Great writers, great fights
Before Twitter and instantaneous coverage online and ESPN SportsCenter on TV, fans relied primarily on the eloquent prose of newspapermen for their sports news.
The art is largely lost. However, thankfully, many of these gifted writers remain with us and have vivid memories. They’ve seen it all and have the unusually sharp ability to relate their experiences, including their coverage of memorable fights.
We asked five of the best — Ed Schuyler, Michael Katz, Dave Anderson, John Hall and Stan Hochman – to describe for us the greatest fights they covered and give us a glimpse into their era of sports journalism.
“Things are different today, but things were different in 1971 than they were in 1939,” Anderson said. “I’m not saying it’s better, but thank heaven there was no Twitter back in those days. The TV and internet world we live in makes it all about the writers, not about the events that they cover.
“It’s different. I was fortunate to cover boxing in much more pleasant and relaxed world than today.”
Associated Press boxing writer from 1970 to 2002
“The best fight I ever covered was the first Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns fight. For a non-heavyweight fight, it had great interest. They both could punch and box. The twist is it was Hearns that decided to box in the fight, and Leonard was the puncher. That gets lost. Leonard could punch, and he was one of the meanest fighters I had ever seen. Hearns couldn’t take the world’s best punch, and when he switched to boxing and was boxing beautifully, he had Leonard in trouble and was ahead until Leonard caught him in the 13th and finished him in the 14th.
“It was a great ebb-and-flow fight, and the anticipation of the fight was great. You had a jammed crowd in Caesars Palace, and for me, it was the most memorable fight since the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. And I didn’t think there was ever fight that could equal that anticipation. It’s pretty hard to overwhelm New York City, but there were over 20,000 people there, and anyone who was ever anyone was there.
“I’ll take the first Leonard-Hearns fight on constant action. There were two fighters who just weren’t throwing punches; it was a thinking-man’s fight. Heavyweights get all of the attention and get the great drama, but the little guys throw more punches. Even though Hearns and Leonard weren’t always punching, they were moving. If you’re a real fight fan, it’s something you have to appreciate.”
The New York Times boxing writer from 1972 to 1985
“There’s too many to single out one, but I’m partial to the first time I came to Vegas in 1978 to cover the Larry Holmes-Kenny Norton fight at Caesars Palace. What a tremendous fight that gets lost in history. It was my first trip to Vegas, and I kind of remember one night Don King was going to regale the press at Caesars Palace. I got there early and you could take either a gilded elevator or walk up this red-carpeted spiral staircase to the area King designated. I decided to walk up the staircase and I got to the top of the stairs and was greeted by this big, gleaming neon sign that said ‘toilet.’ I remember writing that in The Times, and I also remember what it was like being a new kid on the block.
“The Goodmans, (publicists) Murray and Bob, were taking good care of everyone, as they always did. One night, I was out to dinner with Murray Goodman, and he and I were talking when a drunken Richie Giachetti, Holmes’ trainer, sat down at the table with us. He ordered a steak, put his head down at the table and fell asleep. Here the steak comes, the waiter wakes him up, and Giachetti can’t cut the steak, so he eats the steak with his bare hands and falls back to sleep. Murray and I decided to go, but we had to wake Richie up again. He woke up and wanted to order a steak. He forgot he ate it. Murray and I showed him the gristle in the plate.
“Anyway, Holmes-Norton was a fantastic fight. They were trading shots that would have knocked down a redwood forest. It was an incredible fight back in the good, old days of the 15-rounders. After 14 rounds, I had it even, and so did all three judges. After the 15th round, one other judge and I called it for Norton. Two judges called it for Larry. I still tease Larry about it today. That was such a great, great fight that deserves a better place in boxing history.”
The New York Times sportswriter/columnist from 1966 to the present
“The most memorable and greatest fight for me was the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, because we’ve never had anything like it, and there’s been nothing like it since. It was a title fight with undefeated fighters and two fighters that had a claim to the heavyweight title. Boxing never had that situation with any other fight. The whole build up was special. We never had that kind of build up, and we never will. What made it great was the fight lived up to the hype. Frazier was the winner. He beat the hell out of Ali. I was the fight reporter at The Times, and I was there in my ringside seat with my old typewriter. It was kind of an old-time fight. I was at ringside typing, and it was the same as a computer today.
