Kalani Simpson

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tyson never
Ali’s magic

SO it turns out that I was wrong again.

Mike Tyson -- and I've grown fond of him (or at least the guy he plays on TV) in these later years as he's become "Mr. Sensitive" -- can't even train wreck anymore.

You remember that last week I was savoring the circus atmosphere that a Tyson fight provides. Well, it seems that Saturday's fight was -- well, have you heard the phrase "All hat, no cattle"?

It looked like this was all clowns, no circus.

(Give me an elephant! Something!)

A sad end. Especially since circus was all he had left.

And it shows that, as fascinating as Tyson has been, he simply may not have been one of the all-time greats. Not even in the circus department.

Just take, for example, only one of the many high-wire acts from the greatest ringmaster boxing has ever known:

It was Philadelphia, before the 1971 "Fight of the Century." Muhammad Ali was coming back from his three-plus-years suspension from boxing for refusing to fight in Vietnam.

"Joe Frazier was undefeated," Les Keiter said. "He was from Philadelphia. He was a good friend of mine."

In Ali's absence, Frazier fought his way to the title. But he could only really earn it by beating Ali. When Ali was allowed back, promoters put together the first of their three epic fights, at Madison Square Garden.

"And he and Frazier," Keiter began. "Well, they just didn't like each other. Ali would yell at Frazier that he was stupid, that he was ugly. He did imitations of Frazier. Frazier didn't respect him. Instead of calling him Ali he insisted on calling him Clay, which was his original name."

Frazier was training furiously at his rickety Philadelphia gym. As he often did, Ali went to his opponent's training camp to do some antagonizing. This time it was a stealth mission.

"Ali decides that he's going to challenge Frazier in his own ring before anybody knows he's in town," Keiter said. "I'm working in my sports office. I get a phone call. 'Les, get out to the Frazier gym. Ali is there. And they're going to fight. In the ring. Today.' "

With their history, Keiter knew this was a distinct possibility. He grabbed his cameraman and they sped off from their WFIL offices. By the time they got there, the circus was in full swing.

"You've never seen anything like it," Keiter said. "There must have been 1,000 people that got the word, standing outside the gym, which was locked."

He was Les Keiter. The guy at the door let him in. He went upstairs to the locker room, and there was Muhammad Ali, at a locker, getting undressed. Around the corner, there was Frazier, doing the same.

Keiter asked Frazier what the heck he was doing.

Frazier said, "I'm going to settle this guy for the last time! We're going down those steps in 5 minutes, and I'm going to knock his block off! I've had it with Cassius Clay!"

Keiter went around the corner to ask Ali, was he really going to do this?

"Yes! I am here to fight Frazier and we're going to fight right now!"

Keiter tried Frazier again, pleading with him not to throw away the big Madison Square Garden fight for some unsanctioned skirmish in an old Philadelphia gym.

But Frazier was livid. This was personal. "I don't care, Les," he said. "I've had it with this guy and his big mouth. We're going to settle it right now!"

At this point the doors opened and all the people poured in. But the police chief came running in, too: No fight today. This is illegal. Everybody clear out!

"So we go down the steps," Keiter said. "Ali goes outside with all the people, like a pied piper. He turns and says to Frazier: 'A block away there's a park! We'll go to that park and I'll wrestle you on the grass right now!' "

All the people went with Ali, toward the park. Frazier, apparently ready to wrestle Ali in the grass, started to follow, too. Keiter tried to stop him again: "Joe, this will be the biggest mistake of your life."

At that very moment, Frazier's manager, having heard the news, roars up in a limo. They open the door, and when Frazier looked in they grabbed him, pulled him in, slammed the door and sped away.

"The car drove off and Ali walked to the park with the people and no Joe Frazier," Keiter said.

So the next day Keiter had Ali on his show, and he asked how Ali could have tried to fight Frazier like that.

"He turns to me," Keiter said. "This is on live television, on my sports show -- he said: 'I have never been insulted more in my life than by you just now. And I am not gonna sit here and listen to this kind of' -- and he used a strong word." Ali stormed off.

"Now I'm left to explain," Keiter said.

And as he struggled to come up with something to say, Keiter saw Ali standing behind the camera, waving to him, and mouthing the words: "How was that, Les? Was that OK?"

No, Mike Tyson never had a chance.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

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