Mark Kram worked for Sports Illustrated for 13 years, and for a good chunk of that time he was the magazine’s ace boxing writer, a coveted perch from which he penned a series of evocative, irreverent and generally superb pieces about the heavyweight wars of the 1970s.
To be sure, he had lots of compelling raw material to work with. This was, after all, the era of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. But to judge by a new collection of his ringside reports and essays, Kram, who was 69 when he died in 2002, rarely failed to make the most of his access to the sport’s top-tier events and inimitable personalities.
Inevitably, the strongest entries in the newly-published “Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram”—or at least the ones most fans will flip to first—focus on a pair of combatants whose prowess and bravery transcended the boundaries of their profession.
“He is a Balanchine, a Dali, the ultimate action poet”—that’s what Kram had to say about Ali in the spring of 1971. And what of the man Ali would meet three times in four years? To Kram, Frazier was nothing less than “the finest gladiator—in the purest sense of the word—in heavyweight history.”
There are three Ali-Frazier pieces in this book, and each showcases Kram’s heady command of the language and his enviable powers of observation. His two articles about “The Thrilla in Manila” are all the more impressive when you consider Kram’s mindset in the months leading up to the fight.
According to his son Mark Kram, Jr.—a prizewinning sportswriter himself, he edited the book and wrote an introduction—Kram “spiraled into a deep depression and remained so spooked by flying that he could not board a plane to cover Ali-Foreman in Africa” in October 1974.
Soon enough, though, he rallied, and the following September, a few days before Ali-Frazier III, Kram “gulped down some tranquilizers and flew (to the Philippines) with Ali, who crept up behind him on the plane, began to rattle his seat, and said in a horror-movie voice, ‘Ali and Mark Kram, we’re going to die, die, you hear!’ But both survived to chisel out a place in history: Ali in the boxing ring, and Dad when he sat down at his typewriter.”
Kram’s first Manila dispatch is a magnificent act of stage-setting, a preview of the fight that explains the political, athletic and financial context: “It is a proposition of the heart and blood for Frazier, an offering to Allah and another chance to light up the lives of the world’s disenfranchised for Ali, but beyond all of this is that most unromantic of motives—money. If the bout goes fifteen rounds, Ali will receive $4 million for forty-five minutes’ work, and Frazier will get $2 million…As promoter Don King says, ‘This ain’t just a sportin’ event. This here is a dramatic contribution to the world’s economy.”
The second Manila article, in which Kram’s detailed the action in the ring and the toll it took on the fighters, is even better. Working at something of a disadvantage—most SI readers would’ve known the outcome for a few days by the time they encountered his wrap-up—Kram led with a dual snapshot of the Ali and Frazier in the hours after their 14-round battle.
Though he managed to drag himself to a post-match state dinner hosted by President Ferdinand Marcos’ wife Imelda, Ali was an unmistakably battered warrior, Kram reported: “The skin on his face was dull and blotched, drained of that familiar childlike wonder. His right eye was a deep purple, beginning to close, a dark blind being drawn against a harsh light. He chewed his food painfully.”
Meanwhile, he continued, “A couple of miles away, in the bedroom of a villa, the man who has always demanded answers of Ali, has trailed the champion like a timber wolf, lay in semidarkness. Only his heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet of him…The scene cannot be forgotten: this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far—and now surely too far.”
There are other standout pieces in these pages, a handful of which serve as cautionary tales about the brutal nature of the sport to which Kram devoted much of his working life.
One, published in GQ in 2002, described the final hours of Beethavean Scottland, a light heavyweight who died after a June 2001 fight against George Khalid Jones. Scottland worked as a part-time exterminator, and his “record was 20-6-2, all right but not likely to induce a satchel of money,” Kram wrote. “He never made upward of $3,000; it was more like several hundred here and there, handed to him in some nondescript dressing room in an envelope he didn’t even bother to look at.”
Scottland’s “hope for a career rocket shot never receded,” Kram explained, and without much time to get ready, he took the match as a replacement for a fighter who’d dropped out. He was stopped in the 10th round, and “(a)fter the bout, (Jones) said of his punching, ‘I hit him so hard, so often, my hands hurt.” Kram wasn’t one to gum up his prose with unnecessary quotes, but this was one instance in which a piece of post-fight commentary said volumes.
In another piece, published in Esquire in 1989, Kram checked in on Ali seven years after his last bout. At the time, Ali was seeing a doctor who denied that the ex-champion was suffering side effects from his years in the ring—his burgeoning health problems were the result of pesticide poisoning, the physician claimed. Sitting at his bedside in a South Carolina hospital, Kram described an Ali with whom the public would become increasingly familiar: “He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him.”
The Esquire piece, like most of Kram’s work, is a stylishly written, but at times it can also feel a bit coarse. Even in his heyday, Kram wrote, Ali “was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions.” Similar sentiments resurfaced years later, when Kram published a book titled “Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier,” in which he argued that Ali was exploited by the Nation of Islam and compared his self-promotional streak to that of Dennis Rodman.
When the book was published in 2001, I was working for a newspaper in Connecticut, and I interviewed Kram for an article about authors who were trying to debunk conventional wisdom. By then, Ali had been virtually canonized, and Kram fit into the mix because his book took issue with some aspects of the Ali legend. His goal, he told me, was to “raise Ali above a human cliché and put flesh and blood on him.” Noting that he’d recently fielded phone calls from readers who accused him of racism, he added: “Obviously I’ve been pounded for the effort.”
As Kram, Jr. explains in his forthright introduction, Kram lost his Sports Illustrated job in 1977 after he was accused of accepting “a payoff from (Don) King to solve his money problems…An SI investigation did not reveal any financial link to King, but did uncover ethical breaches that warranted a determination of ‘gross misconduct.’ Years later Dad admitted that he did receive a small payment from King for screenplay proposals that the promoter hoped would open the door to Hollywood.”
In his later years, Kram, Jr. says, his father was a tough self-critic: “When he read his own work, his eye always fell to a line that could have been worded better, a paragraph that wandered astray, a beginning or ending that was not as acutely observed as it” might’ve been.
But on this front, his worries were unfounded. As this collection demonstrates, Mark Kram was a writer of immense talent, and for a while at least, his boxing coverage was just about the best out there.
“Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram,” was published Tuesday by St. Martin’s Griffin. A review copy was provided for this article.