A Prescription for Boxing

Joe FrazierBy Shawn O'Donnell: There is no question boxing is struggling to survive in mainstream culture now more than ever, but despite this fear, pay per view buys for the De la Hoya-Mayweather and Hatton-Mayweather fights have broken records and generated bountiful profits. This demonstrates that boxing is still very much alive and in the mind of the public.

The dilemma is: "how does boxing sustain this level of interest?" I believe the way to keep the momentum going is to concentrate on what is right with boxing, and what are its' most positive elements. I had an oppotunity to discuss the state of the game with two of boing's best embassadors: Teddy Atlas and Joe Frazier. It became apparent, after meeting these gentlemen, that boxing still has meaningful stories that need to be revealed.

One of the reasons why these men are great representatives of the sport is that they are very willing to interact with the public in a friendly and sincere manner. When I approached Atlas in the hotel lobby about an interview he was obviously suffering from jet lag, despite this affliction he sat down to deliver a very candid and thoughtful interview. I also caught up to Joe Frazier, prior to going on air before an ESPN telecast, and found him to be animated, full of vigor and willing to share his thoughts on a variety of boxing subjects. After the telecast Frazier signed autographs, pictures, memorabilia and shook hands for two and a half hours at no cost to those willing to stand in line. In an age of thriving sports memorabilia markets, Frazier seemed disinterested in exploiting his name and position in history.

Both Frazier and Atlas are buoyed by the interest others find in them, and are willing to return the energy and positive feelings back to those they encounter. People outside of boxing need to dissolve the memories of sullen, broken fighters that have fallen from grace, and in turn, replace those images with the actions and behaviors of people like Atlas and Frazier.

Although Atlas is often cast as a street hardened and abrasiveness figure, I found him to be the exact opposite: thoughtful, open and willing to engage others. He studies people carefully with his eyes. One of those eye's is divided by a feint scar that runs almost the entire length of his face, a remnant from an encounter with a switch blade during a street fight. And when he listens to others speak, it is with sincere intent. Some would intimate that it easy to con people with some kind words and a few well timed smiles;however, I would argue that Atlas is genuine. He talks the talk and walks the walk.

The best piece of evidence that I can give is his work with the charitable organization he founded in his fathers name: The Doctor Theodore A. Atlas Foundation. The foundation grew out of Atlas' memories of his father's compassionate medical practice on Staten Island, New York. When he spoke of his father, it was with great reverence, almost as if he wished he could keep in time with his actions. But doing so was quite difficult,and as Atlas would reveal "my father was a very busy man, I did not get to see him that much". When Atlas did get the opportunity to see his father, it was often when he accompanied him on house calls to attend to those who where in dire need of medical attention. Doctor Atlas would perform tonsillectomies, prescribe medications and often lend an ear to those who were alone, at a cost in keeping with what they could afford.

Although others were able to attain his fathers attention, Teddy struggled to get an audience with him. He began to act out by running with the wrong crowd and falling into a life of criminal activity. After a series of felony convictions, he found himself in Rikers Island prison. It was here that he discovered a person that looked out for him and gave him counsel in his darkest moments of life. That person was Franciscan brother Tim McDonald. Brother McDonald was in fact in the room during my interview with Atlas. I was to learn later that this was a long awaited reunion between the two. Beaming with a wide smile, he was only too happy to tell me how proud he was of Teddy after the interview.

