Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Down Goes Frazier!"

Howard Cosell uttered those memorable words on the night that Joe Frazier lost his heavyweight belt to George Foreman. Foreman came into the fight as a prohibitive underdog, but proceeded to give Frazier the beating of his life, knocking him down six times in two rounds. Frazier never recovered from that first thunderous right hand that floored him. Frazier was looking ahead to a big money rematch with Muhammad Ali and probably took the Foreman bout lightly. Although Foreman was undefeated and had a string of knockouts to his credit, most boxing experts thought that Frazier would be able to handle him easily.

It really is only in hindsight that this seems a ridiculous thought. Frazier was 5 inches shorter and 20 lbs lighter than his opponent. His straight ahead fighting style set up perfectly for the heavy hitting Foreman. Frazier's style of absorbing his opponents blows in order to land his own may have worked with the less powerful Ali, but was a recipe for disaster against Foremen. He was knocked down three times in both the first and second round before the referee called a halt to the action. Veteran boxing observers were stunned by what had happened, but they were quick to hail the new champion and proclaim that he was all but unbeatable. Of course Muhammad Ali (in the role of wiley veteran) took the title away from Foreman a year later in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle".

I apologize for that somewhat lengthy lead in but I find a lot of similarities between that night in 1973 and the Democratic primary race. Hillary Clinton came into the race as the heavy betting favorite. Most pundits were already looking ahead to who she would face in the fall. The Clinton camp certainly was, since they had no real strategy in place for the campaign to continue past Super Tuesday. To their ultimate detriment, they overlooked the challenge that Barack Obama posed from the beginning. They assumed that Clinton's name recognition and years of experience would be enough to vanquish any opponent on the Democratic side. The Clinton's were looking ahead to a rematch with the Republicans. It was a fight that had won in the past and they looked forward to having another opportunity to take on the Hillary named "vast right wing conspiracy".

Barack Obama came into the campaign as a decided underdog. He burst upon the national stage and the 2004 Democratic convention with an inspiring keynote speech for John Kerry. At that point, he was an Illinois state Senator, but after the speech he became a national figure. He decided to run for the US Senate in 2006 and emerged victorious after his opponent became embroiled in a sex scandal and eventually was replaced near the end of the campaign. He started his campaign about a year ago trailing Hillary Clinton by as much as 30 points in the national polls. The press didn't give him much of a chance at the time, but in truth, they didn't give any of the Hillary's opponents much of a chance. Last year it was presumed that Hillary would be facing Rudy Giuliani in November. The primaries were supposed to be a mere formality before the main event. No could have foreseen the movement that Obama's campaign would spark. No one could have imagined that he would be able to get one million donors by the end of February. No one could imagine that he would build an organization that was not only equal to, but in almost all respects, better than the one that the Clinton campaign would put together. No one in the press predicted this would happen and the Clinton camp was very secure in the knowledge that their candidate was the inevitable Democratic nominee for the presidency.

A funny thing happened on the way to the nomination however. Barack Obama landed the first significant blow by winning Iowa and the Clinton campaign has never really recovered. The truth is that if he hadn't won that first caucus, his campaign would probably have run aground. That single stunning victory changed the mind of millions of people all over the country. That single vote turned Hillary Clinton supposed coronation from a backyard bbq into a dog fight and it was a fight she was unprepared for. It was as if she had brought a knife to a gun fight. Her victory in New Hampshire righted the ship temporarily, but it could not stem the growing tide of Obama support. She did manage to win Michigan (as the only candidate on the ballot) and Florida, but neither primary counted toward her delegate count because they had broken the DNC rules by moving up their primaries to before Super Tuesday. Her big state strategy allowed her to hold her own on Super Tuesday, but Obama actually came out ahead in pledged delegates and states won. February was a whitewash for Obama (due to the lack of a post super Tuesday strategy on the part of the Clinton team. If you look up the definition of "looking past your opponent", you will see a picture of the Clinton campaign team). Clinton proceeded to lose 11 straight races, while coming up with excuses for all of them (black population, she doesn't do well in caucuses, those states don't really count, etc.).

However, Hillary proved her championship mettle by pulling herself off the canvas on various occasions. After Obama's victory string (which basically assured him of the nomination), she scored victories in Ohio and a partial victory in Texas. Heading into Pennsylvania, with Obama stretching his lead out in the national polls to 10%, she scored a 9 point victory to prove that she wasn't quite done. Heading into yesterday's primaries, she seemed to have everything going her way. Obama had to face various questions about his patriotism and his association with his pastor and a former radical and the press was quick to point out that she had "found her voice" (which is funny, because I thought she had "found her voice" in New Hampshire). The polls were pointing toward a close race in North Carolina and an easy victory in Indiana. She had already said that North Carolina would be a "game changer" and was anticipating a full turnaround in her fortunes. She had found that big punch that was going to stagger and bloody her opponent. However it was not to be. Instead of landing a haymaker of her own, the former presumed champion was left bowed and bloodied on the canvas. The fight is not technically over (Obama does not have the required number of delegates for the nomination), but everyone has begun to look at the referee to call an end to the fight for the good of the vanquished opponent.

This campaign will be remembered as the one that provided the answer as to what happens when an immovable object (Clinton's inevitability) meets an irresistible force (Obama's movement). Perhaps looking back years from now, we will think that the press was naive to think that the outcome could have been any different. Perhaps people will say that it was easy to see that Obama would eventually emerge as the winner. Perhaps they will say that the press ignored all the signs that pointed to this day. Perhaps the stunned voice of the pundits will echo across time just as the the stunned voice of Howard Cosell has from that warm January night in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973.


Sandy Jimenez said...

As always a most excellent recap of this seemingly interminable process from you Michael. I love the pugilism allegory and can’t resist beating it to death:
A "Brawler" is a fighter who is not a finesse boxer and lacks strong footwork, but compensates through overwhelming punching power. The classic brawlers are less agile, and have trouble tracking and closing in on boxers who are fast and have speedy and dynamic footwork and can really work a ring. Brawlers also don't often utilize combination punches instead relying on slower but more powerful single punches like the hook, uppercuts and cross. The Brawler's slowness and predictable single punching pattern can make him vulnerable to counter punching. Historically, successful brawlers were boxers who could absorb punishment in order to get their bombs in. George Foreman was in the “Brawler” class.
An “Inside Fighter”, “In Fighter” or “Proximity Fighter” is in some ways the opposite of a “Brawler” as their effectiveness is dependent on their ability to get close (i.e. inside) to the other fighter, and do the opposite of what a Brawler does, throwing combinations of jabs, hooks and uppercuts. But Inside Fighters sometimes also take a lot of punishment while maneuvering in close where can be effective and unleash combinations. The best Inside Fighters have been shorter with typical “reach disadvantages” against other boxers making them more dangerous at close distances where the longer reach of their opponents make counterpunching awkward. Joe Frazier is generally held (And I pretty much believe anything Burt Sugar says about anything) to have been an “Inside Fighter”.
Thinking this over… I’m not sure who is who in this metaphor. Obama always does better when he gets in close enough for people to see him, hear him talk, so maybe he’s Frazier… but he’s beating Clinton’s ass so maybe he’s actually Foreman. Clinton hangs on single issues and rides them very effectively, she’s looking for an opening for a knockout, so maybe she’s the Brawler in this analogy… but she seems to keep underestimating Obama… So maybe she’s Frazier.
Fuck it. I say they just fight in a ring; all this is giving me a headache. Call Freddie Pacheco and get me a club soda and an ice pack.

Blitzy said...

According to this morning's news, she's Frazier.