90 year old Jerry Izenberg covered boxing in the golden era, during which all the greats – Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and so many more – were boxing. Izenberg’s superb book, “Once There Were Giants,” which focuses on the great period of legendary heavyweights, from 1962 to 1997, has been re-released in paperback.
Jerry kindly takes the time to speak with ESB here:
Q: Your book, “Once There Were Giants” has been re-released in paperback. A great read, you of course covered the golden era of the heavyweights. As fine a read as it is, it’s somewhat depressing knowing, as you say in the book, that that great era is never coming back.
Jerry Izenberg: “You got it right on the money. The world changes. The sport has changed. I give the example of Lou Duva’s fighter, who wasn’t a heavyweight, but anyway, he was in the tunnel ready to come out for his fight at The Garden. He turned to Duva and said he wasn’t going out, that that wasn’t his music playing. Duva turned to me and said, ‘Can you believe this shit! Could you imagine Joe Louis saying he’s not gonna come out because his music wasn’t playing!’ That’s what I point out [in the book] – all the bullshit that we have today. It’s not just the sport, it’s the people today; that’s why we had Donald Trump. We’re in an age where pomp and circumstances are more important than the event or the subject. And that’s what’s happened to boxing.
“I covered everything worth covering in the United States, sports wise, for fifty years – The World Series, The Super Bowl. And it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Because it’s got to have this silly showbiz backdrop. The most exciting thing in sports, for me, always, was when two fighters were coming to the ring. You could hear a little buzz, and then it got a little louder, a little louder, and when they lifted up those ring ropes, it was a thunderous noise. No music, no staging, nothing. That was real excitement and there was nothing like it.”
Q: You covered all those epic fights with Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Holmes, and so many more. I can only imagine how special it must have been.
J.I: “Well, you’ll never see it [again]. Fighters back then, they went to training camp for six months, and we [writers] went with them for a month or so, on and off. In London, you guys treat it with much more respect than we do now. Here [in America] very few newspapers have boxing writers and as a result the guy who covers it doesn’t know what the hell he’s saying. And that cheats the reader. Now, I feel that someone else [other than me] is going to be cheated. I mean, how many world heavyweight title fights can a person be around for? But the sport has cheapened itself. The whole act of promotion is different now than it was. When I was a young guy, I was born in North New Jersey, a blue-collar town, and we had fights 52 weeks a year, professional boxing. We had four arenas. You had to fight in Newark before you could fight in The Garden, if you were an Eastern fighter. You had to earn The Garden. There was a title fight the other night, one guy had 14 fights, the other guy had four fights. It doesn’t add up. I remember [Ezzard] Charles and [Jersey Joe] Walcott, they fought each other four times. Walcott only won once but he earned those fights because they were all close; and then he won the fourth fight and the Ezzard Charles people didn’t want to fight Walcott again. But we had so many guys who could fight back then, we had guys who never fought for the title. We had a problem in this country with race, and great black fighters, so many of them, they never got a chance to fight for the title.”
Q: Talking about today’s heavyweights, with the Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua fight, which is still not over the line……
J.I: “I was gonna say, what fight? I’ll see it when I believe it. But it’s a good fight, somebody over there [in England] asked me a while back, could this fight be Ali and Frazier? And I said something that objected to that! It can’t be. But again, you’re starved so much for a heavyweight championship fight, it’s your fight. It has its proper place in England, and that’s where it stays; in other words, it doesn’t become a huge match in the Emirates. It’s a homegrown rivalry, and there are very few, and I think it’s a shame if the British people don’t get to savour it. But I do suspect it will wind up in England, in the fall, if the virus abates over there. You’ve got Wembley and it’s huge. I’d hate to see it taken out [of the UK] but listen, it’s a money game. These guys [the fighters] bleed for it, the fans don’t bleed. So, to go where they can get the most money, I understand. What would it do for the sport in England if this fight did happen? The fall-out would be huge. You’d see these two guys all week (this interview was conducted a few days before Fury-Joshua was announced for Saudi Arabia). I’d always go to a heavyweight championship fight a week before the fight, so that meant seven different stories; extra stories to reach your readers, to tell the fans who these people are and what this fight’s about.
Q: You knew Muhammad Ali very well, being friends with him for 50 years. What is your favourite Ali fight?
