I was a boxing fan before I was a boxing writer. In recent weeks with boxing on hiatus, I've had the opportunity to reflect on some of the best and most memorable experiences that I've had in the sweet science and others that I wish I'd had. Some of these thoughts follow.
THE BEST FIGHTS I'VE EVER BEEN TO
(1) Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier I - March 8, 1971
I'd graduated from law school the previous year and was clerking for a United States district judge when I read in the New York Times that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had signed to fight at Madison Square Garden. That day, I mailed a check for forty dollars (equivalent to $255 today) and a request for two mezzanine tickets (the least expensive seats in the house) to the Garden. The tickets arrived in the mail soon after. It's unlikely that tickets for a fight of that magnitude would be available at face value to an ordinary fan today. I went with a friend from law school. We sat in the last row of the mezzanine. Forty-nine years later, I remember moments from that night like it was yesterday.
(2) Jose Luis Castillo vs. Diego Corrales I - May 7, 2005
Great fights swing back and forth in terms of dominance. But let's be honest; they're also marked by brutal action. Jose Luis Castillo and Diego Corrales engaged in trench warfare round after round in a breathtaking fight at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Corrales's left eye was hideously swollen. He was knocked down twice in round ten, spat out his mouthpiece after the second knockdown, and looked like a beaten fighter. But instead of ending the bout, referee Tony Weeks deducted a point from Corrales for removing his mouthpiece. That gave Diego 28 seconds to recover. Then everything changed. Both men threw right hands. Corrales's right hand got there first. Suddenly, Castillo was against the ropes, taking punches, glassy-eyed, his head wobbling like it was on a bobble-head doll. At that point, Weeks stopped the fight.
(3) Delvin Rodriguez vs. Pawel Wolack I - July 15, 2011
This was a quintessential club fight; the non-HBO version of Gatti-Ward I. It was contested at Roseland Ballroom, a small venue in Manhattan that no longer exists. There was no feeling out process; just non-stop action between two fighters who willingly engaged for ten torrid rounds. By round seven, Wolak's right eye was swollen shut and useless. The only function it served was to make his head a bigger target. By the end of the fight, the entire right side of his face from his mouth to his hairline was misshapen, as though someone had shoved a tennis ball beneath the skin and painted the entire area purple. Rodriguez's face was less marked but he didn't look so good either. No one begrudged either man the majority-draw decision of the judges.
THE BEST FIGHTS I'VE SEEN ON TELEVISION
(1) Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III - October 1, 1975
Boxing fans are familiar with what happened on that hot humid morning in Manila. The early rounds belonged to Ali. He outboxed Frazier, landed sharp clean punches, and staggered Joe several times. Frazier kept coming forward. The tide turned in the middle rounds. Ali tired. Frazier rocked him with thunderous blows. Muhammad’s arms came down, and Joe bludgeoned him against the ropes. In round twelve, Ali regained the initiative, wobbled Frazier, and measured him for more. One round later, a jolting right hand knocked Joe’s mouthpiece into the crowd. Frazier was shaken but finished the round. In round fourteen, Ali resumed his assault. Frazier’s left eye was completely closed. The vision in his right eye was limited. He was spitting blood. Ali’s punches were landing cleanly. Joe couldn’t see them coming. Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight after the fourteenth round. Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler later recalled, “Everybody at ringside understood they were watching greatness. It was hell the whole way. I’ve never seen two people give more, ever.”
(2) Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns I - September 16, 1981
Ray Leonard was boxing's brightest star. The only blemish on his record was a close loss by decision to Roberto Duran avenged five months later when he made Duran say "no mas." Hearns was undefeated in 32 fights with 30 knockouts. Each fighter had an iconic trainer in his corner. Emanuel Steward with Hearns, Angelo Dundee with Leonard. The fight shaped up as a classic confrontation between boxer (Leonard) and puncher (Hearns). Except it didn't unfold that way. Rallying after a rocky sixth round, Hearns began controlling the fight with a nasty cobra-like jab. After twelve rounds, the area beneath Leonard's left eye was badly swollen. In the corner before the start of round thirteen, Dundee told his charge, "You're blowing it, son." And Ray dug as deep as a fighter can dig. In round thirteen, he battered Hearns around the ring after stunning him with a big right hand. In round fourteen, he closed the show. That night, Ray Leonard confirmed his greatness.
