Boxing and History

Terry: SMU’s Once Great White Hope

A version of this article was originally posted on SMU History Grad Student Blog

The first time Joe Frazier knocked down Terry Daniels, it appeared he would not return to his feet. It was the type of knockdown that forces spectators to wonder if they’ve witnessed a death in the ring.  For about 5 seconds, Daniels laid motionless and face down. A couple of seconds later and, just as the round ended, Daniels struggled to his feet. And as the bell rang, signaling a minute’s rest, Daniels stood there. He stared at the referee, as if confused, until Daniel’s trainer walked across the ring, placed his arm on his fighter’s shoulder, and 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 New Orleans, a day before the city hosted the sixth Super Bowl in 1972, Daniels—quietly, the latest version of a 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,” Los They bought it.”

Technically, Daniels wasn’t from Dallas. He was from Ohio and moved to North Texas to attend Southern Methodist University. The son of a successful 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 Frazier. Stories that Daniels had been part of his high school choir. Stories that Daniels had been the treasurer of his junior class. In selling Daniels, even noting that he enjoyed reading and that he had wanted major in engineering was deemed worthy of mention.

And each of these things distinguished Daniels from Frazier who although he lived in Philadelphia, was originally from South Carolina. Far removed from Daniels’ life of privilege, Frazier was a sharecropper’s son. But as it pertained to boxing, these differences mattered little once promoters sold the fight. And those who had bought tickets to see a Great White Hope, were on the verge of watching him lose just 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 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. Before injuries forced his focus to boxing, Daniels played football and baseball for SMU. As an amateur, Daniels won the local Golden Glove tournaments. Encouraged, Daniels decided to fight professionally. He postponed graduating from SMU and angered his father who had sent his son to Dallas for an education, not to become a prizefighter.

Angry father or not, Daniels fought. By 1972, 3 years into his career, he’d become a local celebrity, accumulating a record of 28 wins, 4 losses, and 1 draw—an impressive accomplishment even if against subpar competition. That was what brought Daniels to compete for boxing’s heavyweight title. And as his punch connected in those opening seconds of the 2nd round, Frazier was forced to step back and Daniels attacked.

Hopes die fast in boxing. Within a three-minute round, hopes of a championship, of wealth, of fame, and even, of any future quality of life can disappear. In the 3rd round, any hope for an upset vanished as Frazier brought Daniels back to reality.

Frazier’s left hook kept connecting and Daniels could do nothing to stop it. So again, toward the end of the 3rd round, Frazier’s left hook fell Daniels. The boxer from SMU stood up long enough to fall again, by the same punch, no even 10 seconds later. As Daniels gasped for air, a look of bemusement covered his face. The bell rang and had saved him again.

There was nothing remarkable about the fourth round besides Frazier knocking down Daniels a 4th and 5th time. The latter resulted in Daniels falling back through the ropes, appearing as if he would plummet 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. Finally, the referee stopped the fight.

“Don’t stop, damn it,” Daniels screamed at the referee. He then turned to his manager and screamed some more. “Doug, don’t let them stop it. There’s nothing wrong.” Daniels was likely the last person in the world to realize he never stood a chance.

After the fight, Daniels’s manager implored his boxer to stop fighting. He even begged him. For a while Daniels took the advice. He returned to SMU and earned a political science degree in December of the same year he fought to become boxing’s heavyweight champion—one of sport’s most prestigious titles.

But that title and what it represents 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.”

The fight against Frazier 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. He felt haunted by that night in New Orleans when he could have won it all but lost it instead.

“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.”

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