Great Sports Writing: “Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great”

We’ll continue the celebration of the Champ’s birthday with his famous Sports Illustrated piece written shortly after the Thrilla in Manila.  It was the third and final match between Ali and Joe Frazier, perhaps the two greatest heavyweight champions of all-time.  The piece does a wonderful job capturing the raw brutality of the match, going into painful details of just how much agony was inflicted on that evening.  On a more metaphysical side, the writer, Mark Kram, does an excellent job capturing the souls of the two fighters, nailing perfectly what exactly drove the two men to complete such a brutal affair.  Unlike a lot of the pieces I normally link to, this is a relatively short read and many consider it to be the best piece ever written for Sports Illustrated.  From SI:

A hint of shift came in the fourth. Frazier seemed to be picking up the beat, his threshing-blade punches started to come into range as he snorted and rolled closer. “Stay mean with him, champ!” Ali’s corner screamed. Ali still had his man in his sights, and whipped at his head furiously. But at the end of the round, sensing a change and annoyed, he glared at Frazier and said, “You dumb chump, you!” Ali fought the whole fifth round in his own corner. Frazier worked his body, the whack of his gloves on Ali’s kidneys sounding like heavy thunder. “Get out of the goddamn corner,” shouted Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer. “Stop playin’,” squawked Herbert Muhammad, wringing his hands and wiping the mineral water nervously from his mouth. Did they know what was ahead?

Came the sixth, and here it was, that one special moment that you always look for when Joe Frazier is in a fight. Most of his fights have shown this: you can go so far into that desolate and dark place where the heart of Frazier pounds, you can waste his perimeters, you can see his head hanging in the public square, may even believe that you have him, but then suddenly you learn that you have not. Once more the pattern emerged as Frazier loosed all of the fury, all that has made him a brilliant heavyweight. He was in close now, fighting off Ali’s chest, the place where he has to be. His old calling card — that sudden evil, his left hook — was working the head of Ali. Two hooks ripped with slaughterhouse finality at Ali’s jaw, causing Imelda Marcos to look down at her feet, and the President to wince as if a knife had been stuck in his back. Ali’s legs seemed to search for the floor. He was in serious trouble, and he knew that he was in no-man’s-land.

Whatever else might one day be said about Muhammad Ali, it should never be said that he is without courage, that he cannot take a punch. He took those shots by Frazier, and then came out for the seventh, saying to him, “Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you were washed up.” Joe replied, “Somebody told you all wrong, pretty boy.”

Great Stuff.

[Sports Illustrated]