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February 10, 2017

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PAGE 16 BOSTON POST-GAZETTE, FEBRUARY 10, 2017 HOOPS and HOCKEY in the HUB by Richard Preiss ALl v. FRAZIER I 11tt' and 1Eh This coming March 8th will mark the 46th anniversary of the first Ali vs. Frazier fight, "The Fight of the Century." It will also be the first time since that epic that the date will arrive with both men now having passed on. Re-watching this great fight, it is hard to believe neither Joe nor Muhammad are still are still with us. That night in Madison Square Garden they both appeared to be immortal. It was as if two ancient gods had stepped down from their mountains to do battle for control of the universe. I am surprised how their third encounter has taken most of the spotlight over the years. While that was a great brawl, both men had lost much, if not most, of their great skills. The first bout was the only time in history when two undefeated men with legitimate claims to the Heavyweight Championship met to settle things. The fight lived up to all of the hype and even more. I truly believe the fight would be given more notice if Ali had won, and that is the reason the third so often shown. The Ali publicity machine never stopped working while Joe Frazier slipped, into a quiet retirement. It is too bad, because their first meeting was one of the greatest fights and greatest sporting events of all time. It should be shown every March 8~. Fortunately, it can be seen on YouTube, and boxing fans should take an hour on the anniversary to watch it. I have written about the fight on a number of occasions. Each time I watch it, I see something new. Each time I watch it, I am still in awe of what a battle of wills it was. Each time I watch it, I don't know how these two men were able to hold up for fifteen rounds at such a torrid pace. Today, as I reflect back on that night, I want to focus in on a couple of moments from that war. These occurred in the 11~ and 15th rounds, and I would like to share my thoughts with my readers. When the bell rang for the 124 round, both fighters appeared to be slowing down. Ali was content to stay on the ropes and Frazier was not landing blows with the same power he had been displaying over the pervious ten rounds. The fight seemed to be losing its intensity, and that was no surprise given the pace these two had set. Well, that was about to change. With about a minute left in the round, All was On the ropes near a comer. Frazier had landed a couple of left hooks on Ali's chin, but not with full force. Than it happened -- Frazier let a hook rip that caught Ali and buckled his legs. Ali attempted to get out of the corner and stepped to his right with Frazier in pursuit. This is a key moment in the fight and, if things had gone slightly different, would have most likely been the end of the bout. As Ali moved along the ropes trying to escape from him, Frazier landed a powerful left hook to his jaw. Ali fell backwards and his arms swung back and away from his body. He was wide open to be hit at will. He was hurt and off balance. So why didn't Frazier follow Up? Watch this moment in the fight and you will see why. There are a couple of different views of it, but all clearly show what happened. After Frazier landed that brutal shot and Ali's legs buckled, it appeared he was going down, and indeed he would have. Frazier, seeing All start to go down, stepped away to head for a neutral comer. What then happened is that as Ali was on the way down, his backside caught one of the ropes and held him up. Frazier looked over as he was walking away and immediately rushed back to Ali. By that time, though, Ali had righted himself and had his hands back in position. If Frazier had not believed All was going down, he could have landed blows at will and very likely ended the contest. In boxing, seconds and fractions of seconds make a difference, and it certainly did in this case. Frazier pummeled Ali for the remainder of the round. He staggered him a couple more times, but he could not finish him off. The 15m round produced another amazing moment in a night of great moments. In what is perhaps the most famous knockdown in boxing history, Frazier dropped Ali with a tremendous left hook early in the round. Ali went down fiat on his back. It looked as if the fight was over. However, in what seemed like a miracle, Ali not only got up, but rose almost immediately. How was he able to regain his feet after absorbing such a shot? Both men were beyond exhausted. Ali was caught flush on the jaw by one of the hardest left hooks ever thrown. Or was he? Ali used to brag that he had a built-n radar that could detect punches that were about to hit him so he could avoid them. His radar was working here. No, he was not able to avoid the punch. But if you watch closely as the blow connects, you will see Ali moving his head as the punch makes contact with him. Basically, to some degree, he rolled with the punch. It was still a brutal shot, but it would have been much worse had he not moved the way he did. It is amazing that his mind and body were still able to respond in that manner given how grueling the fight had been to that point. I remember seeing Arthur Merchant, the referee for the fight, interviewed once. When questioned about the 15th round, he said he felt the men were so tired that he feared he might push one or the other over while breaking a clinch. It just shows how much tkli and Frazier drove themselves in this battle of wills. I also once had a chance to talk with Arthur Merchant myself. I asked him how much he