By Jason Herring
This past March marked the 50th anniversary of Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier in what was dubbed then and still considered “The Fight of the Century.” It was the first of an epic trilogy that was as entertaining as any Rocky film but more so. In the final round of the bout, Frazier sent Ali to the canvas for the first time in his career. As I watched the fight replayed in tribute to the classic contest, I was still amazed at how quickly Ali got back up. The right side of his jaw was considerably swollen – nearly as bad as Frazier’s left eye. Most men would’ve stayed down. Ali was not most men.
Two years after the slugfest, a still undefeated Frazier would face another unblemished opponent in George Foreman. Frazier was knocked down six times in less than five minutes before the fight was called halfway through the second round. Foreman hit Frazier with shots including an uppercut that would’ve taken the heart out of most men. Frazier was not most men. He kept getting up even as friends and family at ringside were begging him to stay down, even as Angelo Dundee could be heard screaming ringside: “Stop the fight! Stop the fight!”
This is what I’ve always loved about the so-called Sweet Science. It’s Mike Tyson getting knocked senseless by “Buster” Douglas before a stunned crowd in Tokyo, and then crawling on all fours to find his mouthpiece so he can regain his feet to keep on fighting even when he’s clearly in no condition to do so. I’m too young to remember Ali vs. Frazier, but I was 13 years old when James “Buster” Douglas shocked the world in Tokyo by knocking out “The Baddest Man on the Planet”. At the time it was unbelievable and I was only too happy to see the undefeated champ knocked off his throne. In the years since, however, I’ve come to respect and admire the scene of the fighter stumbling on wobbly legs with his mouthpiece sticking halfway out of his mouth ready to face the next barrage.
The word we use for that is mettle, which is the same as the word metal but spelled differently to denote the figurative sense. These were men of metal – iron men – who showed the quality of their elements by how they responded to getting knocked down. Their substance was revealed in the forge of adversity.
Life has a way of knocking us down and sometimes we have a way of knocking ourselves down. Cus D’Amato, who trained Mike Tyson during his formative years in boxing, once said: “To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by himself is a tragedy.” Our greatest battles are always fought with Self. There is no more formidable opponent than Ego. It’s not that sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Unchecked and unguarded, we are always our own worst enemy. The comprehensive laundry list of sins comes from within our hearts, Jesus said, and they defile our character and conduct.
How then do we respond to implosion? The same way we respond to any type of adversity. We get up. We learn from our mistakes. And we grow forward.
The sage of Israel wrote to his son: “A just man falls seven times, and rises up again” (Proverbs 24:16). He didn’t say why he fell or how he fell. Just that he fell. And for whatever reason, he gets up again and again and again. If seven is the number of completion, then we can conclude that he always gets back up again. He is committed to the struggle. He will crawl if need be to find the ropes and pull himself to his unsure feet. He is a just man. He justifies his existence by rising up from his mistakes as well as adverse circumstances beyond his control.
It’s Joe Frazier begging his trainer Eddie Futch not to stop the fight before the 15th round of The Thrilla in Manila, even though his eyes were swollen shut and he could have suffered irreparable damage in that final round. In the opposite corner, Ali might have been in more serious danger, saying it was the closest he ever came to dying in the ring. He literally collapsed when the fight was called. There was no “Ali shuffle”, no showboating. There were just two men who had left everything they had in a 21-foot square. Call it ‘heart’, call it ‘mettle’, call it ‘grit’. When it translates into real life, it’s what Solomon called the hallmark of the just and righteous.
Jason Herring is a father to four amazing kids and husband to his wife, Suzanne, of 21 years. In 2009 they experienced two miscarriages and the loss of their 4-year-old son Josiah to cancer. In the wake of that devastation, Jason has sought to share hope with others who walk that same valley. He is passionate about his family, mountains, Spartan Races, history books, writing, and speaking on the grace of God.