(3) Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward I - May 18, 2002
Gatti was the prototype for an all-action, blood-and-guts warrior. He'd been outboxed but never outslugged except for an outing against Oscar De La Hoya who bested him on both counts. Ward was a club fighter, albeit a very good one, with eleven defeats on his resume. When they fought each other at the Mohegan Sun Casino, fans quickly understood that they were watching a time-capsule fight. There were moments when the battle seemed to defy reality, marked as it was by unremitting punishment and an extraordinary ebb and flow. Ward was cut badly in round one and bled throughout the fight. In round nine, Gatti sank to the canvas from a vicious body shot, rose, took more punishment, turned the tide, and had Ward in trouble. Then Micky rallied, leaving Arturo out on his feet at the bell. Somehow, Gatti rallied again to win the tenth round. Ward prevailed by a narrow 95-93, 94-93, 94-94 margin. The two men faced off in the ring twice more. But neither of those fights (both of which Gatti won by unanimous decision) came close to the drama of the first encounter.
GREAT FIGHTERS THAT I'M GLAD I SAW FIGHT AT THEIR PEAK
(1) Manny Pacquiao
There are great fighters (such as Sugar Ray Leonard and Larry Holmes) who I saw fight in person long after they'd passed their prime. In some instances, I've been privileged to see extraordinary craftsmen at their peak. I was at ten Manny Pacquiao fights. The first three - contested against Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto - saw Pacquiao at his best. The last - against Floyd Mayweather - was dreadful. I was in Manny's dressig room before and after his fights against Hatton and Cotto and also his fights at Cowboys Stadium against Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarito. But it's his performance in the ring - not the hours spent in Manny's dressing room - that stands out most vividly in my mind. Pacquiao at his peak was one of the most exciting fighters I've ever seen and would have been competitive against the best in any era.
(2) Roy Jones
The first time I saw Roy Jones fight live, he knocked out Jorge Vaca in the first round at The Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden. He was six days shy of his 23rd birthday. Greatness was stamped all over him. I was at ringside for fifteen of Roy's fights. On six of these occasions, I was in his dressing room before and after. People have criticized the level of Roy's opposition. But he outpointed a 28-year-old Bernard Hopkins and 26-year-old James Toney. And on March 1, 2003, thirteen years after starting his career at 157 pounds, he outclassed John Ruiz to claim the WBA heavyweight crown. Jones's physical gifts - most notably, his speed and reflexes - separated him from other fighters. There was a time when you could have asked ten fighters, "Who's the best fighter in the world right now?" And without hesitation, every one of them would have answered "Roy Jones."
(3) Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson's sixth pro fight was a third-round knockout of Larry Sims at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, on July 19, 1985. I was there. I was also at ringside as Tyson's rise continued against Sammy Scaff, Mitch Green, and Reggie Gross. He was a scary brutal destructive force. I was in and out of boxing in those days. The only other time I saw Tyson fight live was his first-round destruction of Carl Williams in Atlantic City in 1989. Then he journeyed to Tokyo to meet his destiny in the person of James "Buster" Douglas. One of the sad things about Tyson is that all the craziness in his life has obscured how great a fighter he was when he was young. I'm glad I was able to witness the growth of that young fighter.
THE FIGHTS I MOST WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN AT
(1) Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II - June 22, 1938
This was arguably the most important fight in boxing history. Joe Louis, the symbol of American democracy, vs. Max Schmeling, the darling of Nazi Germany. Schmeling had scored a shocking knockout upset over Louis two years earlier. Now the Brown Bomber was ready to even the score. It was the clearest symbolic confrontation between good and evil in the history of sports and the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as "the American." More than 70,000 fans jammed Yankee Stadium. And on that night, Joe Louis was the greatest fighter who ever lived. He destroyed Schmeling, knocking him out at two minutes four seconds of the first round.
(2) Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey II - September 22, 1927
Jack Dempsey lifted boxing to unprecedented heights and redefined both the sport and business of boxing in the "Roaring '20s." Think about what it was like at Soldiers’ Field in Chicago on September 22, 1927, when Dempsey sought to regain the heavyweight crown from Gene Tunney who'd beaten him one year earlier. The staggering total of 104,943 fans rewrote boxing’s record-book, paying a live gate of $2,658,660 (equivalent to almost $40,000,000 today). Then the bell rang, and Tunney prevailed in the famous "long count" fight.
(3) John L. Sullivan vs. Jake Kilrain
John L. Sullivan was America's first sports superstar and, other than presidents and a few military heroes, the most famous person in the United States. On July 8, 1889, at 10:13 A.M., Sullivan and Jake Kilrain “came to scratch” in a 30,000-acre pine forest in Richburg, Mississippi. Imagine the scene. Their illegal bare-knuckle fight was the last heavyweight championship contest ever fought under the London Prize Ring Rules. The weather was muggy, the temperature close to one hundred degrees. Two hours and sixteen minutes after the battle began, a thoroughly beaten Kilrain refused to come to scratch for the seventy-sixth round. An old era had come to an end. Modern boxing was about to dawn.