J.I: “There’s only one [choice I can make]. It’s the greatest heavyweight fight ever held – Joe Frazier and Ali, fight-three. Jerry Lister and I, we were sat together and the fight and in the tenth round, I turned and I said, ‘Jerry, they should stop this fight. They ought to stop it, tell them they both won, and send them home.’ There was no loser in that fight. You know who decided that fight – God. That and the anatomy of Joe Frazier. In the late rounds, he had to straighten up, fight out of his crouch because he couldn’t see, and he had no chance. I don’t pay much attention to the score-cards of the judges. One of the reasons is, sometimes they don’t see the body blows. I trust myself, and going into the last round of Ali-Frazier three, I had Ali ahead by a point. That means if Frazier wins the [15th] round, it’s a draw. If Frazier knocks him down, Frazier wins the fight. But there was no 15th round. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t cut the gloves off. I know Joe couldn’t see much, but one left hook and who knows. But I don’t think they ever settled their rivalry, over who was the greater fighter of the two. As I wrote that night, under the deadline pressure, I remember, I wrote – “Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali did not fight for the WBC championship last night, nor did they fight for the championship of the entire planet. They could’ve fought on a melting ice float in a telephone booth. They were fighting for the championship of each other and that has never been settled.” That fight, it was like looking at a financial graph; up and down, up and down. Ali’s up, Ali’s down. Frazier’s up, Frazier’s down.
“It went that way from the third round on. In the beginning, he [Frazier] could have been knocked out, but I’ll tell you something your readers might not know. Ali said he never talked in the ring, he always said that. I told him, ‘You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’ I heard him [talk in the ring]. And they brought in George Benton, the great middleweight, to help train Frazier. Benton told Joe he had no right hand, that he couldn’t tie his shoes with his right hand. Benton was brought in to teach him how to throw a right hand. And Eddie Futch said he didn’t care if it was a pitty-pat right hand, he just wanted Ali, who thought about everything, to know there’s a right hand in the game now.
“Frazier hit Ali with the right hand and Ali screamed at him, ‘You can’t do that, you’re an old man! You ain’t got a right hand.’ And, bang, he hits him with another one and he says, ‘Go ask Georgie Benton.’ They’re yelling at each other in the ring. It was an incredible fight. Was Ali the greatest heavyweight I ever saw? No. The greatest I ever saw was Joe Louis. But Ali was the smartest fighter, and he was something else. It took him a round, but he always knew what he was going to do. That goes back to smarts again. His hands were the fastest of the heavyweights by far. And what Ali was and will always be as long as I’m here to argue his case – he was the fighter who made the single biggest impact on boxing ever.”
Q: Do you get offended when people say certain fighters from these days would have beaten Ali?
J.I: “I don’t get offended, no. I gave up worrying about what other people say a long time ago. And also, you can never compare any athlete from different eras, because the games change. Jack Dempsey weighed 185 pounds, [Primo] Carnera and [Luis Angel] Firpo were the big guys back then, giants at six foot three or more. Holmes is 6’4.” Look at basketball, that’s really changed. Everything changes. You can’t compare eras.”
Q: What was the first world heavyweight title fight you sat at ringside for?
J.I: “It was Floyd Patterson against Ingemar Johansson, the first one. Of course I was shocked when Patterson got knocked out. That’s the first time I met Cus D’Amato. After the fight, Cus said that Patterson was getting stronger every time he got up. I told him, ‘Well, he was knocked down seven times, are you trying to tell me he’d have won the fight if he’d gone down 14 times!’ [Mike] Tyson was 12 years old when I first met him. Cus introduced me. I’ve got to say two things about Cus D’Amato. Outside of maybe two or three guys, trainers, he knew more about boxing than anybody who trained a fighter. He also half mad. He was nuts. He believed people were trying to kill him, he always spoke about the mob. He said he wouldn’t have his fighters fight at the Garden because the mob controlled the fights as The Garden. But Cus had his own mob. The first Patterson-Ingo fight, the money was put up by a guy named “Fat Tony” Salerno. He was involved in the numbers racked it New York and he put up the money for the fight. I learned a long time ago, at my age, even in my marriage, I’ve got to look twice sometimes (laughs). The point is, nothing is quite the way it seems in life.”
Q: Who is the greatest living fighter?
J.I: “Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Well, I guess, if you go by records, you have to take Floyd Mayweather, you have to take [Manny] Pacquiao. If think if Pacquiao fights Mayweather two years earlier [than he did] he knocks him out. The Mayweather people knew what they were doing not fighting him for those two years. But they’re both living, in fact Pacquiao is still looking for a fight. Manny Pacquiao does the foreword in the re-release of ‘One There Were Giants.” And can I mention a new book? This is the one I’m most proud of, of all my 16 books.
“It’s my first, last and only novel. I wrote it at age 90. It’s called ‘After The Fire.’ It’s about a race riot in Newark, a mobster’s involvement to pick a new mayor, and most of all, a love affair between a black college girl and an Italian-American college boy. It’s about, can they make it or can they not make it. The book has had really good reviews. You can get it now on Amazon. I left it so late to write a novel because I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was at the top of my bucket list. I’m very proud of the book.”
