In the company of great men: Jerry Izenberg interview

Mark Butcher
11/02/2018 6:06am

Jerry Izenberg is one of those old-school fight scribes who's been everywhere, seen everything and knows everybody. He shares some memories with Mark Butcher...

During the golden age of heavyweight boxing, Jerry Izenberg took a ringside seat and knew the men who made the moments.

The raw power of the heavyweight division captures the imagination of ordinary men and Izenberg, now 87 but still sharper than a Larry Holmes’ jab, has always been there to tell their story.

His latest book, ‘Once There Were Giants’, is a riveting, first person account of the conflicts that sparked three generations’ interest in the big men and includes Izenberg’s personal recollections of a heavyweight landscape seized by Sonny Liston but ultimately conquered by Muhammad Ali.

When a 44-year-old Izenberg travelled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for the famed ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, he understood full well the enormity of the event. The Newark Star-Ledger scribe, along with the New York Post’s Jerry Lisker, was one of only two reporters to pick Ali by knockout.

“I saw Ali when he was in exile [for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War] so I knew what he had gone through to get back to this particular moment. I knew it was huge,” Izenberg told BM over the phone. “Foreman, as a young man, was as bad as [Mike] Tyson, a bully and everything else.

“In the beginning, George was a tough guy to interview; he didn’t speak to a lot of people. I remember when George was training at the fairgrounds in California. He was arguing with everybody in those days. Not the Foreman we know [now]. I remember I was sitting outside and he had on a pair of bib overalls and a toothpick in his mouth. I thought, ‘How am I going to approach this guy?’ I said, “George, I saw a film of you and the way you cut off the ring was very impressive.” He said, “I might not have to cut off the ring against [Ali] because they say he’s coming to fight.” Later I told Ali the same thing and he said: “Cut off the ring? What’s he going to bring? A six foot pair of scissors?”

Blessed with a human touch that sets apart the very best writers from the rest, Izenberg engenders a natural ease in his subjects. Most notably, perhaps, in 1988 when then world heavyweight champion Tyson broke down in tears and fell in to the writer’s surprised, yet sympathetic, arms. At that time, an emotionally charged Tyson would have sent most people scampering for the door.

“What went through my mind is I had three children who were much older than him,” recalled Izenberg. “Mike was sobbing and I put my arms around him. He recovered, stepped back and then continued the conversation. He cried so copiously that I had to go upstairs to my room in the Trump Plaza Hotel and change my shirt.”

It is, of course, the journey of Ali that mesmerises the most and Izenberg was present every step of the way, from Rome to Rumble and redemption. While many identify Ali’s brutal third fight with arch-nemesis Joe Frazier as a missed retirement point and the start of his decline, Izenberg disagrees. “Everybody talks about the Frazier fight in Manila – I was there – and to me it was the most god awful [but greatest] fight I ever saw in my life,” he said. “It was like two guys fighting to the death. People blame that for Ali’s problems – I don’t. It was the Earnie Shavers fight [W15, September 1977]. Shavers was the hardest hitting, one-punch, heavyweight I ever saw in my life. Shavers never hit you below the neck. Muhammad said me to me after that fight, “Jerry, I was unconscious on my feet.” But Ali came back and won. He was not going to quit.”

Intriguingly, for a man who met the maniacal President Mobutu in Zaire (his eyes ‘not the windows of whatever passes for a soul’), Izenberg says his most terrifying boxing experience came on a night-time visit to the notorious Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis to meet with the Spinks brothers – Leon and Michael.

“They couldn’t police that project. In the end they blew it up!” remembered Izenberg. “They evacuated everybody and dynamited it. Leon would get in trouble [in that project] and Michael would be the one who did the fighting for him. That’s why Michael became so protective of him later on.

“Leon was a drunk [unfortunately]. You may remember in the book, Ali is going out for a 6am run and he sees Leon returning [to his hotel] dead drunk. Ali said: ‘I don’t have to run to beat this guy’ and went for breakfast [instead]. Honestly, Ali did not train one second for that first [losing] fight with Spinks.”

Given Izenberg’s first hand knowledge of the great heavyweights, his assessment of prevailing WBA Super and IBF champion Anthony Joshua holds substantial merit. “Joshua will be the heavyweight champion who is recognised because [WBC champion] Deontay Wilder has no footwork, no ability to box, but a tremendous right hand,” he opined. “Though if Joshua gets hit by that, who knows what happens because that’s what you call a ‘puncher’s chance’.