MY MOST MEMORABLE DRESSING ROOM EXPERIENCES
(1) With Billy Costello for Costello vs. Saoul Mamby - November 3, 1984
Over the years, I've spent the hours before and after fights in the dressing room with countless fighters. It's a privilege that I never take for granted. The first time that I did it remains the most meaningful for me. I'd been tracking WBC lightweight champion Billy Costello for months, spending five days a week with him while researching The Black Lights (my first book about boxing). We'd become friends. I don't use that term lightly. Now everything Billy had worked for was on the line. Fight day was an emotional rollercoaster. Thirty-six years later, images from those hours remain seared in my mind. Billy won a 12-round decision. That was the most important thing about that afternoon.
(2) With Jermain Taylor for Taylor vs. Bernard Hopkins I - July 16, 2005
The stakes were incredibly high. Bernard Hopkins was undisputed middleweight champion of the world, unbeaten over the previous twelve years. Jermain Taylor was a promising young fighter with a ring resume that was short on the type of experience deemed necessary to challenge "The Executioner." It was an ugly promotion. Hopkins constantly mocked Taylor, who he demeaned as a simple country boy from Arkansas. There was genuine hatred between Bernard and Lou DiBella (Hopkins's former promoter who now worked with Jermain). I found myself emotionally drawn into it all. The fight was dramatic. Taylor surged ahead early, then tired and fought back courageously from the brink of being knocked out. Michael Buffer's reading of the scorecards was one of the most tense moments I've experienced in boxing. Taylor won razor-thin split decision. I've never been in a dressing room, pre- or postfight, quite like it.
(3) With Ricky Hatton for Hatton vs. Floyd Mayweather - December 8, 2007
A fighter's dressing room reflects his personality. Ricky Hatton's dresssing room was always a madhouse. Booming music, non-stop motion. I always wondered why he wasn't exhausted by the time he left for the ring. Las Vegas had been buzzing about Mayweather-Hatton throughout the week. On fight night, the tension reached new heights. Luminaries as diverse as Ray Leonard and Tom Jones came into the dressing room to wish Ricky well before the fight. A recording of Mick Jagger singing Satisfaction reverberated throughout the room. Hatton waged a spirited battle but was stopped in the tenth round. Afterward, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stopped by the dressing room to offer condolences.
DRESSING ROOMS THAT I WISH I'D BEEN IN
(1) Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II - June 22, 1938
I'm often asked why it's important to me to be in a fighter's dressing room before and after a big fight. The answer, apart from the fun of it all, is, "I'm writing for history. Think about what it would mean if someone had been in Joe Louis's dressing room before and after he knocked out Max Schmeling." Louis-Schmeling II is the only double entry on this list. Imagine the tension before and unbridled joy after that fight. That night, Joe Louis became a symbol of hope for all of America and entered the ranks of boxing immortals.
(2) Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay - February 25, 1964
I'm sure it was an extraordinary experience to be in Muhammad Ali's dressing room before any fight, with The Rumble in the Jungle and The Thrilla in Manila high on the list. But without Liston-Clay, the epic future bouts wouldn't have happened. The craziness, the excitement, the artistry and drama of Liston-Clay were the perfect launching pad for the man who, ten days later, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and ultimately would change the world.
(3) Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries - July 4, 1910
Arthur Ashe said that, despite everything Muhammad Ali accomplished, Jack Johnson had a larger impact within the United States than Ali did. "Nothing that Frederick Douglass did" Ashe opined, "nothing that Booker T. Washington did, nothing that any African-American had done up until that time had the same impact as Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. It was the most awaited event in the history of African-Americans to that date. Virtually every black American knew that Johnson versus Jeffries was going to take place. They knew what was at stake and they also knew they could get the results almost immediately because of the advent of the telegraph. And when Johnson won, it it completely destroyed one of the crucial pillars of white supremacy - the idea that the white man was superior in body and mind to all the darker peoples of the earth. That was just not true as far as anybody was concerned anymore, because now a black man held the title symbolic of the world’s most physically powerful human being." I wish I could have been in Johnson's inner sanctum that afternoon to create a historical record of it all.
THE BEST INTERVIEWS I HAD WITH A FIGHTER
(1) Muhammad Ali (1967)
Muhammad Ali appears in many of the categories on this list. In part, that's because of his artistry as a fighter and importance as a social and political figure. And in part, it's because of the relationship that I developed with him while working as his biographer. But my first interview with Ali came two decades before I started working with him on Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
When I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, I hosted a radio show called Personalities In Sports for the student-run radio station. Each week, I'd take a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder into the field and interview the biggest names I could get. In March 1967, Ali was preparing to fight Zora Folley at Madison Square Garden. It was his final bout before his refusal to accept induction into the United States Army led to a three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing. John Condon (director of publicity for Madison Square Garden) arranged the interview for me. It took place in Ali's dressing room after a sparring session with Jimmy Ellis. I wasn't from the New York Times or any other news organization of note, but that didn't matter to Ali. He told me to turn on my tape recorder. We talked about Nation of Islam doctrine with some questions about the military draft, Zora Folley, and boxing in general thrown in. Ten minutes after we began, Ali announced, "That's all I'm gonna do," and the interview was over. I still have the tape.
