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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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Recalling Three Big Fights in Miami, the Site of Super Bowl LIV

Arne K. Lang

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The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs collide on Feb. 2 in Miami in Super Bowl LIV (54) in what will assuredly be the biggest betting event to ever play out on American soil. It’s the 10th Super Bowl for the South Florida metropolis which ties it with New Orleans as the most frequent destination for football’s premier attraction.

With its heavily Latin population, Miami would seem to be natural for big fights. However, this hasn’t been the case. Several great champions fought here, including Roberto Duran who twice defended his world lightweight title in these parts, but these weren’t big fights. In the case of Duran, his opponents were lightly regarded and the Panamanian legend was still three years away from his first encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard, a match that increased his name recognition a hundred-fold.

There were, however, three fights in Miami that summoned the interest of virtually all of America’s A-list sportswriters. Here they are in reverse chronological order.

Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello (Nov. 12, 1982)

Alexis Arguello (72-5) was bidding to become boxing’s first four-division champion. In his way stood WBA junior welterweight title-holder Aaron Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs), a man now widely regarded as the best 140-pound boxer of all time.

Arguello, a Miami resident, having been exiled from his Nicaraguan homeland by the Sandanista rebel occupation, was a textbook boxer who defeated his opponents with surgical efficiency. Pryor was a typhoon. He mowed down his opponents with relentless pressure. It was a great style match-up and it didn’t disappoint. Contested before nearly 30,000 at Miami’s iconic Orange Bowl, Pryor vs. Arguello was a fight for the ages.

“There was power, finesse, poise, courage and a tremendous ebb and flow,” said Associated Press writer Ed Schuyler who dubbed it Manila in Miniature. In the ninth, 11th, and particularly the 13th rounds, Arguello hit Pryor with straight right hands that would have felled an ordinary fighter, but Pryor had an iron chin.

In the 14th, Pryor buckled Arguello’s knees with a straight right hand and then unloaded a furious combination as Arguello fell back against the ropes. He was out on feet when referee Stanley Cristodoulou intervened and he would lay prone on the canvas for several minutes before he could be removed to his dressing room.

Sonny Liston vs. Muhammad Ali (Feb. 25, 1964)

If you happen to find a poster for this fight with the name Muhammad Ali on it, don’t buy it. It’s bogus. Liston met up with Muhammad Ali in their second fight. In their first encounter, Liston opposed Cassius Clay.

Clay’s Louisville sponsors, after a brief flirtation with Archie Moore, settled on Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Angelo operated out of his brother Chris Dundee’s gym located at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The fighter who took the name Muhammad Ali trained here and kept a home in Miami for most of his first six years as a pro.

Clay/Ali was 22 years old and had only 19 fights under his belt when he was thrust against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Liston was riding a 28-fight winning streak after back-to-back first-round blowouts of Floyd Patterson.

In a UPI survey, 43 of 46 boxing writers picked Liston. “Clay has no more chance of stopping Liston than the old red barn had of impeding a tornado,” wrote Nat Fleischer, the publisher of The Ring magazine.

This would be the first of many famous fights for Muhammad Ali who emerged victorious when Liston quit after the sixth frame citing an injured shoulder. What is not widely known, however, is that the fight, which was shown on closed-circuit in the U.S. and Canada, was a bust at the gate. The 16,448-seat Convention Center was only half full.

The expectation that Liston would take the lippy kid out in a hurry depressed sales, as did sky-high ticket prices ($250 tops when $100 was the norm). And there may have been more subtle factors. “This may not be the best place for a fight between two Negroes,” wrote Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, cognizant that people of color were not welcome as guests at the ritzy beachfront hotels along Collins Avenue.

Jack Sharkey vs. W. L. (Young) Stribling (Feb. 27, 1929)

A big fight, as I define it, doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. An important fight that produces an upset automatically becomes a bigger fight in hindsight. The Sharkey-Stribling fight of 1929 didn’t draw an immense crowd by Jack Dempsey standards, but the turnout, reportedly 35,000, far exceeded expectations and the fight – which preceded Miami’s first Orange Bowl football game by six years — really established Miami as a potentially good place for a big sporting event.

Promoted by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, the bout was originally headed to a dog racing track but it quickly became obvious that a larger venue was needed. A stadium was erected on a Miami Beach polo field, taking the name Flamingo Park (not to be confused with the thoroughbred track of the same name).

Slated for 10 rounds, the bout was conceived as one of two “eliminators” to find a successor to Gene Tunney who had retired. What gave the fight it’s primary allure, however, was the North-South angle. Sharkey, born Joseph Zukauskas, hailed from Boston. Stribling, born into a family that traveled the fair circuit with a variety act, was from Macon, Georgia.

