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Mark Kram Jr, Author of a New Bio of Joe Frazier, Pays Homage to his Father

Rick Assad

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Mark Kram Jr, Author of a New Bio of Joe Frazier, Pays Homage to his Father

When it comes to writing about sports, the Kram duo, father and son, have produced many notable works.

The late Mark Kram, whose byline ran in Sports Illustrated from the mid-1960s through the late-1970s, delivered some of the most melodic prose this side of Red Smith.

His son has followed in his footsteps. Known as a longform specialist and a columnist, Mark Kram Jr. is also the author of several books. “Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion,” won the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, and he is the author of the recently-released biography, “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier.”

Having a successful father can sometimes be daunting for the offspring. Has the last name opened more doors than it’s closed?

“It’s been far more of a help than a hindrance,” Kram Jr. (pictured) said in an e-mail. “Of course, we shared the same byline for years while I worked in newspapers. That led to some awkwardness. Understandably, people would call thinking I was him. When I began writing for Philadelphia magazine in the 1990s, I adopted “Jr.” to clarify who was who.

Technically, I am not a “Jr.” He changed his name from “George” to “Mark” three years after I was born in 1956, when he started covering high school sports for the Baltimore Sun.”

Kram Jr., whose efforts have appeared in “The Best American Sports Writing” series and in “The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns From Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins,” an anthology edited and selected by John Schulian, said that although his father made an impact in journalism, it didn’t necessarily propel him into the business.

“Not particularly,” he said of his ultimate career choice. “When it came to writing, I was very much a late bloomer, as Dad himself had been. He neither encouraged nor discouraged me. When I got to college at the University of Maryland, I told myself that if I could learn to write while I was there, it would be a skill that could keep me gainfully employed in the years to come. So I began working for the college newspaper. But like Dad, I was more or less self-taught.”

The elder Kram passed away in 2002 at age 69. That he accomplished what he did is remarkable, given where he began.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 6, 1932, Mark Kram wasn’t blessed with a silver spoon in his mouth. Books and high-brow literature weren’t laying around the house. The Daily Racing Form and tout sheets were.

Kram was a three-sport athlete in high school who went on to play minor league baseball. His hopes of playing in the big leagues were dashed when he was beaned. He was drafted into the military in 1953 and spent a very short period of time at the University of Georgia.

Kram would find work at Sports Illustrated where he became one of its rising stars.

Boxing was Kram’s primary beat and it coincided with the time Muhammad Ali, along with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, dominated the heavyweight division.

“Well, he came along during a period that is looked upon now as the golden age of Sports Illustrated,” said Kram Jr. “For a young man who had finished tenth from the bottom of his high school class and had no college to speak of, he was on a very fast track when he got to New York in 1964. But he worked very hard to develop his skills and just became better and better.”

Kram Jr. went on: “Along with his boxing pieces, he took on an array of off-beat bonus pieces that enabled him to grow artistically,” he said. “I remember he told me he once had lunch with Joseph Mitchell, the legendary New Yorker writer. Dad was interested in moving over to the New Yorker. Mitchell told him, “That can be arranged. But why would you want to? Everything is happening where you are.”

On some level, it may appear that writing is something that anyone can do. Maybe? But it’s another matter to write well.

“Dad used to say he was as fast as he had to be. For Ali-Frazier I and II, he had an hour to write his stories and he did it,” said Kram Jr., who was a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News from 1987 through 2013. “When he was working on something longer, he tended to bleed over every comma. At his office at Sports Illustrated, he would type a few lines, get up and pace the halls, thinking.”

Kram Jr. continued: “As he walked, he would puff on his pipe. By the time he was finished writing, the back of his shirt would be soaked with sweat. Remember, he worked on a typewriter as opposed to a computer screen, which is an inherently slower process. Even so, it would never have come easy for him, just as it would never become easy for me.”

