Genius fascinates, even when it emerges from so low a level as a press agent's mind. Consider the fellow who once had Francis X. Bushman mobbed by simply loading the actor's pockets with quarters that trickled through a hole onto the sidewalk. Or the agent who, looking to publicize himself, searched within full view of the Capitol dome for a needle in a large haystack. Wearing coveralls, a miner's cap and a respirator, he finally found it on his fourth day in the hay.
Though less creative, similar nonsense has long been invisible in the ring—that is, until last week in Omaha where Joe Frazier made his second defense of his world heavyweight title against Ron Stander. About 10,000 people, most of whom swarmed across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs, Iowa, came to see one of their own escape anonymity. If they had the heart to raise the tips of their straw hats—bearing the words "Who in the Hell Is Joe Frazier?"—the hats slipped steadily down over their eyes as several things became apparent:
1) A barroom is not a ring. 2) Ron Stander is not Tony Galento. 3) No one with a particle of intelligence should hang in front of Joe Frazier like a sack of potatoes. 4) Joe Frazier may well be one of the top four heavyweights in ring history. 5) Stander hardly lives up to the name of Bluffs Butcher. And finally, 6) he should seek gainful employment elsewhere.
Of consolation to his following is this: Stander may not have been a butcher, but no bluff infected his considerable presence. He came to do some evil, and it is too bad that such a spirit should be so impeded by abilities that were best described of another fighter long ago in a postcard from an obscure manager. It read: "He [the manager's fighter] has every equivalent to be a great fighter. He is the recipient of a knockout punch in either hand. And punches roll off his chin like a duck takes to water." That was Stander last week, and when it was all over blood seemed to color even the big Cornhusker moon.
Trouble came early to Stander, whose stratagem, if you can call it that, was to hang oppressively close to Frazier, to smother Frazier's arms and to beat him about the kidneys. "I'm going to roon him there," he said often before the fight. As it was, Stander had to settle for just the hanging, which was not only perilous but exquisitely masochistic. Frazier did seem slightly confused in the opening round, but then he went to work. Stander's face began to open up in the second as Frazier found room to do some cutting.
Uppercuts jerked Stander's head up from the security of his big paws stuck to his head, and that deadly, short left gun of Frazier's knocked the head back down. By the middle of the second round, Stander was bloody from a cut beside his nose. By the third, it looked as if the nose was about to burst. Then, in the fourth, he came across the ring at Frazier, a man intent on being quite nasty before, finally, being separated from his reason. He backed Frazier into a neutral corner, but Joe stroked his way swiftly out of it. Volumes of punches thudded off of the big Iowan's head. He was now cut in three places—soon it would be four—his face was nearly obscured by blood, his right eye was closing. With blood dropping into his other eye, vision was rapidly deserting Stander.
He never did make it out for the fifth round. The attending doctor wisely stopped the fight. Stander, who already had taken 60 stitches in his face across 25 fights, needed 17 more; seven over the left side of his nose, four on the right side, three on the right eyelid and three below the right eye. The two cuts on each side of his nose almost formed a V, which was as close to victory as anybody except the press agents expected he would get.
The flacks' optimism was, of course, predictable. After all, it was a fight pasted together by press agentry and held in a town long prominent in ring history for fluff and puff. All of the old wise men knew the route. Begin the buildup amid the tinsel of L.A., then slowly work your way to Omaha, endearingly referred to as The Sticks, the first big stop before going East. Who will ever know the number of Bearcats, Tigers and Sailors who once moved through Omaha?
So it was a perfect spot once more for sending up balloons. Nothing cerebral, mind you, just enough color to interest a national television audience. Get some big kid with 25 fights who likes to drink beer and occasionally brawl. Then tell everybody he's another Tony Galento, tell them to watch for the kid's knees, his gouging and rare, old shocking manners. Give him a big mouth and phrases like: "I'll fight any human being alive and most animals." Or: "How much beer do I drink? I lose count after a case." Or: "Have I ever been knocked down? Yeah, by the police with a nightstick." Goodby to genius.
Stander went along gladly. He has always seemed more drawn to the romance of the ring than to the money, and you couldn't find much more romance than in a title fight with Joe Frazier. So all week one of the more urgent questions was: Who is Ron Stander? Nobody could agree on the answer, although it was recognized that the hulk before them was not usual and certainly needed a label. "I got it," a press agent said excitedly. "He's a Hell's Angel." The one person who was in a position to know Stander was his wife, and she seemed to indicate that it wasn't worth the effort.
About midnight on the eve of the fight, she made a sudden visit to her husband's motel room. Stander was on the bed showing how he was going to twitch when Frazier knocked him out. Then there was a hard rap on the window. Stander seemed to know immediately who it was, and he instinctively jumped up to grab a picture and throw it under his bed. It was a photograph of him looking over his shoulder at a girl he has just passed in the street. "Hell, she saw this she'd kill me!" he said, nervously. A tiny girl, his wife blew through the door like a cold wind.
"We're $250 overdrawn at the bank," she says. "What do you think of that?"
"We're two months behind in our mortgage payments," she says. "What do you think of that?"
"God, I'm telling you," she says. "It's a good thing I know Frazier's going to do it, or I'd whup you myself."
The next time the wrath of Darlene was in evidence was after the fight. Frazier was down the hall telling reporters that he and the title were retiring for a while. "Until," he said, "somebody comes down to my plantation with Clay's signature on a contract and 3½ million dollars for me. That's my final word. I ain't sayin' another word on the subject." Up the hall there was Darlene, and she was saying words.
"He was an excellent husband until he turned pro. It became a fantasy for him, and all those bums he hangs out with made him dream even more."
"Well, why did you once hit him in the face with a plate full of spaghetti if he was so excellent?" she was asked.
"Just one of those little spats."
"What did you think of the fight tonight?"
"Just this," she said. "All this fighting and nothing to show for it. We have nothing in the bank, no hospitalization, only a couple of life insurance policies. You can't raise two kids on a fantasy." (Her husband did make $42,631 for his pain.)
"Does it bother you to see him beaten so badly?"
"I'm used to it."
"Do you worry about him getting hurt?"
"Well, Ron gets hurt every time he goes in the ring because he's never been in shape. How do I know Ron gets hurt? Because after a lot of fights he doesn't know what he is doing and doesn't remember what happened. God only gave you one brain, and you shouldn't abuse it."
"What did you think of him tonight?"
"I'm a realist. You don't enter a Volkswagen at Indy unless you know a helluva shortcut."
Blinded by the blood in his eyes, Stander flails away, hoping to locate the champion.