The fight, which aired on the NBC radio network, was a dud, a drab affair won by Sharkey who had the best of it in virtually every round. Both went on to fight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title. Stribling, dubbed the “King of the Canebrakes” by Damon Runyon, lost by TKO in fight that was stopped late in the 15th round. Sharkey took the title from Schmeling on a split decision after losing their first meeting on a foul.

Young Stribling died in a motorcycle crash at age 28, by which time he had engaged in 251 documented bouts, the great majority of which were set-ups. Jack Sharkey lived to be 91.

—-

The strong earnings of the Sharkey-Stribling bout inevitably drew the Madison Square Garden Corporation back to Miami for an encore. On Feb. 27, 1930, Jack Sharkey opposed England’s “Fainting” Phil Scott. Four years later, on March 1, 1834, Primo Carnera defended his world heavyweight title here against former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, the Philadelphia Phantom.

Both bouts were big money losers, as were the great majority of major fights during this period. Eight months after the Sharkey-Stribling cash cow, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Few Americans could afford to vacation in Florida, let alone travel anywhere for a big fight.

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Star Power: Ryan Garcia and Oscar De La Hoya at West L.A. Gym

David A. Avila

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Under gray skies and very cool temperatures Ryan Garcia arrived with his father and a couple of others at the Westside Boxing Gym on Monday.

Waiting anxiously were about 100 people comprised of mostly videographers and photographers who had already surrounded Oscar De La Hoya who arrived earlier.

Golden Boy greets the Flash.

Garcia (19-0, 16 KOs) has a fight coming soon against Nicaragua’s Francisco Fonseca (25-2-2, 19 KOs) on Friday Feb. 14, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The Golden Boy Promotions show will be streamed by DAZN.

“I’m ready for this fight,” Garcia said quickly.

Some say it has been a rather quick road for the fighter from Victorville known as the Flash. But if you ask Garcia, it has been too slow.

“I think he (Garcia) will be world champion this year,” said De La Hoya, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions.

Years ago, De La Hoya arrived with the same hoopla but his travel to the top seemed even faster. By his fifth pro fight he was matched with Jeff Mayweather. Yes, those Mayweathers. At the time Mayweather had fought 27 professional fights and had only two losses. De La Hoya stopped him in four.

In his eighth pro fight De La Hoya met Troy Dorsey, a tough Texan who had formerly held the IBF featherweight world title and who would later win a super featherweight world title. De La Hoya stopped him in one round.

Two years after winning the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, the Golden Boy met WBO world titlist Jimmi Bredahl at the Olympic Auditorium and after dropping him several times finally stopped him in the 10th round. It was De La Hoya’s first world title and he was 21 years old.

Garcia is now 21 and ready to test the loaded lightweight division waters. For a while he was fighting at super featherweight, a division loaded with talent. But lightweights are the Maginot Line when it comes to boxing’s big hitters. Everybody can punch in the 135-pound limit lightweight division.

When Garcia met Romero Duno last November in Las Vegas many expected the speedy Victorville fighter to get his come-uppance. Instead the lanky slugger lit up the strong Filipino fighter and dropped him into the ether world.

It was mesmerizing stuff.

Now he’s back with a load of credibility after shutting down detractors with his devastating knockout win over Duno. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy. Just like it wasn’t supposed to be that easy when De La Hoya raced by world champions like Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby decades ago. It’s not supposed to be that easy, but for some it truly is.

Garcia seems to be headed for a journey so remarkable that he has other world champions like WBC titlist Devin Haney eyeing him for their next challenges. It barely results in a yawn for the fighter who will be facing a very credible foe in Fonseca next month.

“I’m not even the champion and he’s calling me out,” said Garcia with a whatever kind of look.

Other fighters and promoters can see what Garcia represents and want to get a slice of it too. Its intangible yet most of the boxing world can sense something is coming and Garcia might be part of it.

That’s called star power and it’s difficult to explain. Some have it, many want it and others have no chance of ever attaining it.

Time will tell how far Garcia’s star power will venture.

One man lived that life and, in a sense, still lives that life and that is De La Hoya. Even he senses a déjà vu moment with Garcia.

“It’s why we made him one of the richest young prospects in boxing today,” De La Hoya said.

Expect several thousand ardent fans of Garcia to fill the seats on Valentine’s Day. How else can you explain it but, star power.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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The Much Maligned Boxing Judge

Ted Sares

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Identifying bad judges is pretty easy, but that’s not the purpose of this essay. To the contrary, the emphasis here is on fine judges and the many ways they can be unjustly labeled.

