Inspired by my first visit to the Rocky Steps during the 2006 Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in Philadelphia, this presentation for the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle explores the intersections between sport, popular culture, and public memory. Broadly, I ask the following: Does a fictional character like Rocky deserve a statue in a city that we visit for people and events that are foundational in U.S. history?
Complicated by real-life (but often forgotten) figures like Joe Frazier and Chuck Wepner, my "Thrilla in ManiLA" takes a second look at their stories alongside Sylvester Stallone's popular Rocky franchise and through the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. Ali, of course, continues to be celebrated for his physical speed and prowess as a heavyweight, but his verbal dexterity makes him an intriguing figure to consider at a conference that prides itself on the study of poetic language. Indeed, a close reading of Ali's own name yields a further fitting connection: M. ALi / MLA.
Edited on an iPad, this project also makes use of a platform that is not often recognized as having digital composing potential (an issue I address in more detail in a forthcoming Inventio webtext). What I sought in my remix of various Ali-Rocky-Wepner-Frazier clips is a sort of boxing-speedbag-of-an-experience, wherein the feints and jabs of various clips and stories could be released through the simple flick of a finger.
Drawing on Sarah Arroyo's (2012) "Choric Swipe," which stretches the composing potential of devices like iPads to Greg Ulmer's (1994) widely cited theories on the inventive topos of chora, my choric focus on the topos of Philly—and the padded boxing rings of Manila—attempts to bring together issues of place, race, and social class together. As Arroyo said in her video, "We can more easily see choric invention happening on glass and windows, so the body, technology, and geography are all brought together."
For MLA Seattle, I tried to evoke a sense of MLA Philly by raising issues about popular culture and public memory with a statue in a city known for much older iconography, like those embodied by the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall. As well, on an iPad, I worked to deliver a digital composition capable of evoking what Roland Barthes (1981) called a punctum or sting of recognition. My iPad floats like an iButterfly and stings like an iBee. These punc(h)ta seek to re-include the excluded voices of Frazier and Wepner, which both complicate that solitary statue of Rocky/Stallone and the overly romantic memory of Ali.
Muhammad Ali: I just wrote a poem the other day entitled "Truth": It says the face of Truth is open / The eyes of Truth are bright / The lips of Truth are ever closed / The head of Truth is upright / The breast of Truth stands forward / The gaze of Truth is straight / Truth has neither fear nor doubt / Truth has patience to wait / The words of Truth are touching / The voice of Truth is deep / The law of Truth is simple / All you sow you reap / The soul . . .
Sylvester Stallone: I had written several plays and nothing was happening (I had a bit part in a film) and I was really spiraling downward fast. And I wanted to write something about the way I felt, but I knew my story wasn’t commercial; it wasn’t translatable in many languages. And then as fate would have it, I went to a boxing match that night, and I saw Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner—And something just popped, and I said, "That’s It! That’s me." [Narrator: "His Name is Rocky. His whole life was a million-to-one shot"] The Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, I said, "That is the way I feel."
Chuck Wepner: On the right of me, the Raging Bull Bob DeNiro; on the left me of me, Rocky Sylvester Stallone. I stayed on the set while they finished that scene, and then I said I had to go, but you know, I felt bad. And I finally said to myself, "I’m a real jerk. This guy has been using my name for thirty years to promote the Rocky franchise. Thirty years of bullsh*t. I’m sick and tired of this guy." And I went out and got myself a lawyer and decided to sue him.
Stan Hochman: (Interviewer: "How do you think the city of Philadelphia has treated Joe Frazier?"). Well, there’s a statue of Rocky near the Art Musuem, but nowhere in the entire city is there a statue of Joe.
Burt Watson: Right there, next to the steps that Joe Frazier—(sarcastically) oh, I mean, Sylvester Stallone—ran up for the Rocky movie. That’s where they have the statue of Rocky Balboa, instead of one of Joe Frazier.
Joe Frazier: [Interviewer: And you used to run up those steps?] That’s right. Sometimes I walked up and down. Trying to run back down and up and then you run back down and you would have no energy to stop yourself from running when you’re coming downhill.
Ali Remix: "I Am The Greatest!"
Wepner: And the door opens and in walks Ali, and he says to me, "Chuck, when we go out on stage with Douglas, he said, I want you to call me a nigger." And I said, "Geez Champ, I can’t do that." I say I have a lot of black friends and some of my sparring partners are black. And he said, "No, no, you gotta do this, you gotta use the ‘N’ word. You gotta call me a nigger. We gotta pump this fight and we’re going to make it look like a racial thing.
Ali: ...Made the greatest has been painted or colored white. Like Jesus was white; Santa Claus was white; Tarzan King of the Jungle, he was white; Miss America is white; and Miss Universe is white; and Miss World is white; and when you go to heaven you walk on the milky white way before you go to heaven; everything seems to be white; I’m dreaming of a white Christmas; Angel hair is white; Angel foodcake is white; Devil foodcake is dark; and Mary Had a Little Lamb and its Fleece was white as snow—so everything the greatest so far has been white and these are just falsehoods of White Supremist.
Ali (Shouting): (Documentary Announcer overdub: "Ali’s sharp tongue always gave him an edge in the pre-bout banter. But when he called Frazier an Uncle Tom—a black man who is subservient to whites—he went too far.") I’m going to embarrass you for life! You’re an Uncle Tom! You’re an Uncle Tom!
