An Interview With Mark Kram Jr: Part 2
By Chris Akers
Many boxers are aligned in the history books with their trainer. Joe Louis and Jack Blackburn. Muhammed Ali and Angelo Dundee. Thus, it was with Frazier and Yancey ‘Yank’ Durham.
A welder with the Pennsylvania Railroad who later trainer boxers and the Police Athletic League gym Frazier entered as a teenager, the two of them were synonymous with each other. Yet Durham decided to bring someone else into the team – Eddie Futch.
“In ’66, Yank had heard about Eddie and ask him to take a look at Joe,” explains Mark. “So they flew to California. Eddie went to the gym and Joe did some sparring and Eddie had a great eye for matching up talent. So between Yank and Eddie, Joe was in marvellous hands. They were really careful who they matched him against. Careful not to put him too far over his head and to shape his abilities. Eddie worked with him tirelessly in the gym on his style. It was a great team that they had together at that time.”
Frazier turned pro is 1965 and the first couple of years went well. He won his first 11 fights with none of them going the distance. Then in his 12th fight he fought the rugged Oscar Bonavena. Watching this fight on DVD a few years ago, there were signs of that Frazier’s almost perpetual motion style that he would be renowned for. Yet Bonavena would prove to be his toughest fight up to this point, as Mark describes.
“Bonavera was an awkward fighter. Difficult for all his opponents to handle. Ali has tremendous difficultly with his awkwardness. He caught Joe and he gave him a tough fight. Styles are everything and he was very difficult for Joe to sort out.”
Despite nearly been stopped in the first round, Frazier beat Bonavena and proceeds to work his way up to become the number one contender for Ali’s world heavyweight crown. Yet the year after Frazier fights Bonavena, Ali is banned for boxing and stripped of his title. So a tournament was set up to find a new world heavyweight champion. Yet Frazier didn’t enter the tournament.
“It didn’t make any sense for him to beat fighters that he’d already beaten,” says Mark. “Joe was moving up in the rankings. He was either one or two. His theory was to let them figure it out and then fight him. Joe had developed a close business relationship with Madison Square Garden. Teddy Brenner the matchmaker loved Joe.
So Joe in effect became a house fighter at the Garden. He has a big following up there and was more appreciated in New York than he was in Philadelphia. It didn’t make any sense for Joe to fight guys when having the New York connection firmly in place. It didn’t make sense from Eddie Futch nor Yank Durham to backtrack and fight various fighters that were in that tournament. It was a brilliant strategy on their part. In the end, Joe ended up fighting Jimmy Ellis, the winner of that tournament and Joe handled it rather decisively.”
During this time, someone who would forever be linked to Joe Frazier moved into his hometown.
“The interesting thing about that time was Ali had moved to Philadelphia, Joe’s turf, his backyard and was constantly pestering Joe during that period. It was Ali’s sense and Joe’s too, that they would get together in the ring at some point. The only question was when. Ali was very much beating the drum and doing his publicity well in advance of the ultimate meeting in New York in ‘71. He was a constant irritant to Joe.”
This irritation riled Frazier up, even away from the ring.
“In fact at one point on a Sunday morning in city centre Philadelphia, Ali began pestering Joe as he was unloading the truck of his car for a music gig. People who were there told me that Joe was so furious that he was sweating bullets. He was going to reach for a tire iron and finish Ali off right there and then. I don’t think he would have of course. But I think that Ali had this ability to get Joe’s blood up. It didn’t take much to do that. Ali was very clever. He told a reporter that he looked at Joe and saw 10 million dollars. Ali knew where this was all heading. Joe did too. The question was whether they could co-exist without Joe killing him before they stepped into the ring!”
What other things made Frazier so antagonistic towards Ali?
“Joe had a Baptist upbringing in South Carolina. His mother was very much of a mind that people should be treated a certain way respectfully. Joe was very much his mother’s son in that way. The other piece of it is that boxers, for as violent as they are inside the ring, outside the ring they enjoy a brotherhood, a fraternity. Joe very much believed that.