It would appear that what Atlas' learned from brother Tim in Rikers served him well. After his release from prison he managed to get settled into a constructive activity. Atlas soon became involved in coaching boxing and eventually ended up under the tutelage of legendary fight trainer Cus D'amato. D'amato was not only renowned for guiding heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson to the title, but also for standing up to the corruption that plagued boxing in the fifties and sixties. Under D'amato's guidance Atlas turned into a prolific trainer. One fateful day a troubled twelve year old boy serving time in a youth detention facility was brought forth before D'amato and Atlas for inspection. That boy was Mike Tyson. Under Atlas' guidance Tyson began to hone his skill and technique, but regrettably, Atlas could not correct Tyson's most obvious flaw: his character. Atlas became dismayed by Tyson's behaviors, which increasingly became devious and malicious in nature. He was particularly upset with Tyson regarding an inappropriate act directed at a younger female member of his family .It came to a boiling point one night when Atlas stuck a gun in Tyson's face and threatened to pull the trigger if Tyson did not come to his senses and see the error of his ways. Atlas was relieved of his duties, and to this day, has never reconciled with Tyson. He moved forward from that experience with the earnest notion that he had done the right thing that night. He had stood his ground, but he turned his back on one of the richest catches in sports history. It would not be the last time either that Atlas would walk out on a fighter due to his grounded principles.

Although Frazier and Tyson had the common distinction of being the heavyweight champion of the world, the similarities between both ceased beyond this point. The characteristic of toughness may have been Tyson's greatest flaw, but for Frazier it was his greatest distinction. A young Joe Frazier used boxing as a way to keep out of trouble on the mean streets of Philadelphia. It became apparent to his trainer ,Yank Durham, that he had special qualities. Those qualities are what eventually led him to be the US Olympic representative in the Tokyo Olympics in nineteen sixty four. Frazier fought his way to the final in the tournament, but was saddled with a broken hand going into the final fight. When I asked Frazier how he overcame this obstacle he replied, "I was the only fighter from the US in the final, I had to get the job done." It was this sense of honor and grit that propelled Frazier through this fight and many more to come. Prior to the fight he soaked his hand in warm water and alcohol and kept a persistent vision of victory in his mind. Frazier won the gold medal with a decision victory over West Germany's Hans Huber. This was just the beginning of many glorious moments for Frazier.

Frazier's greatest accomplishment in the ring eventually came against Muhammad Ali on March 8th, 1971. The fight was a spectacular event that became a significant moment in the annals of sports history. The hype leading up to the fight was intense. On one side, Ali was portrayed as a mover and a shaker for the civil rights movement during that time, and on the other side, Frazier was portrayed as the fighter representing the establishment. It is a hard concept to entertain today because of the world of political correctness that we live in, but in this time racial and cultural divides created good promotion for fights. Although much has been written about Ali's persistent tormenting of Frazier, when I talked to him about this he carried no resentment towards Ali. "The only person Ali was convincing with that stuff was himself. I never believed in seeing the world in black and white. I couldn't be that way because my grandmother was part Irish." Ali's persistent goading only fueled Frazier's resolve to win, 'Smokin' Joe put an emphatic ending to that fight with a fifteenth round knockdown and a decision victory over Ali. Although Frazier would go on to lose to Ali in two proceeding fights, he maintains that his overall performances in those fights left him on a plateau equal to Ali.

One opponent that Frazier could not defeat was the ominous George Foreman. When I proposed the idea that Foreman actually cheated in those fights by stiff arming Frazier to keep him off, he shook his head in disagreement. "No man, George beat me. He was just a bigger, stronger guy. I had no answer for him." I found his candidness and accountability to be refreshing, and a departure from the way most fighters view themselves. Frazier spoke very highly of Foreman, "he is a real terrific guy, he is definitely a true champion". Frazier also assumed a compassionate stance to the foes that fell before him as well. When I mentioned to him that durable Canadian fighter George Chuvalo proclaimed that the only time he was ever seriously hurt, was in their 1967 fight in Madison Square Garden. Chuvalo had to stop fighting after getting hit by Frazier because he thought his eye was going to fall out of its socket (Frazier actually crushed Chuvalo's cheekbone with this punch). When I informed Frazier of this he responded with genuine remorse for his actions," I didn't know that happened. I feel bad. I was just trying to open the cut around his eye a little more so that they would stop the fight." It was as if Frazier understood the deep pain and adversity that Chuvalo faced. Frazier's somber and reflective moment was probably influenced by the fact that he fought part of his professional career with a visual impairment.

