We often hear the game of football equated with war. The regimental pageantry, strict discipline and use of military terminology leave little to the imagination. In no other sport would participants named “gunners” sprint by teammates engaged in “trench warfare.”
But last week, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr used a different approach in preparing his team for its upcoming showdown with Michigan State. Instead of simply requiring the Wolverines to watch film of the Spartans’ previous games this season, Carr added another mandatory item to the agenda: He showed his players clips from the legendary trilogy of fights between boxing immortals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier – the 1971 “Fight of the Century,” a 1974 rematch and the “Thrilla in Manila” from 1975. The sweet science became a running theme throughout the team’s training and the game itself, with each player taking away different motivational elements.
For defensive tackle Gabe Watson, the fights demonstrated the importance of perseverance.
“One time, Frazier hit Ali,” Watson recalled. “(Ali) fell down, (but) he got back up before they could even start the count. (Giving up) big plays was like us falling down, but we had to get back up and continue to fight. We did that, and we came away with the victory.”
Linebacker Prescott Burgess used the fights’ symbolism to fuel his relentless effort on defense. His seven tackles in the game were the second-most on the team.
“We had to go out there and throw blows even though we were taking some,” Burgess said. “We just had to punch harder and harder. I think (watching the fights) woke a lot of us up, seeing that, if they could do it, why couldn’t we?”
Whatever the Wolverines gained from studying Ali and Frazier, the parallels between the heavyweight bouts and the rivalry game were striking.
Ali had his sharp, staccato jabs and crosses to go along with his famously fancy footwork.
Michigan had Chad Henne’s precision passing and Mike Hart’s nimble scampers downfield.
Frazier used a bone-crushing left hook to floor his opponent.
Michigan State used Drew Stanton’s swirling scrambles and looping receiver routes to confuse its foe.
Ali loved talking trash to intimidate “Smokin’ Joe.”
Mike Hart relished jawing at the Spartans’ sideline after a 45-yard gain in the first quarter.
Ali made a point of calling Frazier “ugly” to the national media.
Watson called the Paul Bunyan Trophy – which goes to the annual winner of the intrastate contest – “the ugliest trophy in the world.”
The blood feud between Ali and Frazier came to an end after 41 grueling rounds. Neither fighter was ever the same. How fitting that, in the Michigan-Michigan State series, the past two games have ended in overtime, with this year’s result ending the Spartans’ hopes for a perfect season.
“Back then, fights were 15 rounds,” Watson said. “We went 16 (on Saturday).”
In the gridiron version of the slugfest, the Wolverines came out swinging, jumping out to an early 14-0 lead. Michigan and Michigan State then proceeded to stand toe-to-toe, trading punches and refusing to flinch until they found themselves deadlocked at 31 points apiece when the final bell sounded. In the extra session, Garrett Rivas delivered the knockout blow with his 35-yard game-winning field goal. When Pierre Woods hoisted the kicker up like a punch-drunk pugilist after an exhausting match, the symmetry was complete.
Safety Willis Barringer claimed he’d never seen boxing related to football before. But Carr’s motives for using the ring footage were simple. It related directly to his team’s goal of picking up a third consecutive Big Ten crown.
“Every game that we play in the Big Ten at this stage is a championship game,” Carr said. “It’s hard to think that anybody is going to lose twice. We’re trying to win a championship, and those are two pretty good champions, Ali and Frazier.”
When the dust finally settled on Saturday, it was Michigan walking away with the title belt. The Spartans found themselves with a black eye, a puffy lip and a 12-month wait for a rematch.
Gabe Edelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.