(2) George Foreman (1988 and later)
On December 2, 1988, I was in Las Vegas with Muhammad Ali for the taping of a documentary entitled "Champions Forever" featuring Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, and George Foreman. That gave me the opportunity to conduct interviews for my Ali biography. George had returned to the ring 21 months earlier after ten years away from boxing. Most people considered his comeback to be a Quixotic quest or bad joke. Six more years would pass before he dethroned Michael Moorer to reclaim the heavyweight championship of the world. But in our conversation that day, I found him to be a thoughtful insightful man.
“I don’t think Muhammad’s conversion was a religious experience," George told me. "I’ll believe until the day I die that it was a social awakening that acquainted him with the Muslim religion. It was something that he needed at the time. The whole country needed it. Young people in particular were tired of walking around with a feeling of inferiority, and some of them were awakened socially by the call of the Muslims. Later on, what Muhammad believed began to turn more on religion. But at the start, I think it was something different."
That was the start of a relationship with George that has lasted for more than three decades. Over the years, we've talked in depth about family, religion, and other value-oriented issues. And it began on that day in Las Vegas.
(3) Ray Leonard (2010)
On May 1, 2010, I was in the media center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Floyd Mayweather and Shane Mosley were scheduled to fight the following night. Leonard and Thomas Hearns were on hand for a mid-morning media sitdown to engender pay-per-view buys. When they were done and Ray was readying to leave, I approached him.
“We’ve never had the chance to really talk,” I said. “I’d love the opportunity to sit with you sometime and discuss things in depth.”
“How about now?” Ray suggested.
We talked for the better part of three hours. About boxing and much more.
Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler says “Most people who are serious about boxing understand that Sugar Ray Robinson was the best fighter ever. But as time goes by, more and more people are starting to believe that Ray Leonard was the best fighter since Robinson. People knew he was good, but not how good. His charisma overshadowed his talent.”
Talking with Ray that day was special for me.
FIGHTERS I WISH I COULD HAVE INTERVIEWED
(1) Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson's place in history is secure as a fighter and symbol of social injustice. But he was also an intelligent complex multifaceted man. I can imagine talking with him for hours about a wide range of subjects, not just boxing.
(2) Sugar Ray Robinson
I had a thirty-second telephone conversation with Sugar Ray Robinson in 1984. I'd just begun researching The Black Lights and wanted to know what it felt like to be acclaimed as the greatest fighter of all time. Bill Gallo (the boxing writer and sports cartoonist for the New York Daily News) gave me Robinson's home telephone number and told me to tell Ray's wife that Bill said it was okay for Ray to talk with me. So I called.
"Bill should know better than that," Millie Robinson told me. "Ray doesn't talk much these days." But I promised to be kind, and she put Ray on the line.
Robinson was 63 years old, aging badly and suffering from dementia. I asked him how it felt to be regarded as the greatest fighter of all time.
"It's the most wonderful feeling in the world," Robinson answered. "I can't say any more. I loved boxing, and every time I hear someone say 'pound for pound' . . ." His voice trailed off, then picked up again. "It's the most wonderful feeling in the world."
Robinson is the gold standard against which fighters are judged. And he become the standard bearer for a new kind of athlete, a superstar personality who demanded his due outside the ring as well as in it. I wish I could have talked with him. Really talked with him.
(3) Joe Louis
Joe Louis wasn't particularly verbal. As David Margolick wrote, "When you strip away all the layers of mythology and idealization, it's hard to say very much about the Louis who remains. He was dignified and decent, uneducated and inarticulate, though with an odd knack for reducing things to pithy truisms. For all of his violence in the ring, he was largely passive, affectless, even dull outside of it. He was not oblivious to the gargantuan impact he had on others. But like just about everything else, he took it all in stride. The hopes that people placed on his shoulders, enough to crush normal people, appeared to impose no particular burden on him. He had few deep feelings of his own, but he had an ability to generate intense passion in others. He was the perfect vehicle for everyone else's dreams."
There are very few in-depth interviews with Joe Louis on the public record. I would have loved to engage him in extended conversation.
AND A SPECIAL CATEGORY
I met Don King in 1983. Since then, I've spent countless hours with him in public gatherings and private forums. I've written at length about the negative side of the Don King ledger. On the positive side, he was one of the smartest, most charismatic, hardest-working people I've known. And he forced America to accept him as he was on his terms. Don was black and from the streets. He made no effort to hide it. To the contrary, he stuffed it in people's faces. We're not talking about an athlete, singer, or movie star who made a mark by entertaining people. We're talking about commerce, economic control.
Knowing Don King has enriched my life
Thomas Hauser's email address is [email protected]. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.