By Tom Donelson
The most important prizefight in boxing’s history would take place on Boxing’s biggest stage – Madison Square Garden. It was Ali-Frazier I and in Frazier’s corner was a diminutive man, whose strategy would prove decisive. The man was Eddie Futch. Futch wanted Frazier to force Ali on the ropes and rip the body. Frazier style was designed to have Ali throw uppercuts, so Ali would be open to Frazier fearsome left hook. To see the success of this strategy, all you have to do is to review both the 11th and 15h round. A Frazier left hook sent Ali sprawling to the canvas in the last round and in the eleventh round, a Frazier left hook over Ali’s right hand sent Ali spinning 180 degrees and nearly ended the fight.
Futch proved to be as much as an Ali’s nemesis as either Frazier or Ken Norton. Ali would win four of six fights against both fighters but each fight was a nail biter and always in doubt till the very end. Some would even argue that Norton should have been given the decision over Ali in their rubber match. Eddie Futch resided in both fighters’ corner.
For past the 70 years before he died, Futch was a major force in boxing. He trained 22 world champions and worked till he died. Futch’s first champion was Don Jordan, who captured the welterweight title in 1958. He directed Frazier career and helped Frazier to develop the bob and weave style that maximize Frazier’s strength, which included his toughness, endurance and ferocious left hook. Under Futch guidance, Frazier became the recognized champion in Ali’s absence in the late 60’s. He put an exclamation point when he beat Jimmy Ellis.
Ken Norton was another Futch’s student. A former Marine who picked up fighting while serving in the military, Norton came to the boxing game late. A good athlete, Norton had the raw talent to be a good prizefighter but it took Futch in the corner to develop that talent. Futch was in Norton corner when Norton confronted Ali. Norton proved tougher for Ali than even Frazier. While Frazier-Ali fights were wars, Norton-Ali proved to be chess match in which the pressing Norton often trumped some of Ali’s best moves. Norton’s jab proved difficult for Ali to penetrate and his pressing style never allowed Ali to tee off on Norton.
It is said that styles make fights and in Norton’s case, his style proved problematic for Ali. Futch understood that Ali would have difficulty with a fighter who could match his jab and Norton jab Ali effectively as well as pressured Ali. Norton-Ali trilogy never had the drama as the Frazier trilogy nor the blood but Norton-Ali fights were close affairs. Norton upset Ali in their fight and even broke Ali’s jaw in the fight. It took a decisive final round for Ali to take the second Norton fight and their third fight was a tight affair that still has boxing pundits talking.
Other great fighters whose corners that Futch worked with included Michael Spinks, Alexis Arguello and Larry Holmes. Many of the great fighters of the past half-century saw Futch in their corners.
Eddie Futch final masterpiece would be Riddick Bowe. Bowe was the silver medallist in the 1988 Olympics but his reputation for laziness and lack of discipline haunted the young fighter. Futch was not sure if he wanted to train Bowe and certainly Futch’s own place in boxing history was already secured. In his 80’s, Futch relented and his new student became the Heavyweight champion as Bowe upset Holyfield in one of the boxing’s great championship fights.
Futch was one of boxing great trainers, a man who found the ability to take his raw charges and turn them into boxing masters. Bowe was Futch’s final masterpiece but Futch artistry was evident in a career defined by championship caliber fighters. When given a talent, he knew how to develop that talent.