Tobi Lark, aka Tobi Legend, once sang, ‘Time is gonna pass you by, so quickly and it waits for no man‘.
Not a theme exclusive to the songwriter, John Rhys, of course and, tangentially, it was serendipitous to learn Rhys was born in the sleepy Suffolk town of Saxmundham, a place a Sunday afternoon drive from my own adopted home, particularly given the sophistication and significance of the song. Rhys moved Stateside as a youngster and would become a distinguished music producer in Detroit and Los Angeles I discovered. Perhaps the influence of Michigan’s blue-collar ‘Motor-town’, historic home of the Ford motor company and Motown Records of course, as opposed to the coastal market town of his birth, explains the soul and beat in the tune and is why it resonated so deeply with a generation of British youngsters.
The thumping cocktail of melancholy and triumph in the Northern Soul anthem embedded Rhys and Legend’s sentiment deep into the psyche of a receptive audience in the 1970s. Tracks like ‘Time is Gonna Pass You By’ entranced a communion of working class kids; coal miners, steel workers, bakers and candlestick makers, longing to escape Lowry skylines, and the drudgery of daily life to converge, via all-night pilgrimages, to clubs and dance halls across the North of England.
Clubs with names that evoked grandeur they had long since lost or glamour they could never possess; The Torch, The Casino as well as the more obtuse Twisted Wheel or the generic Mecca in Blackpool.
Generations on, where once men in tight vests and bell bottomed trousers competed for attention with contorted back drops and dizzying spins, the tune, when spun at the right wedding reception, in the right town, now calls forward an ageing baby boom generation and an army of forty somethings who grew up with their parent’s love of Northern Soul, and her driving beat, as the sound track to their childhood.
As just such a forty something, it was Tobi Legend’s song that echoed back to me as I contemplated the silent but relentless passage of time with TJ Rives for the Big Fight Weekend podcast this week. Specifically, the revelation this week marked the 48th anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s first fight with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Gardens in 1971.
Much like Tobi Legend’s classic, originally released in 1968 to negligible acclaim, as so many of the previously undiscovered Northern Soul gems were, the fight between Ali and Frazier occurred before I was born and subsequently its role in my life is adopted, or perhaps, more accurately, inherited rather than lived first hand. I can’t know how much this diminishes the importance of the fight or my relationship with its two protagonists for they, and their first encounter, remain a vital part of the boxing scrapbook I keep in my mind.
The world was a different place in 1971 after all, but then, perhaps not. A writer of less cynical perspective and one less romantic about the past could propose the recent bout between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, unbeaten champions both, by one definition or another, and with Fury returning after a long sabbatical and ban, is as close to the Frazier and Ali fight as heavyweight boxing has conjured since. Pitching the mover versus the puncher too, to simplify the respective match ups to a binary description, the echo prevails and in Fury’s clamber from the canvas, much like Ali’s miraculous recovery in the 15th round of the original, the connection is further substantiated.
Back in the America of March 1971, as the nation turned its gaze to the famous Madison Square Garden venue and away from the failing war in Vietnam, the first unit ever deployed on the ground was being withdrawn. These were pivotal times in American history and the clash between Ali and Frazier was loaded with much more than simply the boxing match they would contest.
Alongside Ali’s return to the public eye, much had changed in the 30 months of inactivity imposed on him. Opinion was turning on the war Ali had opposed from the beginning, a stance that brought about his exclusion from boxing. As they gathered in their millions, over 300 million from around the world are estimated to have watched the fight, the American public remained blissfully unaware of the actions of its own Government. A a short 15 months later Government employees would break into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex. By the time Frazier and Ali fought again, in January 1974, the president at the time, Richard Nixon, would have been impeached and the narrative the nation had accepted for so long was shattered.
One wonders whether the political echo will become impossible to ignore by the time their successors, Wilder and Fury, answer the bell for a rematch too. There seems time for a new political crescendo to be reached now the heavyweight pair are on different paths. I wouldn’t be the first to point to the similarities between the life and times of Richard Nixon and the chaos and cunning of the current administration.
The news Fury would take an interim bout beneath the lustrous Top Rank flag he is now aligned with and his natural adversary Deontay Wilder would be encouraged to tackle Dominic Breazeale was a source of grave disappointment for those of us not old enough to remember Nixon and the Fight of the Century in March of 71. Collectively, we enjoyed Mike Tyson, and fondly remember Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield too, but their rivalry and the fights between remained, in some small part, unsatisfactory. All of their respective encounters were tarnished by age, loss of form or a contentious decision.
Whenever the Fury, Wilder and Joshua fights finally occur, on whichever platform and for what ever belts they contest, on behalf of my generation, we’d like them to be free of such caveats. And if the three wish to be remembered and revered in the way the greats of the 70s were, they will too.
History will not record who won the argument on the internet or the percentage of the purse they were able to negotiate. Fighters are judged on fighting, not wealth.
And whilst we must recognise every fighter is also a son, brother, husband and father, and those relationships, in to which health and wealth are paramount, the pursuit of legend is where contentment is customarily found. There was a price paid for the legacy Ali carved, and no fight fan, of whatever vintage, should expect his successors to pay it.
But, as Tobi Legend might implore; “Life is just a precious minute baby”.