Welcome to another edition of What If?, as fates are decided in the heavyweight tournament group stage. Read the intro and method here. Catch up with the 1930s and 1970s group stage in Episodes 4 and 8.
Previously, on What If:
What’s in a name? Or, perhaps more germane, what’s in a nickname? Muhammad Ali is known to history as the Greatest of All Time, but thanks to a decisive ten-round loss on the cards to Ken Norton, Ali is a loss away from getting sent to his room without any dinner, and in his way is the man who was put in a time machine on the night of their first fight, none other than Joe Frazier.
But Frazier is a broken soul after George Foreman repeated history and smashed him in two rounds. Meanwhile, Foreman ran into a rerun of the Rumble in the Jungle and was himself defeated. For all men involved, it is get the win or die trying. No man has an advantage over any other; the only thing left to be decided is who wins the group and who places second of the last two men standing.
Meanwhile, the 1930s have come down to an obvious favorite in Joe Louis, an also-ran coming just short of potential greatness in Max Schmeling, and two guys in Max Baer and Primo Carnera fighting for a crack at whoever wins that group of 1940s relative soft touches by overarching historical standards that we’ll get to next week. One cannot shake the feeling that all action in that group is naught but a prelude to a Joe Louis semifinal run, but in the words of Kenny Mayne of ESPN, “Games are not played on paper, they are played inside television sets.”
Fight #1: Joe Louis (6/22/1938) vs. Max Schmeling (6/19/36)
In theory, this should have been a classic. You’ve got Max Schmeling pulled from the time of his greatest victory, a win over Joe Louis. You’ve got Joe Louis pulled out of time from a demolition of Schmeling in the rematch. If both men had something to play for, this could have been the fight of the tournament.
Oh well. You want Louis-Schmeling fights that mean something, go read our three part series on the subject (no, really, go read it if you haven’t. It’s good.) In this fight, Schmeling just wanted to go home and Louis, his bloodlust already sated in the prime timeline and with nothing to play for win or lose since he had the tiebreak over both men in the other fight, could be well enough persuaded to at the very least not kill the broken man in front of him.
Even the crowd knew a squash when they saw one, so all that remained was to have a little fun. Louis came out in the first round, hit Schmeling with a clearly pulled jab, and Schmeling, showing good humor given the situation, staged an elaborate “death scene” right out of a corny old silent film. Even Louis cracked; Schmeling’s gesture brought the house down from the moment he started the Bugs Bunny act, and his final pirouette had everyone in stitches.
Even referee Arthur Donovan got in on the fun, counting in a manner right out of Leslie Nielsen’s performance as a baseball umpire in The Naked Gun, and even throwing in a “nine and a half, nine and three quaaaaarters, TEN!” Who says boxing has no room for levity? The fight was officially ruled a no-contest, since it otherwise had no bearing on the final standings.
RESULT: NO CONTEST AND A LOT OF LAUGHS HAD BY ALL.
Fight #2: George Foreman (1/22/73) vs. Ken Norton (3/31/73)
In the words of Three Dog from Fallout 3, “Hey. Remember those down-on-their-luck Ghouls who tried to get into the fancy-smancy Tenpenny Tower? Well, it looks like they finally got their upscale address, and all it took was the wholesome slaughter of every other Tenpenny resident. Three Dog’s all for stickin’ it to the man, but good golly, Ghoulies, that’s a little bit much.”
George Foreman looked pretty down on his luck after a much younger version of Muhammad Ali beat the bazeejus out of him in a truncated and more violent answer to what Ali had done to Ernie Terrell once upon a time in the “What’s My Name?” fight. However, on March 26, 1974, Foreman got a chance to do to Norton’s “crab” defense what a good nutcracker will do to the claw on an actual crab, getting at the delicious soft meat inside. Foreman may have been from the land of Texas barbecue and countertop grills, but a Maryland crab cake would be a nice change of pace indeed.
The problem with Ken Norton was that he was the kind of guy who could beat one style of fighter and one style of fighter only, and that was why he gave such fits to Muhammad Ali both in history and in this tournament. To get to two wins, he’d have to do something other than box, and the prime timeline teaches us all we need to know about how Norton handled guys who could bring the pain. Foreman starched him in two rounds in 1974; Earnie Shavers pummeled Norton into a fine paste in 1979, and Norton even lost early in his career to some guy named Jose Luis Garcia, who made a bit of a name for himself that he parlayed into getting knocked out in consecutive fights against Ernie Terrell, Joe Alexander, and Ron Lyle between October of 1972 and August of ’73.
The point of all this is that there was nothing wholesome about the slaughter. Foreman came out with anvils in his fists, looking for his chance against what he presumed would be the winner of the Frazier-Ali fight when that guy got through with the chump in front of him from the still Tyson-less (and yes, we will get to that, stay tuned) 1980s. Maryland crab cakes were had by all, and they were pretty good for having been cooked in southern California.
The fight itself? Oh, just the usual. Norton had his orbital bone broken in his left eye, his nose broken, blood everywhere, took him 45 minutes to regain consciousness after the coup de grace got him right on the temple, something about Arthur Mercante being called an accessory to murder for not stopping it sooner, mismatch, one-sided beatdown, yada yada yada.
