A heavyweight golden era begins

Frazier-Foreman I -- 'The Sunshine Showdown' -- marked a special time in boxing

Updated: January 22, 2013, 3:45 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

Jamaica's fierce sun beamed down from a cloudless sky as I stood a few yards away from the ring, sweating and grooving to the music of Bob Marley emanating from the sound system. It was July 16, 1988, and in a few hours, homeboy Simon Brown would defend his welterweight title with a third-round TKO of Jorge Vaca.

A small crowd of about 5,000 showed up at National Stadium that afternoon -- a far cry from the 36,000 who paid to see George Foreman rip the heavyweight championship away from Joe Frazier at the same venue. I looked around the stadium trying to imagine what it must have been like to be there the night of Jan. 22, 1973, but couldn't pick up the vibe. The best I could conjure were memories of what I'd originally seen on closed circuit TV all those years ago -- a surprising and savage beatdown that changed the face of heavyweight boxing.

When it came right down to it, no true fan who could spare the cost of a closed-circuit ticket wanted to miss a clash between two of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. A dose of ultra-violence was virtually assured. What wasn't expected was that one fighter would be on the receiving end of all the punishment.

Looking back now, four decades later, we know that the so-called "Sunshine Showdown" marked the apex of Foreman's first incarnation and the beginning of Frazier's decline. It would be more than 20 years before the new champion reached his peak in popularity, but when he did, his fame would transcend sports and turn Foreman into an American folk hero. But back when he shattered Frazier's aura of invincibility, things were different. He hid behind a tough-guy facade, an image modeled on Sonny Liston that didn't sell well. Foreman was more feared and respected than beloved and admired, which is probably exactly how he wanted it.

The defeat must have been an awful shock to Frazier. He had emerged from the crucible of his first fight with Muhammad Ali as the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world, the first to beat Ali, and was still undefeated in a heavyweight era considered among the very best of all time. It had not come easy or without a price. The first Ali fight had taken a lot out of Joe and he had been coasting since, picking off no-hopers Terry Daniels and Ron Stander. Nonetheless, he was still the undefeated heavyweight champ, the man with the left hook from hell, and a 3-to-1 favorite to beat Foreman.

The fight landed in Kingston when the Jamaican government outbid New York's Madison Square Garden. According to historian Christopher James Shelton, Alex Valdez, who had promoted Frazier's European singing tour, was granted Joe's permission to negotiate his next fight. Valdez teamed with Jamaican bookmaker and promoter Lucien Chen (who also promoted the Brown-Vaca fight) and convinced the government of Jamaica, through local attorney Paul FitzRitson, to bid for the fights.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier, George Foreman
AP PhotoThe venue for Joe Frazier-George Foreman I -- National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica -- proved to be as big an upset as the result of the fight, and just as influential.

Chen, with whom I spent a good chunk of time during my stay, is a fascinating character who also dabbled in producing movies (one of which, "The Marijuana Affair," featured Bob Arum in a supporting role as a drug kingpin). Chen was too busy promoting Brown's fight to talk much about Frazier-Foreman, but when he did, it was always with a twinkle in his eyes, as if he knew something I didn't. I have no doubt his persuasive powers and local connections were major assets in pulling it off. He also knew boxing as well as anybody in Jamaica, and without Chen's involvement the Foreman-Frazier match might have landed at the Garden and lost its tropical flavor.

As far as the cultural paradigm shift was concerned, the 1970s were really an extension of the '60s. Richard Nixon was still president of the United States when Foreman fought Frazier in Jamaica, and Saigon wouldn't fall until almost three years later. The same social dynamic that surrounded Frazier-Ali in '71 still existed in '73. Much of the African-American community and the counterculture had united in their opposition to the Vietnam War, creating a large and unique demographic, almost all of which was solidly in Ali's camp.

While waiting for a rematch with Frazier, Ali had been defending the minor North American Boxing Federation title against an assortment of adversaries, ranging from Jurgen Blin and Joe Bugner to Floyd Patterson and Bob Foster. Apparently, Joe was not particularly interested in accommodating Ali, but it was time for a serious fight, so he opted to take on Foreman.

"I didn't see Foreman as being special," Frazier wrote in "Smokin' Joe," his autobiography. "Big, strong, young and ambitious -- yes, all of that. But beatable just the same."

