The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing

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Reflecting on the deaths of Ron Lyle and Joe Frazier, Carlo Rotello remembers the demigods of 70s boxing that made the immortals possible:


Frazier deserves all the posthumous acclaim he's getting (and he deserves a statue in Philadelphia, too), but it's worth remembering that a golden age is made not just by its major figures but also by its minor ones -- like Ron Lyle, who also died in November. Along with Shavers, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Young and Roy Williams, Lyle was one of the heavyweight wrecking crew who forced greatness from the all-timers and from one another. Celebrated heavyweight champions of other eras, including Joe Louis and Jack Johnson, didn't have to reckon with so many fearsome contemporaries. 

A big hitter and sound technical boxer who took up the sport while serving seven years in prison for his part in a gang killing (he was later pardoned), Lyle never fought Frazier, but he gave Ali all he could handle, and he knocked Foreman all over the ring, which nobody else ever did. Foreman, ranked with Shavers at the top of the list of the hardest punchers of all time, was too much for Frazier, and Ali wisely refused to meet his strength head-on. 

But Lyle came right at Foreman and staggered the bigger man with straight rights and uppercuts. Trading shots, they soldiered on with less and less art and more and more astounding resilience. In the fourth round, they exchanged knockdowns and then, just before the bell, Lyle knocked Foreman down again. Foreman looked done for, banging his head on the canvas when he slammed down on his side as if dropped from a great height. But like Ali, in extremis he pulled out a victory over Lyle, K.O.'ing him in the next round in a wild exchange of blows. It was Foreman's finest hour in the ring, and beating Lyle is one of his most important credentials as an all-timer.

For a really good look at this period check out Facing Ali. The film has an interesting technique, in that it uses Ali as a thread to tell the story of the great heavyweights of the 60s and 70s. Thus instead of a glory piece for Ali, you get some deep insight on the men he fought. Listening to Sir Henry Cooper argue for monarchy is just as fascinating as hearing him describe his bout with Ali. George Chuvalo, Ken Norton and Ron Lyle are particularly interesting.

One thing that's fascinating about listening to, say, a Leon Spinks talk is you realize how many great boxers started off as the victims of bullies. Spinks grew up in the projects and his mother used to come out and fight for him, which was utterly humiliating. So he took up boxing. Ali came to boxing after someone stole his bike. And Tyson, of course, was bullied.

I don't know that that's comforting for non-boxing fans. It might well be horrifying.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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