James Bay resident Tim Ryan was not only an eyewitness to sports history, 50 years ago on Monday, but also a voice witness as he provided blow-by-blow radio coverage of the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Former broadcaster Ryan, who retired to Victoria two years ago, has covered 10 Olympic Games and many of the great NHL and tennis players during his legendary career with CBS, NBC and Fox. But the first Ali- Frazier fight — both boxers were then unbeaten — stands out as a highlight.
“It represented so many of the social and political issues of the time in the U.S.,” said Ryan.
“Ali was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and was a draft dodger and Muslim, against blue-collar Joe Frazier.”
Sides were taken and the lines drawn hard.
“That event was aligned in a different way than any other,” Ryan recalled. “There was palpable tension in the building. You could feel it. Everybody who was anybody was there … Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross … mobsters to millionaires. You knew it was going to be historic.”
It was also personally historic for Ryan, then just a local broadcaster from Canada on WPIX in New York. A New Zealand station had bought radio rights for the fight, but couldn’t afford to send a broadcaster all that way to call it. Ryan heard about it, put up his hand and the gig was his. He was placed as the lone English-language broadcaster ringside on the foreign press row, alongside broadcasters from Asia and Europe.
U.S. Armed Forces Radio also didn’t have a broadcaster and asked if they could hook into Ryan’s blow-by-blow call for New Zealand.
“I was 31 and that was huge for me,” he said.
Just a few years earlier, Winnipeg-born Ryan had been calling Toronto Marlies hockey games and Argos and Tiger-Cats CFL games for CFTO in southern Ontario.
Frazier won that night, but subsequently lost his world heavyweight title to George Foreman two years later. Ali would return to win back the title by beating Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974 to complete the circle in epic fashion.
That night in New York in 1971 helped to lead to a globe-trotting career for Ryan that included three Winter Olympics for CBS in the 1990s and every Summer and Winter Olympics for NBC between Sydney 2000 to Vancouver 2010.
Ryan covered the NHL, NBA and NFL but became particularly known for boxing and tennis, having called numerous tennis Grand Slams, including Wimbledon and 19 U.S. Opens. His love of the sport is still evident at 82 as he plays as a member on the clay courts of Bear Mountain.
Ryan chronicled his career in his 2016 memoir On Someone Else’s Nickel: A Life in Televison, Sports and Travel. “He [Ryan] is a master of the play-by-play who turns the spotlight on his victories and defeats, and leaves us all inspired by the lessons,” Tom Brokaw of NBC News wrote on the book’s front cover.
The book looks back on a richly textured and adventurous career. But Ryan realizes sport moves on. He pointed to a recent story in the Times Colonist he read about Island athletes training for the Tokyo Olympics in newly added non-traditional sports, such as skateboarding, surfing and wall-climbing.
“In 50 years, many traditional sports might be gone from the Olympics,” he said.
Ryan returned to his favourite sports when discussing the two most significant athletes he covered during his career. Ali and Billie Jean King transcended the ring and tennis court to make groundbreaking cultural statements beyond sports, he said.
“Orr versus Gretzky is strictly about the sport and bar-room talk — and it’s Orr by the way. But Ali’s and King’s combined contributions to social, political, racial and gender issues were immense,” said Ryan. “Ali and King were impactful in the wider society in so many ways.”
That’s why sports experts note that while Ali lost on that historic night in New York, 50 years on, he is seen as the ultimate winner.