“You did the first four paragraphs, and sent the first four rounds to a runner who filed it through Western Union. It was a great night. The moment that stands up for me is when Frazier knocked Ali down. Ali’s head was three feet from me. There is a famous picture with me in the background of the shot – to the far right. We all had these red-white-and-blue baseball caps to gain admission to the back press area in the rotunda. When I was writing, I’d take notes with a pen, and when I was typing, I put my pen in my mouth. The picture shows me as the guy with the pen in his mouth. There I was. That was the moment.
“When Ali hit the canvas, it sounded like thunder. The springs under the canvas were metal and when the fighters bounced around, you could feel the slight sag of the canvas. This was Ali at 200-whatever pounds he was, and he went down. Boom! I could have touched his head; he was that close.”
The Los Angeles Times boxing writer/columnist from 1950 to 1961
“The greatest fight I ever saw was Art Aragon and Cisco Andrade at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in 1956. Andrade got out to a big lead, and Aragon began to rally and knocked Andrade down in the ninth round. Big fights took place outside in places like Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. All the ballparks of my youth from the early days are all gone. But I’ll always remember Aragon, the original ‘Golden Boy.’
“He was always in spectacular fights. He was a great puncher. He was always bleeding from the nose and eyes, and I think he was underrated. There weren’t 85 different titles and divisions then, and Art was at his best when he was at 140 pounds, which he was for Andrade. When he fought for the lightweight title, dropping the weight really hurt him. He lost to Jimmy Carter. He fought Andrade at 140 pounds, a little over the lightweight limit.
“I don’t know if Aragon reminds me of anyone today. He was an all-out puncher and brawler, but he could be a real cutie pie, too. Covering boxing was some of the best times I ever had writing about sports. Talking to Red Smith at the scene of a fight, and doing things like spending a week with Muhammad Ali in Atlanta before his comeback fight. I don’t think we’ll get those times back. We had incredible access to fighters that doesn’t happen today. Aragon was the most exciting fighter I ever saw at that time. Crowds hated him because he beat popular fighters. Ali actually took part of his act. I made it to Art’s 80th birthday party. We had a good time, and three weeks later he had a stroke and died.”
Philadelphia Daily News sports editor/columnist starting in 1965
“Easily Ali-Frazier I for many reasons. From a personal standpoint, I was the sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and both fighters lived in the Philadelphia area at the time, Frazier in Philadelphia, and Ali was living in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J. We were at the epicenter of everything. I remember paying for Ali’s dry cleaning the day the Supreme Court just heard his appeal for refusing the draft. What made Ali-Frazier I more electric was the uncertainty. I remember Butch Lewis saying someone’s ‘0’ has got to go. It was the biggest payday for fighters guaranteed in the history of sports. But the way Ali approached it, calling Frazier an ‘Uncle Tom’ and the ‘White man’s champ,’ is something Ali didn’t have to do.
“For days leading up to the fight, we carried full-page feature stories covering everything from the trainers to their wives. We had a glove in the corner of the page giving the countdown to the fight. The day after the fight, we sold 500,000 copies and our normal circulation was 250,000. I believe we were the only paper in the world that doubled its circulation. We were a tabloid and to me the most memorable things leading up to the fight was such thorough coverage.
“There was Frank Sinatra with a camera taking pictures leaning between the ropes. That stands out to me. Burt Lancaster was doing the color on the close-circuit telecast. I remember Lancaster wanting to spar with Joe before the fight. Joe didn’t want to do it, because Joe couldn’t pull his punches. It was the ultimate fashion show. I remember I even assigned my wife to cover Frazier’s victory party, and she never wrote on deadline before. I still had Frazier winning convincingly.
“It was just one of those indelible nights. I’ll always remember the left hook that Joe said came from down home. We’ll never have a night like that again. Maybe a Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight would generate something close to that, but not that type of excitement. Never again.”