Some 48 hours before he savaged poor Terry Daniels, Joe Frazier sat in a bathtub of cold water contemplating, in a manner of speaking, his navel.
"I'm not a lazy, shortcut kind of guy," he said from the depths of the tub and presumably his soul. "My philosophy is work, hard work. That's all I know. Everybody wants something, but nobody works hard enough to get it. Me, I've got my title, and I like it. But I have to work hard to hold it."
Frazier was not obliged to work especially hard to hold his heavyweight championship away from Daniels' feeble clutches last week in New Orleans' Rivergate arena. The lightly rigged contender from Dallas by way of Willoughby, Ohio was knocked to the mat four times—mostly by Frazier's thunderous left hook—before Referee Herman Dutreix tardily called it an evening. With that Frazier had retained his title, as everyone, with the possible exception of Daniels, knew he would, but he had proved only that he has literally grown in office. At 215½ pounds he was 10½ pounds heavier than he was last March when he defeated Muhammad Ali and at least seven pounds over the weight he personally assigned himself for this inconsequential bout.
Like many men who have been fat boys, Frazier is a weight watcher and he was clearly disturbed by the extra pounds, blaming them, in fact, on the Louisiana State Athletic Commission scales. He was 213 on the hotel bathroom scales that very morning, he said, and he suspected that even these were inaccurate. It all seemed a plot to embarrass him.
"They had them on the ring mat," he said, "and you can't get scales to balance on a soft mat. Either that or I drank a lot of water."
But in his new philosophical humor, Frazier was prepared to accept, albeit reluctantly, the evidence of unwanted poundage. "I've been grinding away in other fights to get down to 203, 204. Now I've decided to be more comfortable." "He is getting older and bigger," says Manager Yank Durham. Frazier turned 28 three days before the fight.
There were those who viewed the new bulk as proof that Frazier had grown soft during the long layoff following his masterful defeat of Ali. But they could not prove this by Daniels, who was frankly astonished at his opponent's strength and ferocity. At one point in their joint press conference after the aborted struggle, Daniels remarked that he had thrown punches that would have "kept a normal guy off me."
Frazier's eyes opened wide. "What am I?" he inquired. "A gorilla?"
"I would have rather fought a gorilla," said Daniels.
Such ripostes are characteristic of the latest losing contender for Frazier's title. Daniels is an engaging 25-year-old whose wit will be best appreciated on the campus of Southern Methodist University, from which he came and to which he says he will now wisely return.
The worst thing that happened to him all week was the fight. Aside from that, he had a ball. New Orleans was filled to overflowing with Super Bowl visitors, including untold thousands from Daniels' adopted hometown, Dallas. Daniels was also consistently good copy for the hordes of newspapermen who were in town, not necessarily to see him fight. In fact, he may be the most articulate pug since Gene Tunney. And considering the competition for media space, the fight really needed Daniels more than he needed it.
One day, while slurping oysters in one of the French Quarter seafood houses, Daniels happily admitted that "at first I never seriously contemplated fighting for the title. I was just goofing around then. I knew that physically I had no problems, but I needed to build to it emotionally. Finally, desire emerged. I was overawed when I fought and lost to Floyd Patterson last May, so when I faced Manuel Ramos two months later I knew I had to prove myself. Not that he was that tough. It was just that I had to win, had to perform under pressure. I did. I won and I fought well."
Daniels is not, by any definition, a hungry fighter. His father is a well-to-do Cleveland businessman and Daniels was reared in what for most fighters would be considered Oriental splendor. He was an all-round athlete at South High School in suburban Willoughby. He pitched on the baseball team and played good enough football to make the SMU freshman team in 1964 as a defensive halfback. A football knee injury and a hanging curveball turned him to boxing as an outlet for his considerable energies. He enjoyed some success as an amateur and became professional more or less as a lark. He was hardly a subscriber to Frazier's work ethic, but some easy successes and his emerging status as a local celebrity in Dallas led him to the ultimately foolish notion that prizefighting is nice work for a young man who thinks he's got it. And so last week he had his fling—probably his last—as a national personality, a big shot who would fight for the heavyweight championship before 25 million television watchers.
Daniels ate it up. He walked freely on the New Orleans streets, signing autographs, chatting with well-wishers and doomsayers alike and nimbly answering journalistic inquiries of surpassing banality. His emotional high continued until fight time. He appeared for the weigh-in without his boxing trunks, explaining that he didn't know the event would be televised and that he was accustomed to being weighed only in his undershorts. He was 191½ pounds with his trousers on and his pockets heavy with change. Alongside the bulking Frazier, he looked frail and helpless, an observation that proved accurate enough later in the day.
What the promoters of the match—Century Telesports Network—saw in this pleasant young man will remain mysterious unless Daniels himself explained the phenomenon when he said, "All the other contenders have been around a long while. Maybe the public is tired of them."
If nothing else, Daniels was a party to history. This was New Orleans' first heavyweight championship match since Jim Corbett took the title from John L. Sullivan in 1892. And it was the first nationally televised heavyweight title fight in five years. A larger audience watched Daniels and Frazier than watched Ali and Frazier. Still, the fight should never have happened.
Daniels entered the ring smiling and nodding to all of his new friends. He studied his white shoes while Frazier measured him with a baleful stare during the instructions from Dutreix. In the beginning Daniels took Frazier's numbing left hooks on his gloves, but even the near misses seemed to pain him. He was knocked face down seconds before the bell sounded to end the first round and preserve him for further punishment. He remained upright—barely—in the second round as Frazier missed with his bombs. But he was down twice in the third and once more in the fourth. The penultimate knockdown was brutal. Daniels bounced off the ropes after taking one of those terrible hooks flush in the face and fell forward, much like a man diving from a tall building. He lay there frozen for an instant, then somehow—and for no good reason—clambered to his feet. So Frazier pounded him through the ropes almost into the press row, and Dutreix stopped the fight without a count. Daniels was dejected and hurting after his courageous stand. Still, he managed a one-liner: "They needed a math major for a referee, he had to count so much."
The mismatch could justifiably have been stopped after the first knockdown. Continuing the carnage served no purpose. Daniels had learned all he needed to know when the first heavy hook bounced off his handsome young face. But he did come through the ordeal a richer—by some $35,000—and certainly wiser man, announcing afterward that he would return to SMU for the nine units of work he needs for a pre-law degree.
For his part, Frazier came out of the match a bigger if not necessarily better man. In the ring even an overweight Frazier is an unnerving spectacle, though. He ranks among the strongest of all heavyweights, maybe the strongest, and the big punches seem to flow from him as naturally as perspiration. But this is only an illusion. He has come by his skills through puritan endeavor and he cannot gear himself down, even for an opponent as harmless as Daniels.
"What does Daniels have that you respect?" he was asked before the fight. "His two hands," Frazier answered. "I don't look past any fighter. It takes a lot of man in heart and mind to challenge for the title. I respect that."
Mention of Ali is inevitable. Frazier himself introduces the topic at the slightest provocation. "It's all imaginary with him, this thing of saying he's better than me. He must have a room somewhere where he goes to psych himself up."
"I'll give Ali a fight," says the voluble Durham, employing the editorial I. "I'll give him a fight if he keeps winning, stops talking so much and comes down to earth."
Down to earth is where Joe Frazier is.
Professor Frazier did not do much talking, but he knew how to get his message across.