This is demonstrated by a story that someone told Mark, involving a tribute day for the boxer that nearly denied Frazier a spot in the 1964 US Olympic Team.
“Someone recently told me that back in the 90s they had a tribute day for Buster Mathis in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were showing at the tribute Joe’s fight against him at the Garden. It was a fierce knockout. He told the guy running the projector to turn it off as it was Buster’s night and that people don’t need to see how it ended. So to me, that summed up Joe’s sense of decency.
Getting back to Ali, I just don’t think he understood, nor did he appreciate, how Ali treated him outside the ring. He didn’t get it. So he didn’t get Ali and Ali didn’t get why Joe didn’t understand him. They just didn’t communicate. Joe I think was suspicious of Ali. In particular the people around Ali. I think he was suspicious of them. I think there was more than a touch of fear in Ali when it came to Frazier. I think that all those wild antics that Ali engaged in were to some extent a value that he let open up to get rid of some of that fear. As the three fights between them showed, they inflicted heavy damage on each other, beginning on March 8th, 1971.”
That first fight between the pair at Madison Square Garden was possibly the biggest sporting event of the 20th century at that time. The atmosphere was so thick of politics and animosity that March night in 1971, it would have taken more than a knife to cut it.
The polemics of American life were represented on March 8th, 1971 in the ring. Ali was seen as anti-war and against the established whereas Frazier was seen as more conservative. Socially, culturally and politically, the significance of the fight cannot be underestimated.
Frazier won that night, knocking Ali down with a left hook in the 15th round that would have stopped most heavyweight at that time. It is a sign of Ali’s toughness and durability that he was able to beat the count, getting up almost immediately in the way a bobo doll comes back up after it is hit.
Yet that fight was Frazier’s peak and as Mark explains, he was never the same again.
“With the exception of the Thriller in Manila, it was more or less downhill for Joe if you think about it. He had some nice moments, but they were few and far between. By the time they stepped into the ring at Manila, no one really thought it would be much of a fight. The thinking was that both of them were well past their prime. That they created this masterful dramatic event surprised everyone, including my father, who went over there. He wrote a similar piece of reportage on the Thriller in Manila for Sports Illustrated. He was a student of boxing and he didn’t see them producing the fight that they did.”
Frazier held to his title defending it twice before meeting George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973. What did Frazier think of Foreman as a fighter?
“He enjoyed the title. He enjoyed the spoils of his victory. He fought two late opponents in Terry Daniels and Ron Stander, just to get the ring rust off. He wasn’t going to fight anyone that was going to blow another payday with Ali. He was protecting that payday. He toured Europe with his band The Knockouts for six weeks.
“It was an unsuccessful venture. He was playing to sparse crowds and it simply didn’t go over the way he hoped it would. Like many fighters, he had worked so hard to get to the pinnacle that he disengaged from his work ethic. Eddie Futch said that with a fighter like Joe you have to watch him closely, as they could go any time. By that, he meant a fighter small in stature, ended up taking a lot of punches, and so forth.”
Yank Durham didn’t want Joe to fight Foreman and a decrease in intensity in training for the Foreman would come back to bite Frazier.
“The feeling was that if you look at the two men side by side you can see that Joe was no match to Foreman and Joe didn’t train as relentlessly for Foreman as he would have for Ali. He went down to Jamaica and partied with his family and singing in nightclubs. He was just off his game. He sparred with Ken Norton, who then was just coming into his own. Eddie Futch had to ask Norton ‘What’s wrong with Joe? He doesn’t seem like his old self.’ He lost something. Futch could see it. Norton could see it.
“In the spar itself, Norton made short work of him. So I think fighters have a season like all athletes. They have a period of time when they’re at their absolute best. The struggle they had to endure to get to the top is so overwhelming that they just can’t sustain it beyond a certain point.”