Remembering Joe Frazier with Mark Kram’s classic story
As the sports world mourns the great heavyweight champion Joe Frazier today, it’s a perfect time to go back and read Mark Kram’s classic Sports Illustrated piece about the “Thrilla in Manilla,” Frazier’s epic 1975 title fight with his arch rival, Muhammad Ali.
On Twitter yesterday, S.I. media reporter Richard Deitsch wrote that many consider Kram’s piece “the greatest deadline story in SI history.” If it’s not, I’d love to read what is.
The story, headlined “Lawdy Lawdy He’s Great” after Frazier’s grudging but heartfelt post-fight praise of the victor, is a masterpiece of narrative, color, detail and emotion.
Kram opens by describing Ali, at a post-fight banquet at Malacañang Palace, waiting as Imelda Marcos filled his plate, the candelabras on the buffet table turning Ali’s battered face into a mask of pain. Then the scene shifts:
A couple of miles away in the bedroom of a villa, the man who has always demanded answers of Ali, has trailed the champion like a timber wolf, lay in semi-darkness. Only his heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet of him. “Who is it?” asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to look around. “Who is it? I can’t see! I can’t see! Turn the lights on!” Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far—and now surely too far. His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya. “Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city,” said Frazier. “Lawdy, Lawdy, he’s a great champion.” Then he put his head back down on the pillow, and soon there was only the heavy breathing of a deep sleep slapping like big waves against the silence.
Kram then puts you, the reader, in the ring and both corners as Ali and Frazier battled for the third time in their careers, a bout that ended when Frazier’s corner wouldn’t let the former champ answer the bell for the 15th round:
“Joe,” said his manager, Eddie Futch, “I’m going to stop it.”
“No, no, Eddie, ya can’t do that to me,” Frazier pleaded, his thick tongue barely getting the words out. He started to rise.
“You couldn’t see in the last two rounds,” said Futch. “What makes ya think ya gonna see in the 15th?”
“I want him, boss,” said Frazier.
“Sit down, son,” said Futch, pressing his hand on Frazier’s shoulder. “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”
Remember Jonah Keri’s advice in this space: “Read a lot. Like, A LOT,” he wrote. “Sometimes the lessons you learn from reading are overt … More often, it’s subtle, and cumulative. You read, and you read, and you read, and you evolve as a writer, without even realizing it.”
As you read Kram’s piece, remember that he wrote it on deadline. And think about how he did it. What were the tools he used to make that night come alive so vividly?
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