City Paper is not for tourists
Mark Kram might want to adopt a literary version of the “rope-a-dope”and soon.
The D.C.-based writer will surely have a lot of verbal haymakers, and maybe even some fistic ones, thrown his way once Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier hits stores next week. Folks will come after him for his attempt to inform, or simply remind, them that not everything about the Greatest is so great. Deities aren’t supposed to have dark sides.
“I expect to take some whacks,” Kram tells me. “I can take it. I know the way it was. I was there.”
Yes, Kram was there. Not just in the Philippines in 1975, when the third, final, and most brutal ring matchup between Ali and Frazier”the Thrilla in Manila”went down. No, when it came to Ali, Kram was almost always there.
Kram was there all the way back in 1963, when Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, trained for his first encounter with Sonny Liston, the upset win that so famously shocked the world and sent him on the way to becoming the most visible athlete in history. “I was as awed by his skills in the ring as anybody, just knocked out by what he could do,” Kram says.
And throughout the meatiest part of the fighter’s ring career, Kram had first dibs on the Ali beat for Sports Illustratedan assignment that now seems as transcendent as covering Microsoft for the Wall Street Journal throughout the ’90s or New Kids on the Block for Teen Beat throughout mid-August of 1988.
Ali’s eminence, after all, was in no small part due to the symbiotic relationship he had with SI, which put him on its cover 35 times. “Ali and the NFL took Sports Illustrated out of the red and into the black,” says Kram. In turn, it could be argued that the magazine was the second-most-important toolbehind Frazier, of course, and ahead of Howard Cosellin making Ali larger than life.
But Kram, all these years later, doesn’t seem to take much pride in having owned the SI cover so many times during what was certainly the magazine’s heyday. He stands by everything he wrote about the fighter, yet he appears to harbor some guilt about whatever role he played in spawning what he frequently calls the “myth” of Ali.
Ghosts of Manila could be Kram’s way of atoning.
Though the book is built around the three Ali-Frazier fights, it is Ali’s words and deeds outside the ring while engaged in this rivalry that too many people have forgotten about.
Frazier emotionally, and perhaps even financially, supported Ali during his banishment from boxing for refusing to be drafted during Vietnam. But Ali turned on his friend once he got back in the fight game, dubbing his opponent an Uncle Tom, calling him a gorilla, and frequently describing Frazier as “ignorant” on national television.
“This wasn’t hype for a fight,” Kram says. “This was meanness. Calculated meanness. Ali wanted to ruin Joe Frazier.”
The impact of Ali’s race-baiting, a campaign endorsed by the Nation of Islam, devastated Frazier. “This became a feud between two men over which one is blacker than the other,” Kram says. “Ali got people to believe he was blacker, which was ridiculous. He diminished other black fighters the same wayhe never went after white fighters like thatbut it was worst with Frazier. Frazier’s heritage was as black as you could get. Frazier’s a guy who had to leave South Carolina after he broke into a fight between a boss and a black worker. Yet Ali got black America to turn on him. Frazier didn’t deserve that.”
In Ghosts of Manila’s preface, Kram writes that the book is “intended to be a corrective to the years of stenography that have produced the Ali legend.”
“While myth usually begins in a place of truthin this case, uncommon boxing skillit often ends in a place of fantasia, and this is where we find Ali,” Kram writes. “He has been celebrated for the wrong reasons and has been interpreted by an increasingly uninformed generation of media that was barely born at the height of his career.”
Kram last saw Ali in 1990, when working on a feature article for Esquire. During his week with the former champ, Kram realized that the ultimate victim of Ali’s deification was the fighter himself.
“Nobody would treat him like a human being when he got sick,” he says. “They didn’t want to admit that he had brain damage. First, they said he had a thyroid condition. Then he was suffering from exposure to pesticides. Then it was because he wasn’t taking the right medicine. When I was with him, he was shaking, and I asked his doctor why they weren’t treating him for [punch-drunkenness], since that’s what happens to fighters who stay in the game too long. The doctor said, ‘I watched his fights. Ali didn’t take punches to the head,’ and I’m thinking, What was this guy watching?”
Partly because of that experience, Kram didn’t bother contacting Ali when writing Ghosts in Manila.
“He had nothing to say in 1990, and he’s gotten progressively worse,” Kram says. “He’s on Uranus now.”
In his Connecticut Avenue apartment, I ask Kram if there’s any benefit to accentuating whatever character flaws Ali may have had, given all the time that’s passed since he’s been relevant; the fact that he, if only for public consumption, recently apologized to Frazier for his slurs back in the day; and his pathetic physical condition.
“The record needs to be corrected about Ali,” Kram tells me. “There’s no need to correct the record about Ali the boxer. But Ali isn’t a hero. Heroes should have substance. Heroes aren’t manipulated, as Ali was by the Nation of Islam from the very beginning. What is going on with Ali speaks to the country’s penchant for ‘godding up’ athletes. The Ali I covered was not a god, and I wrote about the Ali I covered. And on the whole, I hope it comes through that I had a lot of affection for Ali. Until he turned into the devil.”
Ali will be in town next month to be honored by the National Association of Broadcasters for a lifetime promoting the “core values” of “peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth.” Kram says he won’t be attending the function. Dave McKenna