The elder Kram’s piece de resistance was his Sports Illustrated story on Ali-Frazier III filed on deadline from Manila. Titled “Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great” (those words were uttered by Frazier about Ali after his trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel just before the start of the 15th round), it ran as the S.I. cover story on Oct. 13, 1975 and was later expanded into a book, “Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.”

What prompted Kram Jr., who was also employed at the Detroit Free Press and the Baltimore News American, to write his two books?

“The appeal of that story to me,” he said, referencing his first book, “was how ordinary people found themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The principal subject of the story, Buddy Miley, had severed his spinal cord in a high school [football] game in 1973. I interviewed him for the Philadelphia Daily News in early 1993. He had lived as a quadriplegic for 20 years, his every need seen to by his mother Rosemarie at their suburban Philadelphia home.”

Kram Jr. added: “Four years later after I wrote about him, he was found dead in a Michigan motel room. He had been assisted in his suicide by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Buddy had talked his younger brother, Jimmy Miley, into taking him to Michigan in what would become an act of complicated love,” he said. “Fearing reprisals from the authorities, Jimmy had kept his role to himself until he sat down with me for a piece in 2006. The story ended up on HBO Real Sports and would become the foundation for the book I would publish in the spring of 2012.”

Kram Jr. added: “‘Like Any Normal Day’ enlarged the struggles of a heretofore anonymous family into something universal. If you looked hard enough at the characters in the book, you could see yourself in one of them. In “Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier,” I was with characters who were just the opposite. Frazier was internationally known. The challenge for me was to bring to his life a certain degree of intimacy.”

Regarding his father’s famous story, this is what Richard Deitsch, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer and current scribe at The Athletic, tweeted on June 4, 2016, the day after Ali passed away at age 74. “I consider this Mark Kram piece on Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier the best piece in the history of @SI.com.”

“Simply, it is a lovely piece of skillful writing,” said Kram Jr. “The opening sequence of it is haunting; Ali and Frazier had placed their bodies on the line, had given every ounce of their resolve, and now they were both exhausted and battered. From there, the story shifts perspective and point of view almost line by line; you can feel the energy in it building to a crescendo. Reflecting upon it as a piece of event reporting, a Sports Illustrated editor called it ‘the apotheosis of the form’. I would agree.”

There is a link between father and son when it comes to Frazier. It seems that because of Ali’s towering presence, Frazier has been somewhat overlooked.

“Is he? I think you have to judge athletes in the context of their era,” Kram Jr. pointed out. “To my way of thinking, the 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of heavyweights. The talent pool was very, very deep. Frazier was on the smallish side for a heavyweight – far smaller than his chief rivals, Ali and Foreman – yet he was the consummate overachiever who never backed up an inch. Though Ali and Foreman both beat him twice, he acquitted himself with courage even in defeat. I have no idea how he would have fared against Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano. No one else does either.”

Father and son are wonderful story tellers. What makes one so? “Curiosity; the desire to tug at loose threads until you come across one that leads somewhere intriguing; the ability to subordinate yourself to the subject you are writing about,” Kram Jr. said. “Nothing gets me to put a story down faster than the overuse of the first person. Generally, your presence in a piece of writing should be felt, not seen.”

Kram Jr. added: “Plus – and this is paramount – you have to have patience, the willingness to take the necessary time to get something the way it should be. There is a sign I keep over my desk that says ‘Things of Quality Have No Fear of Time.’”

Kram Jr. edited and chose a collection of his father’s best work titled, “Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works Of Mark Kram,” published in 2015.

Looking back, is Kram Jr. glad he initiated the project? “Very much so,” he said. “Few journalists have written as gorgeously as he did. Some of his sentences are pure poetry. He was quite deserving of a collection. I only wish it had been longer.”

The last time father and son saw each other was June 8, 2002 when Lennox Lewis knocked out Mike Tyson in the eighth round of their title fight with three belts on the line.

