Some of the many backers of Joe Frazier, the amiable heavyweight from Philadelphia who hopes one day, but not too soon, to take on Muhammad Ali for the championship of the world, are of a literary bent, which is uncommon in prizefight syndicates. They call themselves Cloverlay, Inc., and one lighthearted explanation they give for the name is that it neatly combines the word "clover," in which they hope to put Frazier, and "overlay," a gambler's expression of confidence that, on sober reflection, does not appear to be loaded with relevancy in this case. Another explanation is whispered behind the back of a hand. "Look up Finnegans Wake" one is advised. "Page 110. Line four." Someone did, and there, sure enough, Joyce refers to a "clovery kingdom," which most likely is Joyce-speak for Ireland but would seem to have little to do with Joe Frazier.
Whatever the etymology of Cloverlay may be, Frazier needed a four-leaf clover to get through his 12th professional fight at Madison Square Garden one rainy night last week. Opposing him was a 9-to-5 underdog from Argentina, the long-tressed, bullnecked Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena, who weighed 205 pounds to Frazier's 203½ and is pretty enough to be a hero-wrestler. During one wild minute of the second round it appeared that an upset was in the making. Frazier, forcing the fight against a retreating Bonavena, advanced with candor, honesty and naiveté into a left-right combination—one of the very few combinations Bonavena has mastered—and sagged to the canvas. He remained there for a thoughtful five seconds, then rose to take the mandatory eight-count. Whereupon a left hook blasted him down again.
This time Frazier was up at the count of two, groggily aware that, under New York rules, if he were to be knocked down a third time during the round Bonavena would be declared the winner by a knockout. The round was only half gone, but all Bonavena could do with the time left was to drive a briefly frantic Frazier about the ring with a hail of blows that somehow never connected well enough for his purpose. With only 30 seconds to go, Frazier had clearly recovered his senses and poise, and when the bell clanged he walked to his corner with a smile on his face. So passed Bonavena's chance.
On the other hand, Frazier, who had stopped every one of his previous 11 opponents without ever having to fight more than six rounds, never came close to making Bonavena his 12th knockout victim. Indeed, he barely squeaked through with a split decision, and thereby justified his prefight caution about the prospects of an early challenge to Champion Ali. "I've got plenty of time," the 23-year-old Frazier said wisely.
He needs it. As a boxer, Frazier has improved somewhat since he tucked away the Olympic gold medal he won at Tokyo in 1964 and turned professional the next year. He has been presented with just the right opponents to develop his talents and maintain his confidence, which is unassailable. But some of his moves remain crude. He banged his right hand against Bonavena's left thigh with such effect, for example, that after the bout a ruptured leg muscle was suspected. And once, in the seventh round, he missed the thigh and landed a vicious uppercut to Bonavena's groin. Referee Mark Conn, remarkably permissive, raised an eyebrow at this but subtracted no points from Frazier's score. Granted this freedom, Frazier continued to throw low blows for the rest of the fight.
What impressed most about Frazier was that second-round recovery from two knockdowns, a situation that usually signals an early end to a prizefight. But Frazier had done it before, in the second fight of his professional career. Mike Bruce knocked him down (again in the second round) and in the third round Frazier knocked Bruce down and out. One must also remember that Frazier broke his left thumb in the Olympic semifinals, concealed the injury, then went on to win America's only gold boxing medal. The fellow must be conceded a certain amount of spunk. Unfortunately, he is easy to hit, and, as the admiring manager of a rival heavyweight put it, "All the blows that land are solid."
Taking punches to land punches has long been foolishly admired as an attribute of brave boxers. In Joe Frazier's case it could be a most serious defect when he comes up against harder punchers than those he has met thus far. His pre-Ali program, all neatly sketched out in his mind, includes a few of what are known as "bangers," but the prospect does not appall him. Ten days before the fight he sat in his hotel room, sewing the rear seam of a pair of pants and talking about his future.
"After I knock out Bonavess [which is what he called him then]," he said, "then I'll take on Machen, Chuvalo, Cooper, Brian London. Then I'll be ready for Mr. Clay. Wait a minute. I left out old man Patterson and I don't want to leave him out. I got a score to settle with old man Patterson. I used to think he was a wonderful guy. Patterson to me was a great man, but he ain't nothing."
Frazier's disillusionment with Floyd Patterson dates from his return from the Olympics. His thumb was so badly broken that he needed two operations to set it straight. He was destitute, and for a year was unable to work or fight. A mutual friend appealed to Patterson, himself an Olympic gold medal winner, for a modest loan, and Patterson, according to Frazier, said he would think about it and call back. He never did.
"I didn't want no handout," Frazier explained. "I didn't want charity. I wanted that great, generous, rich old man to make me a loan. The idea wasn't mine and I felt funny but I had a wife and three bugs [children] and there was no food in the house. When that happens a man does a lot of things he don't feel right doing. If Patterson didn't feel he could afford to loan me a little bread, well, that was all right, too. But he could have wrote and said, 'Sorry, but no go.' Well, that ain't any way to treat a man and he knew better, so I'm going to teach him a lesson."
Any time Patterson wants a fight with Joe Frazier he can have one. So can Buster Mathis, another of the young hopefuls, now taken in charge by Cus D'Amato, who led Patterson to the title.
"I also got something to settle with Buster," Frazier went on. "I got robbed in the Olympic trials and he got the decision. That Buster can't fight, but he sure can dance. All he did was run away from me. Now, that's no way to fight. You got to give the fans something."
Frazier is pleased with his own fighting and the way he developed his punch. "First my left hand," he explained, "and then my right, and now my boxing is coming along real good. A lot of people don't think I can box. They don't realize most of the guys I fight just run. So I seldom get a chance to show my boxing style and, to tell you the truth, I'd just as soon nobody ever had to see just how good Joe Frazier can box. What I like to do is punch I like to get the fight over just as quick as I can. I don't believe in backing up. I like to be in command. Now, it's all right to move back on your own, but never let the other guy make you. The guy who tries to force me to back up won't be around long."
It is all very well for a fighter to take this confident stance but, regardless of what he says, Frazier in the ring does seem to forget most of the refinements he has learned in his 13 months as a professional. His trainer and good friend, Yancey Durham, explained that Frazier was knocked down because he held his hands too low, especially the left. "Then," said Yancey, "he wasn't moving like he should—side to side, slipping punches, ducking under, coming in and punching at the same time."
Durham is wise to move Frazier cautiously. He has agreed to put him into a Los Angeles fight in November, but the opponent has yet to be chosen. "I'd like Brian London." Durham said. "What we are not going to be is heroes, taking those cats everybody has avoided. Every ranking fighter for the past six years has got position by staying away from Zora Folley, and that's what we are going to do. If I take a fight, it will be with rated fighters. You have a better line on those guys."