Now to name a few of today’s best boxing judges is to risk excluding others and that’s admittedly unfair but space is limited. Quickly coming to mind, however, are these judges, all currently active: Julie Lederman (pictured), Steve Weisfeld, Glen Feldman, Dave Moretti, Glenn Trowbridge, Joe Pasquale, Max DeLuca, Hubert Earle, Benoit Roussel, Burt Clements, Tom Shreck, Don Trella, Gary Ritter, Patricia Morse Jarman, Pat Russell, Pinit Prayadsab, Raúl Caiz, Jr., and, of course, the South African legend Stanley Christodoulou.

Boxing judges, unlike referees, are far easier to criticize because the average fan can score a fight using whatever criteria he or she selects and the view from a TV is pretty good. This contributes to the relatively high number of maligned boxing judges.

Being a boxing judge is a thankless endeavor where attention is received only when something controversial and/or negative occurs. And once a judgment is made about a bad job, that judgment influences future perceptions. This is known as “confirmation bias.” Thus, when a boxing commentator like the outspoken Teddy Atlas launches into a tirade over the judging in a particular fight, he may be engaging in confirmation bias—a kind of “See, I told you so.” Those who might criticize based on one poor performance may feel their suspicion of botched judging confirmed. Thus, the tagged judges’ reputation may be unfairly tarnished in the future.

Out-of-town fighters going to Texas to fight are aware of the risks based on the post-fight rants of Paulie Malignaggi, Atlas and many others. If so, the solution is to use out-of-state judges or avoid Texas altogether.

However, even if the elite judges make one “questionable” call in the eyes of fans and certain boxing commentators (or have an off day) they can be labeled as “bad” judges while simultaneously serving as a dart board for Bob Arum’s selective and quite nasty criticism.

No judge is perfect. They deal in a subjective world. Even the legendary IBHOF member Harold Lederman was harshly criticized for his scoring in the Maurice Harris vs. Larry Holmes fight in 1997. And even his daughter Julie has served as a target for some of Arum’s especially vicious criticism.

“She is the best judge in our household”—Harold Lederman

“You have people who are concentrating for three minutes, looking at nothing but the gloves, nothing but the punches. These other people are judging from TV, they’re judging from twenty rows back and they don’t see the effect of the punches all the time.”—Dave Moretti

“It’s easy to criticize boxing judges. But it’s not that easy to have a sound basis for the criticism. One needs to see the fight the judge saw to be in the position to rightly criticize. Critics should temper criticisms in light of the situations boxing judges are in when judging fights. And judges should likewise understand criticisms from the boxing public, however baseless these may seem.   Epifanio M. Almeda (PhilBoxing.com)

All it Takes Is One Bad Apple

In the recent Jesse Hart vs. Joe Smith Jr. fight in Atlantic City, a somewhat under-the-radar judge got it terribly wrong. Two judges had it for Smith, 98-91 and 97-92, but the judge in question shockingly had it 95-94 for Hart. He was scorned, tagged, labeled and God knows what. The criticism took on the form of a tsunami.

Bob Arum had this to say: “That judge should be banned from scoring a fight — and I promote Hart. How can you ever score that fight for Jesse Hart? It was a terrific fight, good for boxing, good action fight, and then you have a damn judge who screws it up.”

Al Bernstein added, “…He should never be allowed to judge again….”

A look at his past record as a judge since 2015 doesn’t reveal anything untoward. But he has now been tagged—perhaps justifiably so– and if he somehow gets through this and slips up again, there will be one very loud “we told you so.” It’s the nature of the beast; It is what it is.

The Pod Index

Matt Podgorski (a former boxing official) came up with a method to evaluate the performance of judges worldwide by determining the percentage of instances his or her scores are consistent with the other two judges working the same fights. He calls it the Pod Index. “Boxing and MMA judges are often evaluated based on whether or not they have had a controversial decision. This is a poor way to assign and regard professional judges,” said Podgorski in an interview with former RingTV editor Michael Rosenthal.

Matt’s Disclaimer: “We are not claiming that judges with low Pod Index scores are bad judges. The Pod Index is simply a measurement of round by round variation compared to other judges.”

Steve Farhood

farhood

2017 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Steve Farhood is a lot of things: analyst, writer, historian, commentator, and an unofficial judge for Showtime fights. If he were an official judge, his Pod Index score would undoubtedly be at or near the top. Steve seldom gets it wrong. He may be the best “judge” in boxing.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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