“(Dad) had done a Playboy interview with (Mike) Tyson and figured that Tyson was worthy of a book,” Kram Jr. said. “I joined him in Memphis for the fight. We had both arranged for credentials, but when we showed up in the press tent to get them, there was only one for Mark Kram. I remember it was funny. The young fellow handing out the credentials looked at Dad, then looked at me and said, ‘so there ARE two of you!’ We had a lot of fun that week in Memphis driving around and hitting the spots. But the fight was awful. Even from our seats up in the stands, it was clear that Tyson was finished. Lewis wiped the floor with him. Five days later Dad died of a heart attack back in Washington.”

What does Kram Jr. think his father would want people to most remember about him?

“Like I tend to think about Joe Frazier, a good but not a perfect man,” he said. “That is perhaps the best any of us can do.”

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Late Sub Jonnie Rice Bursts Michael Coffie’s Bubble on a PBC Card in Newark

Arne K. Lang

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Every thing that could go wrong went wrong as promoter Al Haymon and his associates were patching together tonight’s card at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. But it couldn’t have worked out better for journeyman heavyweight Jonnie Rice who turned his career around with a smashing TKO of heavily favored and previously undefeated Michael Coffie.

Positive Covid tests scuttled two 10-round fights on the undercard. The main event had already been disheveled when Coffie’s original opponent Gerald Washington flunked his Covid test. Enter Rice (pictured on the right) who was on standby and seized the moment.

Rice, a Columbia, South Carolina native who has been living and training in Las Vegas, came in sporting a 13-6-1 record but five of his wins had come against no-hopers in Tijuana and he had yet to defeat an opponent in a match where he was the “B” side. But these facts were misleading as five of his six losses had come against hot prospects with undefeated records and he had honed his craft sparring against the likes of Tyson Fury, Filip Hrgovic, and Michael Hunter.

Based on “strength of schedule,” Rice, 34, had the edge over Coffie, the 35-year-old ex-Marine who brought a 12-0 record but was relatively untested. And Rice, who started fast, took the fight to Coffie and out-landed him. Coffie’s left eye was swelling and he wasn’t firing back when the referee waived it off in the fifth round.

Dirrell-Brooker

Tonight’s PBC fare came in two helpings with appetizers and the main event on FOX preceding a club-level show on FOX’s affiliate FS1. The main event of the nightcap was a 10-round light heavyweight bout between Andre Dirrell and Christopher Brooker.

Dirrell, who previously held an interim version of the IBF 168-pound world title, looked very sharp coming off a 19-month layoff, scoring three knockdowns before the fight was waived off in the third round. The Flint, Michigan native improved to 28-3 (18). Philadelphia’s Brooker fell to 16-8.

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Junior middleweight Joey Spencer (13-0, 9 KOs) scored an 8-round unanimous decision over James Martin (7-3). Spencer won comfortably on the scorecards – 80-72 and 79-73 twice – but was unimpressive.

Local fan favorite Vito “White Magic” Mielnicki Jr (9-1, 5 KOs) rebounded from his first pro loss with an impressive second-round stoppage of Noah Kidd (6-4-2).

Philadelphia welterweight Karl Dargan (20-1, 9 KOs), a former two-time national amateur champion, returned to the ring after a long absence and  stopped LA’s Ivan Delgado (13-4-2) in the third round.

New Jersey heavyweight Norman Neely advanced to 9-0 (7) with a unanimous decision over rugged Texas brawler Juan Torres (6-4-1). Neely won all six rounds on all three cards.

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Leigh Wood’s Big Upset Spangles the Rebirth of Eddie Hearn’s Garden Party

Arne K. Lang

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Last summer, hamstrung by the pandemic, Eddie Hearn hit upon the idea of holding boxing events outdoors in the expansive backyard of the family estate on the outskirts of London (now Matchroom Sport headquarters) where he grew up. Four shows were staged there.