Ali's fans didn't know who to root for: Frazier, who had taken down their hero, or Foreman, who had done so little to win their support. Foreman even lacked the anti-hero status of his muse. You would never catch Liston parading around the ring waving a tiny American flag, as Foreman did after winning the heavyweight gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. That was the same Olympics where John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in the black power salute during the medal ceremony. Foreman couldn't have been more out of step with the Ali generation if he had been Nixon's chauffer.

Foreman did, however, have a single saving grace: He was a monster in the ring, brushing aside opponents with a few mighty swings of his cannonball-like fists. Still, as is often the case early in the career of an undefeated knockout artist, critics and hard-core fans questioned the quality of his seemingly hapless victims. But nobody questioned Foreman's thunderous power or assassin-like attitude. Guys like that are always welcome after the first bell rings, regardless of their politics or personality.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier, George Foreman
AP PhotoWith his cannonball fists and assassin's attitude, George Foreman, right, doled out the lion's share of the punishment in his first fight with Joe Frazier.

When it came right down to it, no true fan who could spare the cost of a closed-circuit ticket wanted to miss a clash between two of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. A dose of ultra-violence was virtually assured. What wasn't expected was that one fighter would be on the receiving end of all the punishment. Instead of a slugfest, it was a rout -- the likes of which hadn't been seen since Ingemar Johansson floored Floyd Patterson seven times to win the championship in 1959.

From the first thudding right to the body to the final right uppercut that lifted Frazier off the canvas and deposited him to the floor for the sixth and final time, Foreman was scarily dominant. Frazier gamely punched back, uncorking his vaunted left hook whenever the opportunity arose. Most of the time he missed, though, and even the hooks that landed didn't faze the marauding Foreman.

Frazier's bobbing-and-weaving attack that had befuddled 29 previous opponents made him an easy target for Foreman's wicked right uppercut. Whenever Frazier got within punching range, Foreman would push him away with both arms, precisely into his own punching range. It was mesmerizing stuff, especially watching Frazier somehow steady himself after each knockdown and try to fight back. But his cause was hopeless, and when referee Arthur Mercante stopped it at 2:26 of the second round, it was a relief. A man can take only so much.

"Frazier ain't no different from anybody else," Foreman told the media before the fight. "I'm going to knock him stone-cold." Technically, he never did. The fight was stopped without a count, but even Joe admitted he was in dire trouble. "I can remember at one point late in the fight, Foreman turning to my corner and shouting something," Frazier said. "According to one reporter, he was telling Yank [Durham, Joe's trainer]: 'Stop it or I'm going to kill him.'"

In later years, Foreman often said that Frazier was the only opponent he feared, and that Joe's punches seemed like bullets whizzing past his head. Only Foreman knows if he was serious or not, but he looked like the most relaxed man in Jamaica that night, going about his business seemingly completely sure of himself.

[+] EnlargeFrazier/Foreman/Ali
Gray Mortimore/ALLSPORT Forty years ago, "The Sunshine Showdown" was the key that unlocked the immediate future of the heavyweight division, a golden era when the best fought the best.

Besides Foreman's resounding victory and Frazier's crushing defeat, the moments that people tend remember about the fight are Howard Cosell's iconic "Down goes Frazier!" line and Don King's accompanying Frazier to the fight and then leaving with Foreman. It was also while in Jamaica that King first got the notion that staging a heavyweight championship in a Third World nation could be a money-maker. Although it wasn't thought of as such at the time, "The Sunshine Showdown" was the first step on the road to Zaire, where less than two years later "The Rumble In The Jungle" became Ali's vehicle for redemption. Foreman, who would lose that fight, had to wait until 1994 and a one-punch knockout of Michael Moorer for his. Although overshadowed by "The Rumble" and "The Thrilla In Manila," the first Frazier-Foreman fight was the key that unlocked the immediate future of the heavyweight division and set the stage for a special time in boxing. Nothing would have been quite the same if Frazier-Foreman hadn't broken the Ali-Frazier logjam. The first Ali-Frazier fight lit the fuse, and Frazier-Foreman blew apart the existing order, making possible a heavyweight golden era when the best fought the best, and the best of the best were very good indeed.