle of two undefeated heavyweight champions.
Those who saw it on TV will never forget the close-up of Frazier’s scary left hook in the 14th round, sending Ali down with a grotesquely swollen jaw. In plain view, at ringside, were Mailer and photographer Frank Sinatra working for Life magazine.
In the year before the start of World War II, there was the epoch-making KO of Germany’s Max Schmeling by Joe Louis in their 1938 rematch. Never before, or since, has a devastating first-round knockout been so graphic on film in slow motion.
Prior to the fight, which Louis craved in order to avenge his earlier KO loss to the German, the “Brown Bomber” confided to a friend that he was afraid he might kill his opponent. And the sight of Schmeling’s wobbling head defines, to this day, the legacy of Louis, who is still the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
Sadly, in 1951, a slow, 37-year-old, come-backing Louis was viciously knocked out by up-and-coming Rocky Marciano in Madison Square Garden. The severe beating he endured brought tears to the eyes of millions-including Marciano.