The series has been revived. Today was “episode 1” of Season Two of Matchroom Fight Camp, otherwise known as Eddie Hearn’s Garden Party. Two more shows are penciled in over the next two weekends.

The match-up getting the most buzz was the welterweight contest between fast-rising Conor Benn and battle-tested Adrian Granados. Unfortunately, Benn tested positive for Covid-19. But the main event, a WBA world featherweight title defense by Can Xu (aka Xu Can) against Nottingham’s Leigh Wood stayed intact and produced a memorable upset.

Xu, who is co-promoted by Oscar De La Hoya, was installed a 4/1 favorite. Although he wasn’t a big puncher with only three knockouts to his credit in 20 starts, he rode into Hearn’s backyard riding a 15-fight winning streak for the third defense of his WBA “regular” title. But he started slow, perhaps the result of ring rust — it was his first fight of 2021 after missing all of 2020 – and he never did crank up the volume that had carried him to victory in his three title fights.

Wood, a stablemate of Josh Taylor who has made great gains since hooking up with Ben Davison and Lee Wylie, landed the heavier punches and was ahead on the cards when he took the fight out of the judges’ hands in the final minute of the final round. He decked Xu with a hard right hand and then trapped him on the ropes, forcing the stoppage that came with only 17 seconds remaining.

The 32-year-old Wood improved to 25-2 (15). Xu falls to 18-3. The deposed champion has a rematch clause so we may have a sequel.

Other Bouts

Chris Billam-Smith, trained by Shane McGuigan, won a hard-fought 12-round split decision over Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy in a cruiserweight scrap with three domestic titles at stake. The judges had it 116-112 and 115-114 for Billam-Smith, now 13-1, with the dissenter favoring McCarthy (18-3) by a 115-114 tally.

McCarthy wobbled Billam-Smith late in the first round with on overhand right, but could never land his Sunday punch on the Bournemouth fighter in a see-saw struggle with many close rounds. There were no knockdowns but McCarthy suffered a cut over his right eye near the end of round six from an apparent head butt.

McCarthy had Carl Frampton helping out in his corner which infused the contest with the aura of a grudge match. Frampton was the best man at Shane McGuigan’s wedding, but their friendship dissolved in a bitter court fight. At the end of the grueling fight, Billam-Smith and McCarthy embraced in a show of mutual respect.

Liverpool super-welterweight Anthony Fowler whose lone setback came at the hands of Scott Fitzgerald (a split decision) won his sixth straight with an eighth-round stoppage of Germany’s Rico Mueller whose cornerman was on the ring apron when the slow-acting referee waived it off at the 2:12 mark. Fowler, who is also trained by Shane McGuigan, improved to 15-1 (11). His next bout is expected to come against fellow Scouser Liam Smith in October. This was the second fight this month for the game but out-gunned 33-year-old Mueller (28-4-1) who was subbing for veteran Tex-Mex campaigner Roberto Garcia who pulled out with a back injury.

Also, Jack Cullen (20-2-1, 9 KOs) scored a 10-round unanimous decision over Avni Yildirim (21-4) in a 10-round super middleweight contest. Yildirim, from Turkey, was looking to atone for his hollow performance against Canelo Alvarez this past February. While he had his moments, he was out-worked by the lanky Lancashire man who won by scores of 100-90, 08-92, and 97-93.

Photo credit: Alan Walton / Matchroom Boxing

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Avila Perspective, Chap 146: De La Hoya Returns Plus Other Boxing Notes

David A. Avila

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Sitting in front of several dozen reporters, the favorite son of Los Angeles area boxing, Oscar De La Hoya, and former MMA champion Vitor Belfort spoke about their mutual return to prizefighting.

“I can’t lie. I miss getting hit,” said De La Hoya.

It was a statement also shared by Belfort.

After years away from the prize ring, both return to exchange hits as boxing’s De La Hoya (39-6, 30 KOs) meets MMA’s Belfort (26-14, 18 KOs) on Sept. 11, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Triller Fight Club card will be shown on pay-per-view via FITE.tv and other modes.

