With the news of the passing of Muhammed Ali a few days ago my memory bank needed to be jogged for the two Ali fights I actually called on radio many years ago for the American Forces Korea Network out of Seoul.
The broadcast covered the entire country and was done using a method that is now being used by some of the major sports networks for international sports and even some college basketball. My partner and I were in a studio at the AFKN TV and Radio headquarters in Seoul with access to the television broadcast of the fight that was being aired live on Korea’s KBS Network.
In those days, the 70’s, many major fights had transitioned to pay-per-view productions in the United States, but were still made available for “over the air” viewing world wide for a simple rights fee.
As it turned to the two Ali fights, my partners, Howard Halperin for the first and Warren Wilson for the second, were quite significant in Ali’s career.
Howard and I were on the call on October 26, 1970 when Ali returned to the ring after a 3 1/2 year absence following his being banned from the sport for refusing induction into the U.S. military. He was taking a stand based on his Muslim beliefs, but he never filed for conscientious objector status which would have still placed him in the military, but in a non combat role. Biographers later indicated while the basics of his statements were true they were guided by both his religion and the fact that he wanted to keep fighting and not have to stop while in the service.
A judge’s ruling and a decision by the boxing commissions ended that idea. Ali was the Heavyweight Champion until he was stripped of the title as well as banned from fighting. His career was at least put on hiatus when he was still unbeaten as a pro and 29-0. He was only 25 years old. In 1970 after losing three prime years, Ali was allowed to resume his career.
The state and city of New York which was then still the heart of boxing would not allow Ali to fight within the state even after his bans had been lifted by the courts and boxing commissions elsewhere. Both the city and state would lift their bans soon, but not yet. So his comeback fight was staged in the old Atlanta City Auditorium. His opponent would be Jerry Quarry.
Ali’s main goal was the re-claim the heavyweight title from the current unbeaten champ, Joe Frazier. But he had to have a least a couple fights before that to tune up and to prove he had not lost the skills to compete.
In the Quarry fight he took charge and defeated Quarry in three rounds. I recall that well since my partner Howard Halperin was from the Atlanta area we used him as much to describe the arena and area as much or more than an analyst. There wasn’t too much to analyze. Ali was superior.
While we had the commentary of the Korean announcers available in an audio ear piece and some hard to hear background English announcing, if needed, neither of us spoke Korean, the English speakers were nearly impossible to hear and the Korean crew was actually doing the fight as we were…from a KBS network studio across town. No matter. There were no insights we were missing out on . Ali simply was in command.
His next fight against Oscar Bonevena was not aired on AFKN. The main reason was because it was fought on December 7, 1970 and as a U.S. government military broadcast operation it was not deemed the thing to do on Pearl Harbor Day. Ali won that one as well and was now 31-0. A meeting for the title with Joe Frazier was next.
The AFKN studios were outfitted again for me to call the fight to be held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. My partner this time would be Warren Wilson who had a long officiating career. A civil service employee of the the U.S., Warren had been an NFL official as well as a boxing referee.
Our broadcast was on the AFKN radio network, but we made frequent mentions that servicemen who had access to TVs could catch the video on KBS and tune in our English-language commentary on the radio. We were all synched since what they saw was exactly when we were seeing it. No satellite delays to be concerned with.
As history records it… Frazier won the fight by decision, giving Ali his first professional loss and keeping Joe unbeaten. But while accounts from ringside indicated Frazier had scored a lot of points early it was not quite as easy to tell from television and the announcers in the AFKN studio (Warren and I) didn’t always see it that way.
My partner and I saw Ali dancing around and flicking a punch or two and seemingly rarely getting hit as Frazier worked hard. Those at ringside saw far more of Frazier’s punches solidly catching Ali although he rarely reacted as though they had.
By the time the fight ended we were in agreement that Ali may have re-claimed the title by a narrow margin. Wrong. Frazier was awarded a unanimous decision. To our defense each card was very close at least.
The next day I received the following poem which I read on my TV sportscast from an Army captain who had listened:
The stage was set, the anthem sung-though not by Bob Goblet,
When friend Greg Lucas scanned the set, and then commenced to say,
That Cassius Clay had come out strong, that Clay was in command,
For certain Frazier, after four, would surely cease to stand.
The middle rounds were much the same, the lip enjoying cameras,
Welts appeared on loser Joe, as he absorbed those hammers.
Clay hit and bobbed and hit again- too fast for Greg to call it,
Those of us with dough on Joe reached sadly for our wallet.
By big round ten the die was cast, Cassius would be king,
Joe could not get close inside, his punches had no sting.
His fans paid off their bets, with a shame but known to sinners,
When all at once, decision time, and Frazier was the winner!
Oh, somewhere in the world of sport, the sun does shine on high,
And Lucas calls the play by play, from that studio in the sky.
And all the angels have box seats, and come there to be pleased,
By the boy who came there from a bout with foot in mouth disease!
More than 45 years later I still have the original script copy of that poem which I read on the air that night.
It is interesting to note from the poem that several years after Ali had changed his name legally from Cassius Clay there were still many who would not use it. It may partly have been in this case since the poem was written by a military man who was quite active during the Viet Nam War, although not currently serving there.
For all of the good that Ali did during his life and the way he treated all people he was not always the same person when he was young as he was over the last three decades. People of all races did not embrace him as much as they have over time. The universal love for Ali did not exist 50 years ago. He, and the world, grew into it.
I am just happy to remember I got to call his comeback fight…as well as the first time he ever lost–even if I didn’t think he had at the time!