got paid for officiating that night. He told me he received $500.00. When I said it didn't seem like much, he turned to me and with a big smile said, "I would have done it for nothing." This March 8th, take an hour to watch this fight. Do it to honor two great athletes. Do it to remember what boxing once was. It was back in 47 B.C. -- yes, way back then -- when the Roman leader Julius Caesar, after vanquishing one of his many rivals on the battlefield, summed up his triumph by writing "veni, vidi, vicif the Latin words for q came, I saw, I conquered." It seems that ever since then, the letter V in the Roman alphabet has been associated with victory. In time, as the centuries rolled by, the letter we call W (but is really a double V) was introduced for phonetic differentiation. And thus W became associated with winning. Wins. Victories in multiples. That is what the Celtics and their faithful fans experienced as the first month of the year became the second, as the Celtics moved by Toronto to claim first place in the Atlantic Division and crept ever closer to Eastern Conference leader Cleveland -- yes, Cleveland -- where the vaunted King James turned and saw a most credible claimant to his title and his throne. Dale we say Isaiah? It was that kind of splendid span for the Green and White. One that played out over a fabulous fortnight and propelled the Cs into the upper echelons of the NBA. One by one they fell -- the Rockets, the Magic, the Bucks, the Pistons, the Raptors, the Lakers and the Clippers. Seven teams, seven wins, seven steps up the NBA ladder, edging ever closer, like climbers on Mount Everest, to the summit. There were also seven wonders of the ancient world. Perhaps, after such a significant interval, we are about to witness the eighth. Are the Celtics a team of destiny this year? Toronto and Cleveland, of course, will have quite a bit to say about that. While the Celts got hot, for example, Toronto oooled off, losing eight games out of 11, while Cleveland (even with LeBron) is also proving to be mortal, posting a 6-4 record for its last ten games through February 74. Two games stood out in this sensational stretch of success for the Celtics. One was the contest against the Raptors, a game where Toronto led by 11 points at the half and then scored 13 of the first 19 points in the third quarter to take a 75-57 lead. But the Cs came back, especially in the fourth, when Isaiah scored 19 of his game- high 44 points to seal the victory. It was a quality win against one of the best teams in the NBA. And it was a come-from- behind-in-crunch-time victory. With an exclamation point[ It was the type of victory that made one think back to 2008, when the Celtics won banner 17 at the Garden by defeating the Lakers in Game Six of the NBA Finals. It also took one back to 2010, when the Celtics fell just 6V2 minutes short of winning banner 18. The triumph against the Los Angeles Clippers was one of the few games where Thomas had to share the spotlight. The Clippers, coached by former Celtics bench chief Doc Rivers, are a playoff bound Western Conference team. The chief attraction for Boston fans was former Celtics star Paul Pierce, now with L.A., back in the Hub for his final contest on the parquet floor at the Garden as a player. Let's just say the ending would have done Ted Williams proud. The Splendid Splinter ended his career with the Red Sox by hitting a home run in his last at bat at Fenway Park. Pierce, who played just over 41A minutes in a ceremonial start at the beginning of the game, did not return until the final minute when the Cs had sealed the victory. But the result of that return will be forever remembered in the Hub. Getting the ball after two hours on the bench, Pierce launched a 40-footer that went neatly through the hoop, concluding his final professional game in Boston on an emphatic note-- one that will be recalled forever in Boston athletic lore. Everyone left happy: the Celtics because they won, Pierce because of his memorable basket and the adulation poured out upon him by Boston fans, and Doc Rivers, who seems to love the Hub every time he returns. Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? The Celtics are on a path to a potential 50-win season and possess the potential for a deep run in the playoffs. A crucial test for the Cs as they begin the stretch run toward the mid-April end of the regular season will be under way by the time you read this. The Green will be on a four- game road swing through the Western Conference. But nothing intimidates the Celtics any more. They can beat any team, home or away, at any time. After all, this was the franchise that ended Golden State's 54-game home winning streak last April, the same season it also beat Cleveland on the road. The supreme challenge for the Celtics will come in the playoffs. Can the Celtics beats teams like Toronto and Cleveland in a best-of-seven playoff series? As you reflect, remember that this scenario is entirely different than defeating either of these teams in a single game. The Celtics have already proven that they can do that. The question is whether they can do that four times in a seven-game series. Timing is everything. If a seven-game series against Toronto or Cleveland had been played during the past two weeks, we would venture to say that the Celtics might have been able to pull it off. But the playoffs won't begin for two months. Even then, the Celtics have the talent to go deep into the playoffs, perhaps even to the Eastern Conference Finals. Beyond that, who knows? But when you play like Destiny's Darlings, anything is possible. Only time will tell. k \