RESULT: FOREMAN TKO3 NORTON
Fight #3: Max Baer (6/14/34) vs. Primo Carnera (6/29/33)
This was a battle of perhaps literal giants. Max Baer, granted benefit of 1988 sports nutrition (and, some hotly speculated, the kind of “sports nutrition” that had Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire hitting all those home runs with the Oakland Athletics), looked like a Klitschko brother crossed with a silverback gorilla, coming in at a ripped 230 on his 6’3” frame.
Carnera, himself a monstrous figure even in his own time, and introduced to something called Muscle Beach during his time in California and a pro wrestler named after a comic book character, came in at a frightening 255 at 6’6”. Carnera’s embrace of the modern made him a bit of a celebrity, and Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were ringside to cheer on their spaghetti-loving, jovial ape-man of a new friend.
Carnera may have had some primo Italian food and a lot of iron on sand, but as prayers and vitamins go, the “vitamins” belonged to Max Baer. Nobody seriously expected this to go the distance, and when the bell rang to start the opening round, the surprises began.
See, Max Baer had learned from his fight against Max Schmeling what happens when you try to simply apply brute force to a problem. Baer may have been bigger and stronger than he ever was in 1934, but he was also faster, quicker, more agile. Carnera simply couldn’t keep up as Baer peppered him with shots and made his opponent miss.
After easily winning the first three rounds, Baer looked in complete control, but Carnera, his frustration showing and his awareness of the stakes—losing would mean a trip back to 1933, while staying on winning form would get him another few weeks in the warm San Dimas sun—in play, decided that what he couldn’t take fairly, he’d take by a different sort of brute force.
The fourth round was a farce. You’d have thought it was Earl Hebner and not Gunboat Smith between the ropes as the third man in the ring. Hogan and Mr. T pulled every trick from Vince McMahon’s book to try and distract the ref while Carnera resorted to un-boxing-like tactics—arm bars, cheap shots, throwing Baer around like he was “Macho Man” Randy Savage—simply to try and wear down his opponent and do to Max Baer what Luis Firpo had done to Jack Sharkey. After three minutes of this utter foolery, Smith finally caught wise and warned Hogan and Mr. T that if either man so much as gestured in his direction, he’d disqualify Carnera on the spot.
Still, Max Baer had been thrown for a hell of a loop, and Carnera tried in round five to press his unfair advantage. Intending to use his ill-gotten gains, Carnera came forward, throwing jab and cross, hook and uppercut, but the punches were of limited utility; even smarting from his maltreatment in round four, Baer was the better boxer. Defense was the order of the day, and while Carnera may have won the round on the cards, he’d begun to punch himself out.
More of the same started the sixth, but throw enough punches without purpose or order to them against a boxer and the inevitable becomes the only outcome. When Carnera lunged in with an ill-timed hook, Baer put a counter straight right hand directly over the top and sent the big man down with the kind of thud that may as well have come at the end of a slow-motion movie cut. Gunboat Smith may have been distractable, he may have been ill-equipped to handle what was in front of him despite his own days as a fighter, but even he could count to ten on cue.
So ensured Max Baer’s place in the second position of the 1930s bracket. Carnera’s days of screwing with the history books outside the ring were over, and he found himself deposited in his own time once more.
RESULT: BAER KO6 CARNERA.
Fight #4: Muhammad Ali (5/25/65) vs. Joe Frazier (3/8/71)
Joe Frazier had been pulled forward in time immediately following a unanimous decision 15-round win over none other than Muhammad Ali, in the Fight of the Century. Ali had been possibly suffering ring rust after being barely back from his hiatus enforced by the draft board. He may have been ill-conditioned to go 15 rounds. He may even have been suffering blustering overconfidence from still being undefeated at that point in his career.
Only one of those three things was a factor in this match, however. The distance was ten rounds; Ali-Frazier I in the prime timeline did not notably turn in Frazier’s favor until he dropped the former champion in the eleventh. Ring rust was not to be seen; a still only 23-year-old Ali was quick, snappy, and had more pure power than the man who would make his mark on history in the era of pugilistic kings. Overconfidence, though? Ali had that in spades.
In addition, there was the psychological factor. Ali had lost to Ken Norton, but that was a decision loss caused mainly by a young Ali’s inability to handle one of the most bizarre defensive styles in the history of the sport. Frazier, ignorant of his prime-timeline destiny, had been beaten to a pulp by George Foreman just one fight prior. Short-term time-machine induced memories can only carry a man so far, and for Frazier, the sense that something was going to go terribly wrong after his return to 1971 wore at him just a bit.
When the fight itself started, though, it was a genuine question in the minds of the commentators, and perhaps to Ali himself, whether that young man could handle a truly world-class pure boxer. 1965 Ali had made his name smacking around Sonny Liston, who was a plodding knockout artist. 1965 Ali had no other notable opponents besides a washed-up Archie Moore. 1965 Ali was still two years away from fighting Ernie Terrell and had only been past seven rounds three times; 1971 Frazier had a pair of fights against Oscar Bonavena that try a man’s soul and teach him how to win with guile as much as with talent; in 1966, Bonavena had put Frazier on the floor and nearly stolen a split decision.