One thing that Frazier does seem genuinely proud of is the association with the popular fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, portrayed by actor Sylvester Stallone. The genesis of this pugilistic hero arose from Stallone's creative impression of the March 24th,1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Wepner a rugged,but limited fighter created a momentary rush of excitement in that fight when he executed a questionable knockdown on Ali. Spawned by the ecstatic reaction of the crowd, Stallone began thinking about the story of an underdog fighter getting a shot at the biggest prize in sports: the heavyweight title. However the public really took to Balboa when they were exposed to his inspiring training scenes in which he pounded sides of beef, victoriously ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and exhibited an inhuman ability to persist despite the odds stacked against him. These were elements based all on Joe Frazier. When I pointed this out to him,Frazier swelled with a quiet,but distinct pride.

It was a similar stirring of pride ,initiated by an article from columnist Jack Newfield, about Dr. Teddy Atlas, that got the younger Atlas thinking about how he could honor his father. Atlas thought back to how his father had really made a difference to others. He recounted one story in particular, which one of his fathers' patients told him after the doctor had died. Atlas revealed that this man spoke with extreme regard for his father, but the man felt compelled to inform him about a noteworthy event that transpired between the doctor and patient. When the man came into his fathers office one day, the doctor did something strangely out of character; he told the patient how proud he was of his son and that his son was a successful boxing trainer. It was medicine to Teddy's ears, and it was a long sought after acknowledgment. Perhaps the respect was there all along, impaired only by uncomfortable communication that so often occurs between fathers and sons.

It appeared that Atlas took this as a sign for him to carry on with his father's work, and that it set forth the wheels in motion to form his foundation. He consulted an assortment of people he had met through his life: politicians, businessmen, lawyers, policemen, sporting heroes, celebrities and boxing people to help his cause. Every year he holds a benefit dinner that raises money for a variety of purposes. Atlas constructed the charity in a manner so that all the proceeds would go directly to those who were in need, and not to be chewed up by the bureaucratic structure of the charity itself.The charity has raised money for terminally ill cancer patients. It has donated money, medical equipment and services to children,adults and families in tough circumstances. It has acquired playground and sporting equipment for kids, and it has assisted families victimized by the World Trade Center attack. Atlas' foundation was one of the first charity groups to hand out cheques directly to the families affected by the attack. Atlas' family was also affected by this heinous act; his nephew was a firefighter that died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

His compulsion to help others does not cease with his charity. Much like his mentor Cus D'amato, Atlas is a tireless advocate of boxing reform. When we discussed what would actually help boxing elevate itself from its current situation. Atlas brought up the idea of a national commission,college boxing scholarships and a reintroduction of boxing programs to prison populations. All of these were excellent suggestions, but in the time we live in, they may only be attainable through an act of god. "Are you reading this brother McDonald?Perhaps you can put in a word."

It occurred to me as I was writing this article that boxing's salvation maybe actually in the stories themselves. Boxing is so far gone from sports pages we only read about it in brief snippets in the sport short columns. The appreciation and understanding of the sport are lost in the limited print exposure. When HBO put together the De la Hoya-Mayweather fight it created a documentary that followed these fighters around. It told us who these people were and it humanized the fighters. Is it any coincidence that the pay-per view buys were extremely profitable after this?. The stories of the internal struggles and self discovery are played out so well in boxing. It is what Stallone so cleverly captured on film, and it was what Joe Frazier lived so close to the bone. My only hope is that we can tell the stories the way they should be told. At the end of my interview with Atlas, brother Tim told me, " Teddy takes the time to talk to writers like you because he respects what you can do". "Brother Tim, it is my pleasure to tell intriguing stories of people like Teddy Atlas,his father and Joe Frazier."

For more information on the Dr.Theodore A. Atlas Foundation and the 'Smokin' Joe Frazier Foundation please consult the following sites:

Article posted on 29.03.2008

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