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Soup of This Day #99.94: He Knocks Ev’ry Record Flat

November 14, 2011

Don Bradman and Stan McCabe at the WACA
Don Bradman and Stan McCabe heading out to bat for an Australian XI against Western Australia at the WACA – Photo: State Library of Western Australia, 1938. The State Library of Western Australia is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing then you might remember a Series 4 quote from White House Press Secretary CJ Cregg (Alison Janney). The President (Martin Sheen) has just smacked election opponent Robert Richie (James Brolin) around in a debate and Cregg suggests that her post-debate spin team be pulled. The damage is done she argues, it would be inelegant to ask for more – ‘It’s the punch Ali never gave Foreman when he was going down.’

She was referring to the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali vs Foreman, in steamy Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974. Ali was on the comeback trail – In 1967 his licence to box had been revoked as a consequence of Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. When he returned to action in 1970 he fought Joe Frazier. In what became known as the Fight of the Century Ali and Frasier battered each other half to death. In the end Frasier got the judges nod and Ali got dropped in the challenger’s queue. Meanwhile Foreman was working his way up the othe side of that mountain, laying waste to all he met. Heading into his crack at Frasier, meeting him in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973, he was 37 and 0. After knocking down the champ 6 times in 2 rounds it was 38 and 0. By the time the Rumble rolled around that record was 40 and 0, including a demolition of Ken Norton, who just a year earlier had broken Ali’s jaw.

In Zaire Foreman was the favourite. At 25 he was younger and his recent record bespoke sheer power and strength. By contrast the 32 year old Ali had thrived on speed and tactical nous, blinding footwork complementing devastating combos. By 1974 all that was seen to be fading – Foreman had reach, weight and height over Ali and he had form – Big George had beaten the 2 men who had taken out Ali in the past 3 years, Norton and Frazier, and he’d done it in some style, blitzing his opposition early, taking them out of the fight before they could get in to it. For Norton Foreman hit him early and hard – His 1st serious punch knocked the stuffing out of his opponent. Later Foreman commented:

‘Ken was awesome when he got going. I didn’t want him to get into the fight.’

It was a blueprint that suited Foreman’s power game but it also masked a weakness – A lack of staying power. After an early flourish of blows Ali exploited this, laying back across the ropes and allowing Big George to expend his energy throwing wide body shots and blows that were partially absorbed by the rope’s elasticity. Dubbed ‘rope-a-dope’ after the fight, the tactic worked as Ali went on offence in the 8th against a clearly drained Foreman. He landed a number of blows, including a cross to Big George’s chin and Foreman went down. As he fell Ali clearly shapes for 1 last punch – the coup de gras. He just as clearly pulls it – Foreman is down and it figures that Ali knew as well as George that the big man was not getting back up.

Sir Donald George Bradman, shared a name with Foreman and as it turns out 5 of Big George’s sons and 2 of his daughters (George Jr., George III, George IV, George V, George VI, Freeda George and Georgetta) – Yes, that latter fact is a little bit stupid but who wants to tell him that? If it was me (and it won’t be unless he reads this blog) I’d also point out that the grill thing – It’s not just ‘knocking out the fat’ mate – It’s taking out the flavour too on a TKO. Seriously George, the fat is the flavour sometimes. I think the key is to consume in moderation.

Bradman would never have put his name to a grill, no matter how good it was. And for that matter he didn’t talk himself up like Ali, he wasn’t a showman in that sense, apparently preferring to remain aloof and detached. He was also a cricketer, from Anglo-saxon Australian stock and he was 65 by the time Ali was laying on those ropes so I’m not really trying to compare any of these guys. No, the reason I’m bringing in the Don is because of an innings he played in 1948.

1948 was the year of The Invincibles, the Australian cricket team that toured England with Don Bradman as the captain. The 40 year old veteran helmed a supremely talented outfit, 1 that went through the entire 34 match trip undefeated. He was no back-seat leader, not for him the elder figurehead role. Although his eye-sight was failing him and in the knowledge that this was his last outing for his country Bradman excelled. He topped the batting averages, knocking out 89 per innings and 11 times bettering that with a century. There was evidence that his powers were diminished – His career average was higher, 101.39 heading into his final match, the 5th Ashes test.

The Don walked out in that final Test, needing just 4 to maintain an average of 100. Of those who have played 50 or more tests, the nearest to that has been Yorkshire and England great Herb Sutcliffe – He managed an average of 60.73. For everybody else, a figure above 50 puts you in the upper echelons. So Bradman was streets ahead – On average scoring a century each time he went out to bat. This final time, all he needed was 4 runs and he could cement a record with aesthetic roundness.

It didn’t happen.

Bradman was bowled for a duck by Eric Hollies, the ball slipping between bat and pad to take his wicket. His average dropped to 99.94 and there it stayed – England collapsed and Australia was not required to bat again.

Perhaps Bradman should have played another Test, it almost certainly would not have been denied him. Most modern sportspeople would have taken the stage again. Take the Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield – This season he pursued a personal milestone of 200 wins in the MLB. At times the chase looked like a fruitless quest that might be hurting the Sox but Wake and his team persisted and in the end the 45 year old got there. We all applauded, doffed our caps and I’d do both again – I would love the old dog to have a crack at the Red Sox all-time wins record, jointly held by Cy Young and Roger Clements. He’s only 6 away and I reckon the team can stand to sacrifice a bit to help him get there.

I don’t know that Sir Donald Bradman would have approved though. He didn’t come back to play again after that duck, preferring to take on an administrative role in cricket thereafter. In doing so he signalled a comfort with an average that could be seen as less than perfect. 0.06 less to be exact. Somehow though that number has come to represent not an imperfection but instead a sign of greatness, of elegance.

That 99.94 is the record that Ali amassed on the way to Zaire. The 0.06 is the punch that Ali never gave Foreman on the way down. Elegance is something shared by an American boxer and an Australian cricketer a quarter century apart.

1 last mention. Joe Frazier, who had fought and defeated Ali, then lost to Foreman and then Ali twice more, lost his battle with liver cancer this past week. In 1970 he had lobbied hard for Ali’s return from suspension – They would go on to fight in 3 hard-fought contests, a pattern seemingly mirrored in life outside the ring, where the 2 would alternate periods of rivalry bordering on hatred with moments of detente. Smokin’ Joe never capitalised on his career the way his contemporaries did and he left this world much poorer than perhaps was his due. In the end the last words on him here go to the man that lost to him in the Fight of the Century:

‘The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.’

He Knocks Ev’ry Record Flat

  1. If they let Wake stay. Who knows? I can’t predict the ways of the Sox anymore. I just can’t.

    • Wake has to make 193 if only so he can call Rocket and say, ‘See, that’s how you do it…’

      There are question marks over the 2 guys who have won the past 2 Roberto Clemente Awards and are heart and soul Red Sox, yet we’re gonna wait out Tommy John surgery on Lackey like he’s the prodigal son and we’re the Yankees – I don’t know these Sox so much right now either.

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