Brashness met toughness in 1971 and toughness won. Brashness turned up to eleven?
Well, remember that little bit from two paragraphs ago? “Bonavena had put Frazier on the floor”? Ali had never tasted that kind of trouble. Frazier not only had that knockdown in his memory banks, but this tournament had planted that seed in his mind.
Frazier controlled the early action well enough, countering and using Ali’s aggression against him to excellent effect in each of the first two rounds, winning them widely on all cards both official and press. It was looking a lot like a redux of the Ali-Norton fight, commentators at ringside even speculating that if Ali had turned pro five years later in actual history, his entire career might never have launched for want of that Liston-like opponent who could give a young fighter confidence that he could take and dish out a punch.
Ah, but toughness is no substitute for a supect chin, and Frazier went down in the third round from a counter hook as he tried to set up a combination to the body; the punch came right over the top and temporarily short-circuited Joe Frazier’s brain just enough to get his legs out from under him. It may have been a flash knockdown, but those demons took some time away from being the devil’s backup band in Georgia and struck up the music in a boxing venue.
Ali took full advantage, easily winning rounds four and five and getting bolder with each landed punch. There would be no eleventh-round comeback for Frazier; there would be no eleventh round. Down two points on every card after five, Frazier had to get back to basics, but on this night, against this younger man, Frazier simply didn’t have the firepower to dent the chin of the great one.
Frazier’s own chin? That’s another matter, and Ali came out in the seventh and started to get sharper, luring Frazier in when he wanted to engage, contentedly keeping Frazier away from him when the Philadelphian tried to bait the young man from Louisville into abandoning his fight plan. Frazier walked straight into a right hand. Never saw it coming, in fact, and barely beat the count with only fifteen seconds left in the round. Sure, Joe Frazier got back to his corner, but with that knockdown and with Ali, not Frazier, being the one boxing circles around the other guy, Joe Frazier needed a knockout to win against a guy who seemed to be learning how to be Juan Manuel Marquez with each passing counter punch landed.
The last three rounds were academic. Frazier tried to mount offense; Ali scared him off with counter punching and great defense. As Ken Norton had taught Ali how to be wily in the ring in 1973, so had he done so in 1988, and when combined with youth and punching power, Ken Norton may very well have made the Greatest even greater.
As for Joe Frazier, all he could do was look skyward and wonder what architect of his reality seemed so direly to have it in for him. Beaten by a unanimous count of 98-90 on all cards, Joe Frazier’s tournament was over. Everyone knew that Group 7 was the Group of Death. Someone had to lose among boxing’s holiest heavyweight triumvirate, and Frazier, playing Marcus Licinius Crassus, left George Foreman and Muhammad Ali behind, one of them Caesar, one of them Pompey, nobody sure which was which or how events would unfold.
By virtue of that Rumble in the Jungle redux, Ali claimed the victory over the division; Foreman would have to settle for second place.
Final Results of Group Stages 3 and 7:
1930s: Joe Louis 2-0 (1 NC), Max Baer 2-1, Primo Carnera 1-2, Max Schmeling 0-2 (1 NC).
1970s: Muhammad Ali 2-1 (wins head-to-head tiebreaker), George Foreman 2-1, Joe Frazier 1-2 (third place winner by tiebreaker), Ken Norton 1-2.
NEXT WEEK: The 1940s and 1980s get their final resolution and the group stages come to an end. The (possibly very well-named) knockout stages begin January 20. However, before we get to that:
In the 1940s, Billy Conn and Lou Nova have a fight to the death as one man gets to stay in his Cold War fun-in-the-sun party and one man gets a ride back to World War II. An unbeaten Jersey Joe Walcott, his own group victory assured, gets to fight the tattered and ripped remains of Joey Maxim, who a week in advance of getting hit may already have started bleeding again after what Conn did to him last time around.
Meanwhile, the 1980s sets up its lambs-to-slaughter atmosphere; Bonecrusher Smith and Larry Holmes fight for sorting rights; if Smith wins, Holmes faces a Muhammad Ali 15 years younger than the one he exposed to the world as having a salad fork sticking out of his back. If Holmes wins, he gets George Foreman. Furthermore, this isn’t 1999 at the senior center; Holmes and Smith, unlike in that fraud of an exhibition, will be in their primes. On the other side of the bracket, Pinklon Thomas and Tim Witherspoon fight for…their right to party? The rights of every man? Your honor? They’ll be the heroes that you’re dreaming of? Whatever they’re fighting for, it isn’t going to be a spot in the next round. They’ll live forever, knowing together that they did it all for the glory of love. Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series and covers ESPN Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. His weekly opinion column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. He sings love songs in the shower, to the chagrin of every girlfriend he’s ever had. Fan mail, hate mail, and if you REALLY want the Mike Tyson part spoiled, that question as well, can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.