Terry: SMU’s Once Great White Hope

The first time Joe Frazier knocked down Terry Daniels, it appeared he would not get back up. Daniels laid there, face down and motionless, for about five seconds. It was the type of knockdown that forces spectators to wonder if they witnessed a man’s death. After eight seconds, Daniels struggled to his feet, just as the first round ended. And as the bell rang, signaling a minute’s rest between rounds, Daniels stood there, confused, staring at the referee. Daniels’s trainer walked across the ring and placing his arm on his fighter’s shoulder, guided him back to their corner to prepare for the second round.

That Frazier knocked down Daniels was unsurprising. Ten months earlier, Frazier became the first boxer to defeat Muhammad Ali. Frazier is among the all-time great boxers; Daniels is not. But on a Saturday night in 1972 New Orleans, a day before the city hosted the sixth Super Bowl, Daniels, the latest version of the Great White Hope, challenged for boxing’s heavyweight championship.

Daniels’s manager, Doug Lord, was largely responsible for the fight. “I told the fight promoters I’ve got a white kid from Dallas,” Lord said. “He’s friends with the Dallas Cowboys, and everyone knows the Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl in New Orleans…They loved it. They bought it.”[1]

Technically, Daniels was not from Dallas; he only lived there, moving from Ohio to attend Southern Methodist University. The son of a successful, possibly millionaire, businessman, Daniels was intelligent, young, handsome, and—since it is a prerequisite of any Great White Hope—white. Leading up to the fight, promoters emphasized the many differences between Daniels and his opponent. Stories of him being part of his high school choir, or mentioning that Daniels was treasurer of his junior class became part of the narrative. In the hype, even noting Daniels enjoyed reading was worth mention as was his initial plans to study engineering upon first enrolling at SMU.[2] All these things distinguished Daniels from Frazier, who though lived in Philadelphia was originally from South Carolina. Frazier was a sharecropper’s son—far removed from Daniels’s life of privilege. But as it pertained to boxing, these differences mattered little once promoters sold the fight. And those who bought tickets to see a Great White Hope, were on the verge of watching him lose minutes into the fight.

As the second round began the television commentators wondered aloud if Daniels had recuperated from Frazier’s punches. They noted the obvious—that Frazier had won the first round—when seemingly out of nowhere, Daniels connected with a right uppercut that stunned Frazier. “Oh! He landed a beautiful uppercut,” one commentator incredulously screamed. Maybe Daniels was more than just hype. Maybe he was something almost as romanticized as a Great White Hope; maybe Daniels was a natural.

Daniels was certainly athletic, having played football and baseball for SMU before an injury shifted his focus to boxing.[3] As an amateur, Daniels found success even winning local Golden Glove tournaments. When he fought professionally not only did he postpone his graduating from SMU but also angered his father who, understandably, had not sent his oldest son to Dallas to prizefight. By 1972, three years into his career, Daniels had become a local celebrity, accumulating a record of 28 wins, 4 losses, and 1 draw; an impressive accomplishment even if against subpar competition. But as his punch connected and forced Frazier to step back, no one cared about past opposition—not when, for one punch, it appeared Daniels may have been on the verge of orchestrating an incredible upset.

In boxing, hopes die fast. Within a three-minute round, hopes of a championship, of wealth and fame, and even, of any future quality of life can disappear. In the third round, Frazier brought Daniels back to reality—again dominating as he had in the first round. Frazier’s signature punch, the left hook, kept connecting and Daniels could do nothing to stop it. Had he raised his right hand slightly to better protect his face, it would have altered, even minimized, his right cross—his most effective punch.[4] And had he used a right hook, a punch he was not prone to using, to counter Frazier, he would have risked everything; as one of boxing’s old adages warned: you don’t hook with a hooker. Frazier was a hooker—the left-handed, boxing type—Daniels was not. So again, Frazier’s left hook dropped Daniels toward the end of round three. He stood up long enough to fall by the same punch not even ten seconds later. As he gasped for air, a look of bemusement on Daniels’s face, the bell rang and once again saved him.

There was nothing remarkable about the fourth round besides Frazier knocking down Daniels a fourth and fifth time. The latter resulted in Daniels falling back through the ropes, appearing as if he would fall all the way to the floor. Ringside judges braced to break Daniels’s fall but he remained inside the ring and at least, save some dignity. The referee stopped the fight, leaving Daniels visibly upset. “Don’t stop, damn it,” Daniels screamed, before turning to his manager and saying, “Doug, don’t let them stop it. There’s nothing wrong.”[5] Daniels was likely the last person in the world to realize he never stood a chance.

After the fight, Daniels’s manager implored, even begged him, to not fight again.[6] For a time, Daniels took the advice, returned to SMU and earned a political science degree in December of the same year he fought for boxing’s heavyweight title—one of sport’s most prestigious titles. But the title of boxing heavyweight champion can have a seductive appeal on men practicing a sport so inherently tied into ideas of masculinity. “The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship,” Norman Mailer noted, “the more natural it is for him to be a little bit insane. [S]ecretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not.”[7]

Whether he deserved it or not, the fight gave Daniels a chance to show he was the toughest man in the world. He failed. And whether he was a Great White Hope or not, the loss hurt the same. Six years after fighting Frazier and claiming he had retired, Daniels fought on, partly because dreams of his title fight haunted him. “I daydream a lot about that fight,” Daniels explained. “I fantasize about what might have been if I had blasted Frazier in the third round, when he was so confident, with a right hook.”[8]

Daniels fought until 1981. Counting his loss to Frazier, Daniels’s final 32 fights resulted in only 7 victories against 26 losses. Terry Daniels left Dallas and returned to Ohio in 2004. He now lives in a retirement home, suffering from what some call pugilist Parkinson’s.[9]


 

[1] Peter Finney, “Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier etched in N.O. boxing history,” The Times-Picayune, November 16, 2011.

[2] Jeff Miller, “The Fight of His Life,” Texas Monthly, February 2015.

[3] Ron Fimrite, “Back-To-School time for Terry Daniels,” Sports Illustrated, January 24, 1972.

[4] Les Thomas, “Student Boxer Believes Punching is his Bag,” The Campus Chat (Denton, Tex.), February 14, 1969.

[5] Don Gardner, “Re-evaluating the Situation,” The Daily Campus, January 25, 1972.

[6] Kevin Sherrington, “Fight of his life amounted to Super letdown,” Dallas Morning News, January 26, 2004.

[7] Allen Barra, “Norman Mailer, Sportswriter,” The Atlantic, December 26, 2013.

[8] Mike Kiley, “Daniels is boxing to keep wolves from his doorstep,” Chicago Tribune, October 26, 1978.

[9] Mark Podolski, “In “My Brother The Boxer,” brother and author Jeff Daniels chronicles pinnacle of Willoughby South grad Terry Daniels’ pro career, a bout with Joe Frazier,” The News-Herald, November 9, 2015.


Originally posted on SMU History Grad Student Blog

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