Q: I found the end section of your book, ‘Once There Were Giants’ to be interesting, the near-miss heavyweights who didn’t quite make your list of greats – Jimmy Young and Lennox Lewis.
J.I: “Jimmy Young was a fighter who nobody wanted to fight him. He’s in the book, some stuff about his fight with Ken Norton. By the way, I think the best single round in heavyweight boxing is Holmes-Norton, round 15. It’s not the best round, weights wise, it’s the best heavyweight round. The best round of all is Hagler-Hearns. Hagler comes out and Hearns a tremendous puncher, he hits him with a hellacious right hand on the forehead and a cut opens up; one of the most dangerous cuts you can have, with blood running into his eye. And Hagler fought back. He took that punch and he didn’t back up an inch. They stood there, toe-to-toe and fought. At the end of the round, I said the round goes to Hearns, the fight goes to Hagler. That’s the best first round I ever saw.
“I know some people over there are upset I left Lennox out. He was a great fighter, but he came at the end [of the golden era]. He just didn’t have the top opponents. Tyson was finished at the time of their fight. Also, he got knocked out by [Oliver] McCall.
Q: How much does Ali mean to you?
J.I: “25 years after the fight in Manila, I did a retrospective piece. I called Ali and he said he didn’t know why Joe didn’t like him, that he had just been trying to help him sell tickets. I told Ali how my father taught me something at a very early age: ‘Never try and bullshit a bullshitter.’ I told Ali why Frazier hated him. His son, Marvis, he came home from school crying. Marvis told his daddy how kids were calling him a gorilla, this because of Ali. Ali told me, he said he didn’t mean to do that and he said I had to go talk with Joe. He told me to tell Joe that he was sorry. I called Joe and he told me to tell Ali to shove his apology up his ass!
“At the end, I was getting some award and Joe was sat next to me and Ali was speaking. Joe said, ‘Can you hear him trying to talk? This is from a higher force, his punishment for what he did to me and to my family.’ With Ali, when he opened his mouth, you never knew what was going to come out, because he didn’t know. Ali couldn’t get off stage, when he said something, he just kept going and going. But I’m certain he never meant to hurt Joe the way he did, I have no question in my mind. I’ll tell you a story about Ali. Some of this stuff you never write, because it’s personal. But you do get to know these guys. George Foreman told me years after the fight, he said he should have died. He said he should have gotten up in time when Ali dropped him. And then, after he knocked out Michael Moorer, I was with George in his room and I said to him after he knocked Moorer out, I said, ‘That wasn’t a fight for you – it was an exorcism.’ I told him how Ali was in his head from the moment they got to Africa and he never left it until tonight. George said I was right. He said the guy [Ali] was just too smart for him.
“But Ali, this is how I remember him – for two things. The Holmes fight, I knew he was through, I knew he couldn’t fight. I’m in his room the night before the fight and I told him I assumed this was his last fight and I said to him I just wanted to thank him for helping me fill all those column pages of mine. He laughed and then he ripped off his shirt. It was eerie. He looked great but he had been on those pills [Thyroid] and he couldn’t even lift his arms up on the night of the fight. After that fight, I was walking around in Vegas, feeling like shit at something like 3AM, and I go in the men’s room and the attendant, an old black guy with lines all over his face, he and I talked and I asked him who he bet on in the fight. He told me he bet on Ali, and when I asked why, he said it was because he was the man who gave him dignity. That’s how I’ll remember Ali.
“The other one, after the Foreman fight in Africa, we went to look for Ali. There had been a massive rainstorm. We got on the bus and I wanted to go see Ali. I knew where he’d be – at the river, by the Congo River. He was there and he was shouting into the water. He’s there, just shouting at the river, but we can’t hear him. He raises his arms and he carries on shouting. Then he told us how he would never be able to explain what the fight meant to him. He was the king of the world again and that’s how I’ll always remember him. He did something for me and my children one time. I was making a film about Ali and I’m a single father at the time. I’m taking my two kids with me, to Deer Lake. They’re both shy kids. My daughter said to me in the car how she hoped Foreman knocked Ali out. I asked her, ‘Why would you say that? You know he’s a friend of mine.’ She said he brags all the time and that I told her not to brag. I said, ‘You’re a little kid, what the heck have you got to brag about!’
Anyway, she goes in with me and she comes to Ali’s room with me. Ali asked me if that was my daughter. Ali sees her looking shy at the back of the room, hoping Ali won’t see her. Ali calls to her and he tells her to come over, he orders her to come over. Ali picks her up and he holds her above his head and he asks here, ‘Is that your daddy?’ Ali said to her, ‘He can’t be your daddy, he’s ugly and you’re beautiful.’ Then Ali gives her a kiss. Later, we’re driving back in the car and she says to me, ‘Oh, I hope Muhammad can win!” That shows you the affection people had for Ali.”