“But walk down the street and stop 10 people who look interested in [sports] and ask, ‘Who is the heavyweight champion?’ I guarantee seven of them, at least, will say, ‘I don’t know’. When you get that answer, you know what it means? There is no heavyweight champion. It doesn’t matter what the WBA or WBC or IBF think – they think they want to get sanctioning fees and they know they want to make money. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s ludicrous.

“I like what I see with Joshua,” he continued. “He is the sorcerer’s apprentice right now. Didn’t he come to boxing late? You can see it. He’s still learning. He has one thing that is sorely lacking – he’s got a great personality – that is important after you become champion because it solidifies your position in people’s minds. He’s got really good punching power, he’s got good footwork, but the fact that [Wladimir] Klitschko could be in that much trouble and come back against a strong young guy means Joshua’s got to hit his books. He’s got to learn more, but he is the best I’ve seen out there.

“But here’s my question to you – I don’t know how good [WBO champion Joseph] Parker is, but let’s say Joshua knocks out Wilder…who’s he going to fight? I defy anyone to answer – they can speculate, but there is no solid answer. You can’t gain your reputation without having opponents. Joshua has a future. It’s not quite here yet, but the reason it won’t be interrupted is because there is no one to beat him right now.”

Book-ending Ali’s second and third heavyweight title reigns, Larry Holmes and Joe Frazier, undeniable greats in their own right, were evidently denied credit because of the looming shadow of ‘The Greatest’.

“Holmes might have been appreciated more if he didn’t fight Ali,” said Izenberg. “There was so much emotion in that fight from people who wanted Ali to turn back the clock. Holmes had three qualities that stand him as a great – one is the jab, he had a marvellous jab, could set up anything he wanted. The other was the uppercut – that really was his Sunday punch. They used to yell at him to throw it in the corner, ‘Throw Big Jack, Big Jack!’ – named after Jack Johnson. And, the third thing, was a huge pair of balls. When Shavers dropped him, Holmes went down head-first - that’s how hard Shavers hit him. And, what impressed me so much, Holmes got up [and won]! I can’t think of anyone, including Ali, who would have got up from a punch like that.

“The Ali-Frazier rivalry was never settled to me,” he continued. “I remember writing in my column that these two guys could have fought on a melting ice flow. They didn’t fight for the WBC heavyweight title, they didn’t fight for the title of best heavyweight on the whole planet, what they fought for was the world championship of each other. Each guy contributed to the other guy’s demise, health-wise. They each had the ability to make the other guy a little better than he really was – that’s how intense the rivalry was. Frazier was the real goods. Frazier’s left hook – it had a life of its own.”

Other than Ali, Izenberg found sympathy and synergy with the oft-maligned, misunderstood yet menacing Liston, whose legacy was tainted by those two, rather surreal, reverses to a fast-rising Ali.

“The first fight Sonny never took seriously and the second he took too seriously,” reflected Izenberg, who was ringside for both encounters. “I understood and empathised with Sonny, even though there were some things in his life that I abhorred. When you’re one of 25 kids and the mule dies and, at eight or nine years old, your father tells you, ‘ You’re the mule now’ and puts you in the harness – that’s a hell of a beginning.

“But I had a lot of fun and learned a lot talking to Sonny. When he was training for the [initially postponed] rematch with Floyd Patterson [after Liston had won the heavyweight title via a first round KO in September 1962], two thousand people turned up to see Patterson train and seven people turned up to see Liston. I asked Sonny, ‘How do you feel about that?’ and he gave me the hard guy stare and said: “If this be the olden days when the tribe follow the chief into battle, I be scared. Maybe this fight be shorter than the first one.” You have to appreciate a guy like that because they fill the white spaces for you.”

Despite the mob connections and his glowering menace in the ring, Izenberg witnessed Liston’s gentler side, reserved for the rare few who would not exploit him. “It was children,” recalled Izenberg. “I saw the way he behaved with children. Everybody in Sonny’s life, apart from [his wife] Geraldine Liston, wanted something from him. Everybody. And he knew kids didn’t want anything from him, but be his friend.”

After a lifetime being privy to heavyweight boxing’s most intimate moments, Izenberg reflects humbly on his incredible ride. “I never got caught! They never got wise to me,” he chuckled. “I’ve been very lucky in that I had great bosses and was in the position to do good things that other writers were never given the clearance to do. I’ve had a hell of a ride and I hope it’s not over yet.”

‘Once There Were Giants’ is available on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com