Gavin Evans: Ali had an element to cruelty to him. There has been bit to sanitize Ali; the Will Smith movie certainly did that—to make him almost this sort of demagogue. And Ali could be a cruel bastard.
Wepner (Walking Out on Stage): (Applause) (Television host: "Holy Toledo, you really pick on big guys. You know that.") (Ali: "He’s a white guy, and they don’t like colored people.") (Host: "He called you by your own name too.") (Ali: "No, he called me by another name. You didn’t hear him last week.") Wepner Overdub: He started saying, "He did this, He did that." I was getting all nervous because I couldn’t stop the guy." (Ali Whisper Loudly, "He called me a nigger.") (Announcer: "Oh, this is going to be a real fight.")
Ali (Pre-Fight Interview): Bad, I been chopping trees / I done something new for this fight: I done wrastled with an alligator / That’s right: I have wrastled with an alligator / I done tussled with a whale / I done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail / That’s Bad / Why last week, I done murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick – I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
Ali Remix: "I Murdered a Rock"
Ali (seated): Which is an eye blink. Like a camera flash. It four hundredth of a second. Now. The minute I hit Sonny Liston, all those people blinked at that moment, that’s why they didn’t see him.
Ali Remix: "Hospitalized a Brick"
Ali: This is a little conscience. I got a little gorilla here. This is his conscience. And I keep him right in my pocket everywhere I go. Right there. And I wrote a short poem. It says: "There will be killa, and thrilla, and a chilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila." That’s right.
Wepner: He’s a master of the poem, so I wrote a poem that goes like this: What’s in a word? / And who’s to say what will be? / I know he’ll be the favorite / But that’s how it should be / For there are those who say / He’s the best to ever wear the crown / And that despite the tune up against someone of little renown
Frazier (singing): It was a first round knock out / One punch and then / First round knock out / And he was out until the count of ten (applause)
Ali: That man, let me tell ya: he can’t write no poems; he can’t predict no rounds. And let me tell ya, I’m not conceited, I’m just convinced. (laughter). Larry, listen. I’m so modest, I can admit my own faults. And my only fault is: I don’t realize how great I really am.
Ali Remix: "I Am the Greatest"
Frazier: (Interviewer: "The punch that knocked him down was a sweeping hook.") That was a double-shot. (Interviewer: "Okay, tell me about that.") It was a body shot, and then repeat, up top. (Interviewer: "When you saw him go down on his back, his feet were up and his tassels were flying on his shoe, did you think, ‘Uh oh, I got him knocked out?’) We both were dead. Naw, that was probably just the act of God. Both of us were dead.
Al Remix: "We’re Gonna Rumble In the Jungle."
Wepner: It was my big night, and lo-and-behold who shows up and steals everybody’s thunder, but Muhammad Ali. And as soon as he walked in all the press left me, left Sonny, and left everybody and ran over to the Champ.
Ali Remix: "Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee."
Watson (Voice): You know, when you want to identify with the blue collar, hard worker, you know, the life story, the guy who struggled—that’s Joe Frazier.
Ali (Interview): Didn’t I tell you that your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see. You know I’m the greatest of all time. (I’m telling him this when we’re punching.) That worries a man to beat him and talk to him. [Interviewer: "Did they talk back to you?"] No. Only one fellow talked to me, and that was Joe Frazier. I hit Joe Frazier with about ninety punches, if you remember the first fight. I hit him with everything, and the man took a terrible beating, and he wouldn’t fall. I said, "Are you crazy?" I hit again. I said, "You must be crazy." And he said, "That’s right, I’m crazy."
Documentary Announcer: Then in 1996 Ali lit the flame at the Atlanta Olympics. Most of the world looked on in awe.
Bert Sugar: He was a hero. The only dissenting voice being that of Joe Frazier who said, "Ali should have fallen into the flame. The rest of us thought it was wonderful, and yet the rest of us knew what Joe was talking about.
Joe Frazier: When we [Ali] was fighting, we was at war. I mean, why should he speaks all this terrible thing about me, and I didn’t say anything about him? Whatever came to my mind and my lips, I spit it out. And that’s the way... I didn’t really want anything to happen to the guy. I wish he would live a long life.
Joe Frazier (This Is Your Life): I wrote a poem: Joe come out smokin’ / I be pokin’, pouring water on that smokin’ / He said, I might amaze you / Smokin’ [Ali’s laughter and fall] Ladies and Gentlemen, he’s great guy, I would say we love him, he’s a fine champion.
Stallone as Rocky: Hey, how you doin’ Mick? Sign’s falling apart, Paulie. (Paulie: "The whole world is falling apart. Look at us.") Don’t talk crazy, Paulie. You know, I think if you live someplace long enough, you are that place. (Paulie: I ain’t no talking building. Come on, it’s getting late, Rocko. I get a headache from these trains.)
Frazier: (Interviewer: I see you’ve got your dollars tucked into your sock.) Oh, you lookin’ at it. Got dollars, huh? (Frazier laughs) (Interviewer: That’s alotta lard.) It is. I’ve worked for it very, very hard. (Interviewer: We’re you working for it in Manila?) I worked very, very hard. (Interviewer: That was great, thank you for that.) Can I yell? Yeeeeeeeeeeeee-ha!
Rocky Running Up Steps to Brian Eno’s "An Ending (Ascent)"
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