De La Hoya, 48, last absorbed hits from a fighter when Manny Pacquiao battered him almost 13 years ago back in December 2008. It was a shock to the senses to see the great East L.A. fighter take blow after blow while unable to hit back.

He was only 35.

Many attribute that loss to a ridiculous agreement to weigh under 145 pounds before facing Pacquiao. At the time De La Hoya was the real gate attraction and pay-per-view king. He held all the cards but agreed to the demands acutely devised by Freddie Roach. It proved to leave De La Hoya too weak to fight back and after eight rounds the one-sided beating was stopped.

De La Hoya retired after that fight. Ironically, he called for a press conference and it was held right where he recently announced this upcoming fight against Belfort. It’s also near a statue built in his honor.

Sitting nearby, Belfort patiently waited his turn to speak. For the Brazilian MMA fighter, it’s only been a mere three years since he exchanged blows in a prize fight. It was a knockout loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 224 in Brazil.

When Belfort spoke to the media, he expressed a desire to get hit too.

“Its fun. I’m going to have joy when I get hit. You cannot get better than that,” said Belfort.

It’s a common sentiment held by former greats. I’ve heard the same comments from James “Lights Out” Toney who ridiculously was not voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this past year.

Getting hit becomes as common as breathing for most professional fighters, especially those that began boxing at a young age such as De La Hoya.

“The truth is I miss it. I miss it very much,” said De La Hoya who began lacing up gloves as an amateur at five years old.

According to oddsmakers, Belfort is the favorite to win. Probably for a number of reasons including he fought a mere three years ago. Belfort is the heavier fighter and has fought foes in the 205 pound-division called light heavyweight in MMA. Plus, he is simply bigger than his foe.

“I hope I don’t end up killing him, but everything is on the table,” said Belfort. “If he doesn’t have joy in what he does he could come back in a coffin.”

Prizefighters are masochists. All truly good fighters have a streak of masochism inside. They know they’ll be pummeled with blows that truly hurt and they look forward to it. But the bitter truth is taking hits in your 30s and taking hits near your 50s are two vastly different scenarios.

It’s an extremely dangerous fight for both.

As someone who spent nearly a month in a hospital after experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage, otherwise known as a “brain bleed,” I’m stunned by the fact that more boxers are not damaged from brutal blows. I pray nothing like this occurs to De La Hoya, Belfort, or any retired boxer who returns to the prize ring for a possible payday.

They are prizefighters and like any former high-performance athlete, they miss competition.

“When you love it, no matter what happens, I’m ok with it,” said De La Hoya.

Fans will attend Staples Center by the thousands simply to see “the Golden Boy” once again and pay tribute to one of the greats. Many of those attending will be praying silently for the fighter’s safety.

I know I will.

England Fights

WBA featherweight titlist Xu Can (18-2, 3 KOs) defends against Leigh Wood (24-2, 14 KOs) on Saturday July 31, at Brentwood, England. DAZN will stream the world title fight.

This is the third defense for Can who has not fought in almost two years. The last defense was at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California when he soundly defeated Manny Robles III.

Can took the title from Puerto Rico’s Jesus Rojas, a rough and tumble fighter who takes a pound of flesh from everyone he faces. Against Can he was unable to deal out the usual punishment.

Wood is a former super bantamweight contender who has never really faced international competition. He did face former world champion Gavin McDonnell but was stopped. Perhaps the move up in weight will help.

Fights to Watch

Fri. Estrella TV 7 p.m. Erick Leon (14-1) vs Juan Marcos Rodriguez (10-3).

Sat. DAZN 11 a.m. Xu Can (18-2) vs Leigh Wood (24-2).

Sat. FOX 5 p.m. Michael Coffie (12-0) vs. Jonnie Rice (13-6-1)

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